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Africa is a continent made up of 54 countries and diverse tribes and cultures. Africans are known for preserving and celebrating their indigenous cultures and some of these celebrations attract tourists from other countries and continents.

One of these unique celebrations is the annual Reed dance (Mkhosi Umhlanga) practiced by the people of Zulu descent in South Africa. The Zulu people are the largest ethnic group and nation in South Africa. It is a nation of Nguni-speaking people in KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa. The reed dance is a centuries-old cultural celebration that takes place in September yearly. It takes place at the start of spring, at the Enyokeni Palace in Nongoma, Zululand.

During the celebration, girls from all over the country arrive at the venue and it is estimated that more than 25,000 Zulu virgins gather at the King’s Enyokeni Traditional palace for the ceremony. The women are adorned in colorful costumes which consist of the ‘izigege’ and ‘izinculuba’ that show their bottom and delicately made beadworks on their necks while their upper body is left bare. The purpose of the culture is to promote respect for young women and preserve the idea of purity and the custom of keeping girls as virgins until marriage.

Young maidens during the Reed dance

The dance and celebration are done in the presence of the Zulu king and it is considered a form of educating young girls about how to behave in the presence of the king. The older Zulu women teach the maidens how to act as grown women; be proud of their virginity and naked bodies.

The maidens are also taught how to behave in married life. Young maidens are encouraged not to argue or be aggressive, but to wish the suitor well on his journey back.

According to tradition, the original ancestor emerged from a reed bed. Reeds are used to build traditional Zulu huts and to craft mats and baskets which the Zulu people are famous for. During the ceremony, the young women are led by the young princesses to collect a cut reed from the river which they are to present to the king. Only virgins are allowed to partake in this ritual.

Maidens proceeding to the King’s Palace

The king looks on with admiration at the young maidens as he is also praised by poets or praise singers. The ritual goes on for a while the Zulu men sing sonorously and engage in a mock fight as their unique way of partaking in the ceremony.

Zulu men during the Reed dance

At the end of the ceremony, the king delivers his speech which is always clear and simple. The king shows his appreciation for all that is present and also advocates for the practice of celibacy until marriage. The maidens then sing the king’s praises in their melodious voices. The king in turn gives the maidens a unique name that differentiates them from the other women.

The Reed dance is an exceptional practice and is a symbol of the rich heritage of the Zulu people. The ceremony is a joyous one enjoyed by everyone and it is considered a way of preserving their culture through different generations.

Zulu King during the festival

However, there have been some controversies concerning the Reed dance. Foreigners have tagged the ceremony as obscene. The display of the beautiful semi-naked bodies of young and older women is considered inappropriate. The indigenes simply believe that the foreigner do not have full knowledge or understanding of the culture and they are encouraged to attend the ceremony to experience the beautiful display of culture. Ironically, the images of the bare-chested women awaken a sexual feeling in a foreigner but the significance of the festival is to counsel young girls on the importance of chastity. This is a form of cultural sex education.

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