Klaserie River Sands

Photographing the Zulu Reed Dance

Written by: Penny and Joe Houghton

In early July 2016, my wife and I were privileged to be invited by a friend to attend the annual Reed Dance – a Zulu ceremony held near Paddock in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal. 

Historically, this ceremony was an opportunity for the king to cast his eye over the available maidens and decide which one(s) he wanted to take to be his next wife or concubine. These days, however, most reed ceremonies are held to encourage young women to maintain sexual abstinence and to avoid the spread of HIV.

Traditionally, all the maidens danced bare breasted, but on this particular morning it was very cold, so most were slightly more covered up. Soon after dawn, all the maidens from the surrounding area gathered, dressed in traditional garments, brightly coloured beads and cotton wraps that were adorned with the face and name of the current Zulu king. Several fires were lit by the roadside around which the girls gathered – at times perilously close to the leaping flames.

In small groups, the girls were all taken off to be checked by some of the local ladies, to prove they were virgins. Then all those who passed returned smiling and dancing to the crowd. One of the village matriarchs then lined them all up, and each girl was ceremonially daubed on the forehead with a white chalky spot, presumably to signify their continued chastity. This was clearly a serious matter, judging by their faces as they neared the front of the line – a rite of passage with significance for them.

All the while, a traditionally clad chief led the girls in singing and dancing, and he also acted as a drummer, keeping the beat in a deafening cacophony of sounds, colours and smells from the fires and surrounding bush.

What an amazing photographic opportunity! As well as the girls, there were a few elderly men from the village who kept an eye on things and also chased off half a dozen local lads who were larking about, chatting up the girls and generally fooling around. It was very amusing to watch the old, pipe-smoking Zulu headman shuffling towards these teenage lads, waving his stick and trying to maintain some sort of order.

Generally though, the whole morning was of great humour, happiness and celebration – a real cultural treat.

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