Incwala Ceremony, Christmas Day and Cow Poo | Sense Africa


Incwala Ceremony, Christmas Day and cow poo12th February '19

Incwala ceremony

Christmas Day in 2019 certainly proved to be different, I had not foreseen that I would be part of the Incwala Ceremony. And I certainly wouldn’t have said that I would be standing on a pile of cow poo, and be thankful for it.

Christmas Day in Africa

The morning began with an early game drive around Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. We went to see some of the animals that are being bred to be released back into the wild and these included waterbuck, blue cranes, springbok, roan antelope and tsessebe. What a delight that was for a Christmas morning.

After breakfast, of a full fry up of course, followed by a small walk around part of the reserve we were back in time for Christmas lunch – it is all about eating today!  By this time the temperature was certainly warming up from a cool 22°  to reach the mid 30s. It was only midday at that point, the hotter part of the day I was expecting to be around 2 or 3 o’clock.

We joined around 200 other people who were having Christmas lunch in the open air restaurant. There were already masses of people arriving for their own picnics and braais (BBQ) to celebrate Christmas Day with their own family traditions. The main swimming pool had so many children in it I couldn’t see the blue water, just a sea of black faces of over excited children. I was told that the police were there and every 20 minutes or so they would blow a whistle, tell everybody to get out of the pool so they could check that no one had drowned, and then let everyone jump back in again!  Certainly different method of crowd control.

The Incwala Ceremony

It was at this point that I have found out that it was the main day of the Incwala ceremony which is the main traditional ceremony in Eswatini for the men. It is a six-day ceremony and is normally relatively private although you can see lots of the local warriors and men in traditional attire moving from one part of the ceremony to the next. The day that you can see the ceremony, albeit part of it, happened to fall on Christmas Day last year. This is when the Warriors enter the Queen mothers kraal (where she keeps her many cows), and dance rhythmically and chant and pray for prosperity for the kingdom, rain and a promising future year.

It is not something that many people get to visit, partly because it is a mostly closed ceremony and partly because it is very difficult to predict when the festival will take place. My group and I were lucky that it was on Christmas Day because this made things easier for us to try and attend.

Musa, our driver, had very cleverly managed to get appropriate attire for us in the form of as mahiyas (special cloth that women wrap around and tie on the shoulder) as well as reeds for us ladies to carry. The Eswatini Tourism Authority were there and they helped us with following the correct procedures and making sure that we didn’t offend anybody.

Etiquette & rules

They had a small area where a number of visiting tourists had congregated, there must have been only 20 of us. We were informed that we were not allowed to take anything into the kraal with us, this included cameras, water bottles and also shoes. Traditional rules apply with the Incwala ceremony. This is the same for any festival in Eswatini, including the Reed Dance or Umhlanga ceremony.

Within five minutes I realised this was going to be a painful procedure as we had to cross a tarmac road. I started walking nonchalantly across the road and ended with an undignified sprint to the other side whilst yelping in pain. Where upon I landed on a spiky bush. The other side had a bit of grasses and bare ground which was also hot, but not as excruciating painful as the road. We then waited for a time, whilst avoiding broken glass, for the King to arrive, which was very exciting, before we could file into the Queen Mother kraal. There were a few other tarmac roads a to cross on the way to the kraal and even inside it was very hot to stand and I danced from one foot to the other.

It was a spectacular ceremony, there must have been about 2000 warriors, all dressed in traditional attire, carrying shields and chanting a slow, deep, rhythmic murmur, praying for rain and wealth for the following year. Men and women were separate, although there were a couple of hundred women there also dancing in rhythm. It was the sound of them men chanting is what I will never forgot.

Thankful for cow poo

All of us visitors were told to stand in line behind the other women and we readily copied what was happening. It was akin to being in a trance and I found it quite rhythmically soothing as we rocked backwards and forwards on our feet, on the hot  bare ground. My feet were considerably sore at this point but the pain had eased off from the heat of the tarmac. It was only when I looked down did I realise I was standing in a pile of cow poo, this excrement had certainly cooled my feet down, I was rather thankful.

As the chanting continued a large hazy cloud gradually appeared on the horizon and eventually covered the sun, providing some relief to the increasing heat that been beating down upon us. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had reached over 40°, it was so hot.

The whole appearance of the cloud bank was sort of magical and unnerving at the same time, had the power of the people manifested the cloud?

After about an hour being within this really special ceremony we made our way through the throngs of warriors to exit the kraal. We got back to accommodation in time for roast hog and dined out under the stars.

That Christmas Day I will remember, to be part of the Incwala ceremony and how thankful I was to be standing in a pile of cow poo. My most appreciated Christmas present, ever.

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