Photos King Mswati III participates yearly in theceremonial Reed Dance, called Umhlanga, when as many as 25,000 girls of marriageable age enter the royal compound to dance before him. Whenever the beauty or dancing ability of a girl catches the king’s eye, he bends down and drops his shield in front of her to indicate his pleasure. Each year he customarily selects a new wife. The present monarch’s father had 65 wives and more than 100 children during his long reign.Chanting, whistling and raising their clubs, the King’s regiment of 300 warriors enter the forest for the royal hunt.The King farewells his warriors armed with spears and buffalo hide shields as they march in formation into the forest.The status of an elder chief is recognizable by his black and white feather headdress and animal fur cape.As many as twenty-five thousand girls from throughout the Swazi kingdom participate in the annual Reed Dance celebration which is regarded as a female rite of passage into womanhood.King Mswati III leads his royal warriors around the main parade ground to appraise the maidens. The Swazi believe their king to be spiritually endowed with characteristics of animals and this is expressed in his regalia; his apron is made of leopard skin which denotes status and power, the red lourie plumes in his hair represent beauty, and his club, made from the Emandla tree, symbolizes his magical masculine powers.At the annual Reed Dance King Mswati III chooses a new wife, each must come from a different corner of the Kingdom. In this way he is able to unite his country and maintain peace. At the time of this photo, in 1996, the King had four wives. Today, in 2020, he has 15 wives and over 23 children.Marching in unison, Swazi girls carry their offerings of reeds to the palace of the Queen Mother. These reeds will reinforce the windbreaking fence that surrounds her royal home. The girls have collected the reeds from the Bahm’sakha and Sidvokodvo rivers, often working throughout the night to get a sufficent quantity.The act of encircling the Queen Mother Ntfombi Tfwala’s compound symbolizes the strengthening and affirmation of womanhood throughout the Swazi kingdom. The Reed Dance ceremony provides an opportunity for young unmarried women to express their allegiance to the Queen Mother, as mother of the nation and the custodian of rain-making medicine.Ritual mothers dress the girls in short beaded puberty aprons and fringed woolen sashes featuring color coded yarn tassles denoting whether or not the wearer is betrothed.A young princess wears red lourie feathers in her hair to indicate her royal status. Her beaded necklace contains a coded message.Hoping to catch the eye of a suitor, if not the king himself, girls adorn themselves with vibrantly colored woolen sashes with colorcoded yarn tassles denoting whether or not the wearer is available for marriage.All Swazi girls from the ages of 10 to 18 throughout the kingdom are expected to attend the Reed Dance ceremony, which is also traditionally regarded as a female rite of passage into womanhood. At each Reed Dance the King will select a new wife.Left: Carrying the ritual knife used for reedcutting, a princess dances before the king. Swazi girls work throughout the night to gather sufficent quantity of reeds, carrying them as far as forty miles to Lobamba for the Reed Dance. Right: A princess wearing red lourie feathers in her hair to indicate her royal status, leads the maidens. Her knife reminds the audience of the Swazi creation myth of the original reed, split lengthwise, out of which the first human beings emerged.The girls wear short beaded puberty aprons decorated with fringe and metal studs. The colors of the apron beads convey different messages: a red bead suggests fertility, white stands for transition or purity, and black represents marriage or wealth.