Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

 press/awards earned a few nice mentions in the press, including's vote as best travel blog on the Web. Read about it on the Press/Awards page.

Chief Crowning Ceremony in Swaziland

Dirt roads aren't so bad when you're in a reasonable vehicle, I thought as the new LandCruiser sped through the Swazi countryside. My three-point seatbelt was fastened; air conditioning flowed; conversations were maintained. Why have I squandered the past 12 months in rattling, claptrap, death's door minibuses?

I was heading to the Bhekinkos chiefdom in rural Swaziland with five United Nations workers. As we glided through the foggy mountain kingdom my hosts gave me a crash course in Swazi politics and customs to prepare me for the day's event, the crowning of a new Chief.

we glided through the foggy mountain kingdom
Parallel Governing Systems
The smallest country in the Southern Hemisphere, Swaziland is one of the last remaining monarchies in Africa. His Majesty King Mswati III is at the head of state, and he and his Council of Ministers oversee two governing systems. A parliament, senate, and Assembly control the economic and official side of the country. Running parallel to this is the Tinkhundla system, consisting of Chiefs and liaisons to the King, which tends to the affairs of the people.

Swaziland is broken up into 55 constituencies, each of which contains 10-15 chiefdoms. Governing on behalf of the king, the Chiefs provide guidance and leadership for their people, settle disputes, allocate land, and direct ceremonies. For the average Swazi, the Chief is their main contact with the government and the King.

The Chief's Homestead
A preacher led hundreds of people in prayer when we arrived at the Chief's homestead; fiery, prolonged sermons in Siswati, the Swazi language, were punctuated by "Hallelujahs" and "Amens" from the crowd. More than 100 guests sat beneath a giant canvas tent. Hundreds more sat in a semicircle around the front of the tent, leaving an open area for a stage.

Made up of traditional stick and mud huts and a few brick buildings, the homestead was situated high on a hill and overlooked a rolling, cultivated valley. Crowds of people buzzed around the compound. Hanging together in small clusters were members of the Chief's regiment, traditional warriors dressed in leopard skin loin cloths, leather straps, and beadwork; they carried sticks, spears and, in a few cases, cell phones.

the women's choir belted out beautiful gospel songs
The women's regiment wore elaborate beadwork and bright blue sarongs emblazoned with the king's smiling image.

At the center of the homestead was the kraal, a circular pen for the animals. Khulile, a young Swazi technology worker for the UN, explained the ritualistic significance of the kraal in Swazi homesteads. "It has to do with the animals, which are at the heart of the homestead," she said. "If somebody dies, part of the ceremony takes place in the kraal. It's the same with marriages and other celebrations." Much of the action today was to take place around the kraal.

Stumbling Into the Extraordinary
Jordan, a Canadian I met in a backpacker's hostel in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland, told me about the Chief crowning ceremony. An intern for the UN, Jordan and his coworkers were attending this event as part of their development program. After a little finagling it was decided that I could tag along and video the proceedings on the condition that I provide the UN with a copy of my footage. This association proved to be auspicious. I was transformed from an obscure American traveler to a United Nations photographer, and given an all-access pass to the event. The former Indvuna, or Head Man of the constituency, went out of his way to alert people to my presence, and he encouraged me to follow the Chief-to-be closely and capture as much of the proceedings as possible.

the men's dance troupe performed acrobatic stunts
Opening Acts
The celebration began with a children's choir. Thirty kids dressed in black and red sang a series of traditional songs with stern, focused expressions and obvious pride.

Next came a men's dance troupe. Accompanied by drummers on large, leather-skinned drums, the young men participated in fierce mock battles, performed acrobatic stunts, and incorporated elements of slapstick that had the crowd howling.

A women's choir followed. Dressed in blue sarongs adorned with the Swazi flag, the ladies belted out beautiful gospel songs and performed choreographed steps. Two old grannies from the crowd, clearly intoxicated, adorned with rattling shells around their ankles, livened up the performance with spontaneous, comical dancing.

members of the Chief's regiment
The Most Important Day of His Life
I was greeted warmly as I wandered around the homestead. Elderly men gave me prolonged handshakes and thanked me for being there. Children followed me and tried to get in the scenes I was shooting. Members of the Chief's regiment gave me stern half-smiles. Warm nods and smiles came from the old ladies. When folks asked why I was there I casually explained that I was "with the UN."

"Cameraman, they're looking for you," a man in the crowd said.

The Head Man asked me to get my things ready; the Chief was about to emerge from the ingcamu, the central hut in the homestead, where he'd been holding counsel with his regiment and advisors.

congregation in front of the kraal
One by one, the Chief and his entourage, about 30 people in all, poured out of the hut. They marched around the homestead, chanting a melodic, somber tune, and then gathered in front of the kraal, where the women's regiment and most of the spectators were waiting. Here the enormity of the spectacle came into perspective. Against the vast mountainous background, hundreds of people assembled in a loose semicircle, with men on one side and women on the other. Led by various elders and officials, the assembly participated in prolonged chants, dances, and speeches.

A man of about 30, the Chief-to-be wore a serious, sometimes uncertain expression. This was the most important day of his life. He was acquiring great power and tremendous responsibility. The occasion was no doubt infused with sadness as well, for he was assuming this role after the death of his father.

The young Chief-to-be wore a serious, sometimes uncertain expression
Although highly structured and choreographed, the ceremony was not without its light moments. The boozy dancing grannies continued to provide comic relief. The speeches occasionally elicited roars of laughter from the crowd. The best joke, a Swazi lady told me, involved an elder instructing the new Chief, who was married, that it's wrong to have just one wife. (In polygamous Swaziland, Chiefs normally have several wives. The King currently has nine wives; his father had 100 wives and sired 600 children.)

At the end of the ceremony, the Chief-to-be's uncle handed him a spear and scepter, a symbolic transfer of authority. Officially crowned, the Chief and his regiment paraded through the kraal and into the crowd.

A Brush With Royalty
Eight cows had been slaughtered for the celebratory feast. Hundreds of people lined up to be served out of giant iron cauldrons. The Chief and his regiment ate at long tables under canvas canopies.

"Mike, come over here," Jordan said as the feast was underway. He and the other UN workers lined up before the Chief's table.

a feast fit for a Chief
I'd been instructed on Chief-greeting-etiquette the day before; when it was my turn to meet the man I approached with downcast eyes, extended my right hand, clasped my right forearm with my left hand, and curtsied as we shook. The Head Man gave me a long introduction in Siswati. The Chief nodded and smiled and made a few comments. I maintained my humble downward glance, reveling in my brush with royalty.

After the introductions the UN folks and I were seated at a table near the Chief and his inner circle. Standing nearby, the ladies choir serenaded us. A grinning woman presented me with a plate piled with maize, salad, beans, roast beef, and fried chicken. The late afternoon sun lit the homestead and the mountains in the distance warmly. I grabbed a plastic spoon and went to work. It was a feast fit for a Chief.

What do you think?

  • Ever stumble into an extraordinary ceremony?
  • Ever had a brush with royalty?
  • Ever long for polygamy?
Posted on October 07, 2003 08:11 AM


Comments (post your own below)

what? no photos of the intoxicated grannies?
what an amazing experience that day must have been.
damn, i think i hate you. (note to self: start planning copycat expedition of tomorrow)

Posted by: martine on October 7, 2003 11:11 AM

How do you do it??? You keep walking into the most incredible travel adventures. I continue to be amazed.

Posted by: skwpugh on October 7, 2003 01:26 PM

I continue to have only one comment: AWESOME!

You seemed to have found your calling - Foreign Correspondent.

Posted by: Dan on October 7, 2003 08:13 PM

you mentioned a kraal- isn't that boer?

Posted by: phil on October 7, 2003 09:14 PM

Jordan's Mom is thrilled with your accounting and photos (even though there isn't one of Jordan who is most photogenic!). I believe his wife and I really MUST take a trip over there!

Posted by: Debra Hamilton on October 8, 2003 09:49 AM

Incredible! I'm not sure I'd have done well under that kind of pressure, but you pulled it out great! Here I thought blundering into shooting Chicago's Pakistani Independence Day parade was nerve-racking enough...

Thanks for giving us this amazing site! I'm glad you're still out there..

Posted by: bill on October 8, 2003 06:10 PM

More great stuff. Thanks again.

Posted by: Tonya on October 9, 2003 08:18 AM

If the cheif sired 600 children, how do they know who the throne goes to?

As always I am in complete awe with what you are doing!
Take care! M.

Posted by: Martha on October 11, 2003 08:50 PM

Mike, Been following your website for many weeks now, constantly impressed and now surprisingly proud. Your videos all look great and this one shows an ability to put yourself into situations most of us would never see. You're a real inspiration to an old dog like me, keep up the good work!

Posted by: Jeff on October 13, 2003 07:57 PM

What an awesome...awesome experience!
Maybe your twist of fate with "United Nations" is a glimpse of your future relationship with this organization!
At Thanksgiving supper, my whole family around the computer to check out your latest experience. You're part of the family now!!

Posted by: Karen on October 14, 2003 08:42 AM

Thank you for sharing that with us!
You reminded me of KING'S HARVEST DAY in Swaziland my boyfriend and I took part in early 2002. You must know by know about the biggest event in Swaziland, don't you?
At the king's premises, in his own kraal, people from all over Swaziland come to see the KING (who is little over 30) tasting the first fruits of the year (after he already picked a virgin girl of course), with all of his wifes dancing and his army and people singing. You can imagine how big this ceremony is and how much emotions it can take out of two Europeans :-)) And closed for turists of course... and being there just for coincidence...
A small lovely detail: my boyfriend was offered 42 (!!!!) cows in exchange for me that day...hehe, I guess for my hight (1,84 cm) or maybe white skin... (he didn't do it after all... hehe, he couldn't figure out how to put 42 cows in a plane ?)
I could be describing this in details, was a life time experience, this could take ages...

Staying on-line...

Posted by: Tanja on October 15, 2003 06:20 AM

Your photos of the chief are great. Now l know about the chieftainship celebrations there.

Posted by: nhamo on November 28, 2003 01:54 AM

Comments closed.


home | travelogue | gallery | about


 favorite videos

 favorite photos

 latest travelogue entries

» travelogue archive