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By Frank Mutulu
NAIROBI, Kenya – Swaziland, a unique landlocked southern Africa kingdom situated between Mozambique and South Africa stands out for its monarch’s odd tradition of adding a new wife to the family each year.
The former British protectorate that gained independence in 1968 bears a peculiar set of characteristics in profile, among them its small population of just over one million. Life expectancy at birth is 31.88 and an estimated 40 percent of the population is infected with HIV.
Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarch headed by King Mswati III, 45, who inherited power from his father, King Sobhuza, whose 61-year-old rule ended in 1986.
The peculiarity of this tiny southern Africa state is enshrined in Swazi traditions.
Under customary law, the Swazi king is permitted to take multiple wives. Every August, King Mswati III selects a new bride at the annual Reed Dance festival popularly known as “Umhianga”. During the festival, meant to celebrate virginity and womanhood, girls present reeds cut from surrounding hills to the royal kraal, or traditional village.
According to South Africa’s Times Live, over 60,000 maidens, some as young as 10, are delivered to the palace riding on trucks to dance and sing tributes to King Mswati III and his mother, known as the “Indlovukazi”, or Great She-Elephant. The queen mother bears somewhat equal powers to the monarch.
The large bevy of Swaziland’s prettiest virgins dance topless with hopes of joining the royal harem after one is chosen by the king as the newest queen. The vast majority of the maidens clad in “Umgaco,”a traditional scarf that symbolizes their virginity, live in abject poverty that they hope to escape by being queen and experiencing the king’s personal fortune estimated by Forbes at $200 million.
“If chosen, I would be able to live a better life than what I have, have a lot of money, live a queen’s life and travel overseas,” said Fakazile Dlamini, 14, who arrived on a truck from her village 60 kilometers away to attend last year’s festival as reported by Times Live news site.
2004 was the last time a maiden at the festival caught “The Lion’s” eye and was taken as a new wife. King Mswati III is referred to as “Ngweyama,” which means lion.
His wives live in palatial homes in different parts of the country and are each given a BMW. They also take expensive annual holidays and go on international shopping sprees financed by the king. The king is father to 27 children.
According to AllAfrica.com, an Africa-focused news site, the wives jetted back to Matsapha, Swaziland in early August using the king’s private DC-9 twin engine plane, valued at $46 million, after a two-week tour and shopping spree in Australia, Japan, the Pacific and Indian Ocean region.
The recent trip, which ran into millions of dollars, indicates minimal plans at best to cap the flamboyant royal household’s spending, with the memory of the 2009 financial crisis and unrest seemingly fading.
As a result of the global recession of 2009, South Africa, Swaziland’s major trading partner, could not engage in trade with Swaziland and caused the Mswati administration’s coffers to empty. Swaziland depends heavily on trade with South Africa. Thousands of Swazis protested against the monarch.
According to the UK’s Daily Mail, “The king, who rules as an absolute monarch and appoints the prime minister and cabinet, enjoys many lavish parties and the trappings of luxury.”
The royal family’s lifestyle draws ample criticism in a kingdom where over 70 percent of citizens live below the poverty line.
In 2012 Angela “LaGija” Dlamini, 45, the king’s sixth wife, became the fourth to ever leave the royal household.
“She [LaGija] left the royal household citing many years of emotional and physical abuse by her husband as the reason for her departure,” Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) stated, as reported by South Africa’s Sowetan Live. LaGija left her palace for Hhohho in northern Swaziland to visit her parents and disappeared.
Delisa Magwaza, 30, was the first to flee, making her way to London via Cape Town, according to a 2004 report in the Daily Sun. Putsoana Hwala, 30, followed suit, leaving behind her three children.
“Mswati’s 12th wife Nothando Dube, 22, known as Inkhosikati LaDube, was placed under house arrest at the home of the king’s mother in 2010 after an alleged affair with Swaziland’s justice minister Ndumiso Mamba. Mamba was fired,” reported Sowetan Live. LaDube was later kicked out by the monarch’s Queen Mother.
Swazi national, Tintswalo Ngobeni, 22, fled to the United Kingdom in 2007 when she was 15, allegedly to escape being Mswati III’s then-14th wife.
Ngobeni, whose request for asylum in the United Kingdom was denied in 2011, claims the king made advances towards her after meeting her at his fourth wife’s palace when on school holiday. She fears being deported to Swaziland.
The monarch, who was educated at Britain’s Sherborne School, has repeatedly refused to consider reform.
It is now believed that the oppressive and polygamous King Mswati III has 12 wives. Whether he will select a new wife this year remains a mystery but speculation is that he will, so as to get the number back to 13.
Frank Mutulu is The Atlantic Post’s Kenya correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya.