POPULATION: About 1 million
RELIGION: Christianity (various sects); traditional religious beliefs
In the late sixteenth century, the first Swazi king, Ngwane II, settled southeast of modern-day Swaziland. His grandson, Sobhuza I, unified the resident Nguni and Sotho people within a central government. Swaziland became a British protectorate following the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902. It became an independent nation in 1968.
The Swazi reside primarily in Swaziland. It is a small landlocked country of 6,704 square miles (17,363 square kilometers) in southern Africa. There are four distinctive levels of terrain: the highveld, middleveld, lowveld, and the Lubombo mountain range. (A veld is a grassland.)
The total number of Swazis is about 1 million people. The two major cities are Mbabane and Manzini.
The Swazi language is referred to as "siSwati." It is a tonal Bantu language of the Nguni group, closely related to Zulu. It is spoken in Swaziland and in the Eastern Transvaal province of the Republic of South Africa. Little writing has been published in siSwati.
The Swazis suffered relatively little political disruption from colonial rule. Thus their oral tradition may be the richest still existing in southern Africa. Elder Swazis recount the histories of their forebears dating back several centuries. The first king, Ngwane II, is commemorated in one of many royal praise-songs, "Nkosi Dlamini"—"You thwarted the Lebombo in your flight."
One folktale tells the story of two daughters of a great Swazi king. The king had two wives, and with each wife, had one daughter. The half-sister princesses, Mulembe and Kitila, loved each other, but Mulembe was the daughter of the king's favorite wife, and Mulembe was the older of the king's two daughters. Mulembe and her mother had the finest clothes of the finest fabrics, and the two could do no wrong in the king's eyes. The king insisted that the two sleep only on the skins of the rare golden otter. Kitila and her mother wore only common cowhide clothing. As the two half-sisters grew, Kitila developed as a more lovely and sweet person, but she was always pushed aside so that Mulembe would always be considered the fairest in the land.
Followers of the traditional Swazi religion believe in a supreme being known as Mkhulumnqande. He created the Earth but is not worshiped and demands no sacrifices. Ancestral spirits (emadloti) play an important role in traditional religion. Spirits are believed to take many forms. They can possess people and influence their health.
Swazis also belong to many Christian sects. These range from Catholic and Afrikaner Calvinist to nationalistic "Zionist" churches.
National holidays in Swaziland include New Year's Day (January 1), Commonwealth Day (the second Monday in March), National Flag Day (April 25), Birthday of King Sobhuza II (July 22), Somhlolo (Independence) Day (September 6), United Nations Day (October 24), Christmas Day (December 25), and Boxing Day (December 26). Other Christian holidays are celebrated, including Good Friday and Easter Monday (in late March or early April).
Traditional religious holidays are also celebrated. The most important is the iNcwala (First Fruit) Ceremony, the annual ritual of kingship. Celebrated during a three-week period in December or January every year, it includes sacred songs and dances. Special branches from a type of acacia shrub are collected by young men. These are used to build a sacred enclosure where the first fruits of the season will be consumed by the king or leader. Once the leader has tasted the first fruits and has reappeared to the people present at the ceremony, everyone can enjoy the new growing season.
Another traditional religious holiday is Umhlanga (Reed Dance) Day, the last Monday in August. The Reed Dance honors iNdlovukazi, the Queen Mother. The dancers are women who gather reeds from a special area the week before the celebration. The dancers wear anklets, bracelets, necklaces, and colorful sashes with streamers. The colors of the streamers denote whether the woman is single, engaged to marry, or married.
A newborn baby is welcomed into the world with white "luck" beads placed around its waist, wrists, and/or ankles.
At puberty, a boy joins his libutfo (age regiment). Here he learns about manhood and service to the king. A girl, upon having her first menstruation, is isolated in a hut for several days. She is instructed by her mother about observances and taboos.
Following puberty, a girl's and boy's families begin marriage negotiations. The groom and his family transfer bride-wealth (lobola) to the bride's family. This includes valuables such as cattle (and in modern times, possibly cash). Besides gift exchanges, the marriage ceremony also includes singing, dancing, ritual wailing, and feasting. Couples may choose to have a Christian marriage.
The corpse of a deceased Swazi undergoes a mortuary ritual. A widow may be expected to continue her husband's lineage by marrying one of her husband's brothers. This practice is known as the levirate (ngena).
The Swazi demand strict adherence to rules concerned with kinship and political hierarchy. These govern forms of greetings, body language, and gestures. Respect must be shown by youths to their elders, and by women to men. Ways that respect is demonstrated include lowering one's eyes, kneeling, and moving quietly.
Adults wear beads to designate social and marital status. A young woman gives beadwork to her sweetheart as a token of love. In a sense, the beadwork serves as a "love letter." Different bead patterns represent different stages in the courtship.
Most Swazis construct their own homes from rocks, logs, clay, and thatch. Those with sufficient funds hire builders and buy corrugated iron roofs, glass windows, and solid wood doors. In a traditional Swazi homestead, family members do not have chairs or beds. They sit and sleep on grass mats. They cook on an open fire in the hut or in the yard. Their tools and utensils are limited and often homemade.
Urban dwellers have better access to electricity and piped water than do those living in rural areas.
There are several forms of marriage in Swaziland. These include arranged marriages (ukwendzisa) and modern, Christian marriages. After marriage, a new bride goes to live with her husband and in-laws. The ordinary Swazi resides in a group of households called a homestead, or umuti. Each household (indlu) generally consists of one nuclear family (a man, his wife, and their children). Household members share agricultural tasks and eat from one kitchen. Sometimes the wife has a co-wife, or inhlanti.
Swazis wear either traditional or modernday clothing. Men's traditional clothing consists of a colorful cloth "skirt" covered by an emajobo (leather apron). Adornments on ceremonial occasions include the ligcebesha (neckband), umgaco (ties), and sagibo (walking stick). Royalty wear ligwalagwala (red feathers). Women's traditional clothing consists of an ilihhiya (cloth). Married women cover their upper torsos and sometimes wear traditional "beehive" hairstyles. Single women sometimes wear only beads over their upper torsos, particularly on ceremonial occasions.
Swazis cultivate corn, sorghum, beans, groundnuts (peanuts), and sweet potatoes for consumption. They also raise cattle, as well as smaller livestock. Mealie-meal (ground corn) serves as the primary food. It is accompanied by meat or chicken, and a variety of vegetables. Sometimes traditional Swazi beer is brewed.
For the ordinary Swazi, breakfast usually consists of tea, bread, and/or sour-milk porridge. Bread or leftovers are eaten for lunch. A typical dinner consists of porridge, vegetables, and meat.
Children in Swaziland attend either secular schools operated by the Ministry of Education, or mission schools that convey Christian values. Schoolchildren do their lessons from siSwati textbooks in the lower grades, and English textbooks in the upper grades. Families must pay annual school fees.
Swazis have inherited a rich tradition of music and dance. SiBhaca dance music has been adopted from the Xhosa-speaking people of South Africa. SiBhaca dance is performed by teams of men, and features stomping of feet in unisom while chanting rhythmic traditional chants. The SiBhaca dance often lasts two or three hours.
Women sing together as they work; men sing together as they pay tribute to their chiefs or kings. Special songs are performed at weddings, royal rituals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and national Independence Day festivities.
In modern-day Swaziland, people derive income from various agricultural and commercial activities. Rural Swazis divide tasks according to sex, age, and social status. Men construct house frames and cattle kraals (corrals). They plow, tend and milk cattle, sew skins, and cut shields. Women hoe, plant, and harvest crops. They also tend small livestock, braid ropes, weave mats and baskets, grind grain, and brew beer. Some men migrate within Swaziland and to South Africa in search of work.
Swaziland's mineral wealth, including iron ore, coal, diamonds, and asbestos, is mined for export. The industrial estate at Matsapha produces processed agricultural and forestry products, garments, textiles, and many light manufactured goods.
Soccer is popular throughout the country. In rural areas, both boys and girls play games with various sorts of balls. These are often homemade from twine or rubber.
In rural areas, people enjoy musical, news, and sports programs on battery-operated radios. In urban areas, where electricity is more widely available, some households have televisions.
Rural Swazi children are good at creating toys out of discarded items, such as tires, tin cans, wires, and corncobs. Boys build intricate, movable toy cars from rubber and metal scraps, and girls make dolls from corncobs.
Pottery-making, using the coil technique, is a task assigned to women. Basket-weaving is also done by women. Woodcarving is used for functional items and utensils, such as meat dishes and spoons. Schools have encouraged the production of masks or sculptured figures for the tourist trade.
Swazi specialists make musical instruments to accompany singing and dancing. Traditional Swazi instruments include the luvene (hunting horn), impalampala (kudu bull horn), and livenge (a wind instrument made from a plant).
Social and economic changes, including labor migration and the growth of an educated elite, have produced new problems in modern-day Swaziland. These include an increase in crime and alcoholism—particularly on the outskirts of urban areas.
The traditional Swazi hierarchy, headed by the king and the royal family, is being challenged by new educated elites without hereditary privilege.
Blauer, Ettagale, and Jason Lauré. Swaziland . "Enchantment of the World" Series. New York: Children's Press, 1996.
Booth, Alan R. Swaziland: Tradition and Change in a Southern African Kingdom. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1984.
Kuper, Hilda. An African Aristocracy. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980 (orig. 1965).
Leigh, Nila K. Learning to Swim in Swaziland: A Child's-Eye View of a Southern African Country. New York: Scholastic, 1993.