An umtsimba is a traditional Swazi wedding ceremony.
As a child, I would look through cases of dusty slides that my father kept of his volunteer days in Samoa and travels throughout Asia with an idealistic longing. I thought to myself, when I’m old enough, I want to go on an adventure just like him. It was going to be my pilgrimage into the depths of the foreign. I would daydream about being the lonely, weary traveler getting lost in an obscure part of the world. Living and breathing the dirt and grime of true culture.
More recently, as I looked at the grainy, faded photographs I came to a depressing realization- is the time of genuine cultural exploration over? Has all culture been diluted to some globalized version of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, knock-off Levis and Marlboro cigarettes? You can travel for hours up the Mekong River in Laos and still buy the same pack of cigs you can get at any corner store back home. Does this mean that everywhere, everything is like everything else? Is there nothing new to explore? I felt my childhood dreams fading away to the melody of a corporate jingle. I was wrong…
The drive to the village took about two hours on a dusty mountain road. I was tickled with excitement. I had no idea where I was going, Make (ma-ge; my host mother) just asked me if I wanted to see a dance and then she shoved me in to a rickety black Toyota pickup with eight other passengers. I was given the front seat and admired the mountain pass as we drove deeper and deeper into to the valley. I felt like Marlow traveling into the darkness of the Congo.
We arrived at our destination early in the afternoon, the warm sun beat down my neck. The homestead was perched high on the ridge of a plateau and consisted of half a dozen mud and concrete huts with thatched roofs. We were ushered to the far side of the property where a line of intimidating village elders sat. I was presented to a large man with a red feather in his hair. He looked at me with a wide-eyed bewilderment. I was wearing traditional Swazi clothes and carried a knobkerrie. His gaze then fell to my camera. He proceeded to argue with the rest of the group, yelling and making big hand gestures. I wish my SiSwati was better so I could understand what they were saying. He turned to me and asked me why I was there and why I brought a camera. He asked me if I was a reporter for a newspaper or an American spy. Nervously, I sat and listened to them discuss my fate. Finally, he turned to me and said, “You are welcome here, you use your camera, you go to the river now.”
Relieved, I thanked the man and the rest of the group and made my way down the mountain. As we walked, we ran into two men carrying what looked to be a whole cross section of a cow. I had no idea then about the festival of meat that was about to ensue. When we got to the river the whole picture began to unravel. Women clustered on the side of the mountain, seeking shade under the trees and braiding eachother’s hair. The men were on the other side of the valley, stumbling around drinking traditional alcohol. Everyone was scurrying around getting ready for the ceremony. When I arrived at the base of the mountain, everything became quiet as people began to notice me. The sea of gazes made me feel very uncomfortable. All of a sudden, I was rushed by a swarm of people saying, “shoot me, shoot me!” I tried to take pictures of people as they grabbed at my camera. I noticed someone waving, motioning me to come over, it was Menzi, a friend from my village. Thankful to see a familiar face, I joined him on the side of the mountain sitting with bomake (bou-ma-ge; group of mothers). After endless introductions and complements of my traditional attire I was able to sit back and weave myself into the fabric of the day’s routine. I was consumed. Everywhere I looked was something unfamiliar, the sounds and the language incomprehensible. I had finally arrived, this is what I had been looking for my entire life- real culture- and they allowed me to be there, to share this experience, this secret with them.
The women who we sat with wore bright red dresses; their breasts exposed as they weaved string in each other’s hair. They laughed and gossiped. After some time, I asked Menzi if we could go over to the men’s side. Upon our arrival, we were handed traditional brew which tasted like rotten, chunky, apple juice mixed with battery acid. It burned going down and left me with a slight, dizzied buzz. Other men, were preparing their loincloths and folding their traditional dresses. They pointed out the mistakes in my attire and proceeded to fix them. Soon after, we were fed. I was given a heaping pile of steaming, unknown, squiggly, bits of cow parts and lipalishi (maize meal porridge). The meat, if you can call it that, had the texture of a rubber shoe sole and tasted just as interesting. I was given a much larger helping than others so I thought it would be rude to refuse my portion.
The day passed, the heat of the sun became less noticeable as it receded behind a mountain. The whole day nothing had really happened, people seemed like they were getting ready for something but that something never really came. A couple hours later once the sun had gone completely down Menzi and I were led back up the mountain, the ceremony was about to begin…
A couple hours later, I heard the faint sound of singing. It grew louder, louder like a crescendo building with power. The procession appeared at the top of the mountain and spilled over the plateau like a volcano erupting. First, the men arrived waving their knobkerries in the air, followed by the women chanting low and droning. Slowly, they slugged in formation towards a bonfire burning at the center of the homestead. Lines were formed as they began to sing and dance. The song was led by one person, which was then echoed by the rest of the precession; this was repeated over and over and over. The same line, over and over again. I was memorized by the mantra. The sound must have carried for miles though the valley as if the valley herself was belting the song. The stomping of their feet, thumping in a rhythmic pattern provided a low bass beat that shook the ground. It was beautiful.