Every year in mid September, Zulu virgins from across South Africa take part in the traditional “cane dance”.
Hundreds of African virgins are traveling to the royal residence, palace KwaNyokeni of Nongoma, to meet King Goodwill Zwelithini. Here, Zulu girls are taking part in a very colorful and ancient ritual – The Royal Cane Dance or Umkhosi woMhlanga, as it is known in Zulu language.
According to Zulu tradition, only the righteous girls are allowed to dance naked in front of the king, to ensure the ritual purity of the festival. The virgins, known as “imbali” come from all the corners of South Africa and Zulu, Zulu government assuring them free transportation, with buses. The show annually attracts thousands of tourists from around the world, curious to see the “imbali’s” dancing in traditional costumes, with very complex necklaces carved by hand, small totems, shields and naked breasts.
The ceremony is meant to encourage the girls to keep their virginity until they get mature enough to marry. With less than 100 years ago, the dance was also a good opportunity for the Zulu king to choose a wife from the many virgins who attended the ceremony.
As part of the ritual, the girls each wear a long cane which was recently cut from a nearby river’s bad. These reeds are handed one by one to the king, while he blesses the girls. According to superstition, if the cane is broken before reaching the king’s hand, the girl lied about her virginity.
The procession of virgins is escorted by an old princess from the royal family, who teaches them how to treat the king. Also, the princess advise the girls how to react when a lover courts them, how to choose her husband and how to treat their men after marriage.
Anthropologists do not know how long this tradition will last. In recent years, the festival was surrounded by controversy. The practice was denounced by many feminist organizations who found the tradition denigrating to women. Also, by lack of an efficient organization, every year incidents occur, often girls being attacked or raped. Unfortunately, this year’s edition, a virgin was killed and 11 other were injured when in the suffocating crowd of girls panic and confusion struck.