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South African Tradition: The KwaZulu-Natal Maidens Playing A Significant Role —By Gbenga Oyelakin

The maidens in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa play a significant cultural role in the Zulu community. They are known as the “maidens” or “izintombi” in Zulu. These young women are celebrated for their purity, beauty, and commitment to upholding the traditional values of the Zulu people.

Weeks ago, pictures of these maidens well adorned in their colorfully-beaded and traditional attires yet partially exposed were all over the media landscapes. The beautiful ladies gleamingly revealed their seemingly fresh breasts; and this caught the attention of netizens. I must say that my curiosity made me decide to conduct some research of the pictures and this piece gives the account of my findings. As such, after I read about the pictures, I consulted an isiZulu Fulbright Scholar (2023/24) at the University of Georgia, Athens, in the United States of America for a more accurate understanding; she validated my findings and gave more resources, one of which is the following YouTube link:

To begin with, the decision of the maidens to dress in a partially exposed manner is for certain cultural ceremonies, such as the Reed Dance in KwaZulu-Natal. Importantly, this choice is voluntary as the exposed areas are often associated with youth and innocence.

Also, it is believed that by displaying their bodies in this way, the maidens are showcasing their integrity and commitment to upholding traditional values, cultural identity and pride rooted in their cultural beliefs and values. In Zulu culture, the partially exposed attire is seen as a symbol of purity, chastity, modesty, and respect for customs and traditions. On top of that, the decision to dress in a partially exposed manner symbolizes a statement of unity and sisterhood among the maidens. It signifies their collective participation in the cultural ceremony and reinforces their bond as a group. The maidens in the KwaZulu-Natal province play a crucial role in preserving Zulu traditions and customs, and here are some ways they contribute to this preservation:

i. The maidens act as custodians of Zulu traditions and customs. They learn from their elders and pass down cultural knowledge to future generations. Through their active participation in cultural events and ceremonies, they ensure that important traditions and customs are not lost.

ii. The maidens actively participate in various ceremonies and rituals, such as the Reed Dance. These events serve as platforms for showcasing and perpetuating Zulu culture. By engaging in these ceremonies, the maidens help keep the traditions alive and educate others about the significance and meaning behind each ritual.

iii. The maidens serve as role models for younger girls in their communities. They inspire and encourage them to embrace their cultural heritage, maintain their purity, and uphold the values and customs of the Zulu people. By setting an example, they ensure the continuation of Zulu traditions among the next generation.

iv. The maidens represent Zulu culture not only within their communities but also on a broader scale. They often participate in cultural exchanges, festivals, and events, both nationally and internationally. Through their presence, they promote Zulu traditions, customs, and values, fostering a sense of pride and awareness in their cultural heritage.

v. The maidens play a role in preserving the Zulu language and traditional arts. They learn and perform traditional songs, dances, and poetry, keeping these artistic expressions alive. By showcasing these artistic forms, the maidens contribute to the preservation and promotion of Zulu cultural identity.

At this point, it is necessary to know that this KwaZulu-Natal maidens tradition originated from the Zulu nation in South Africa around the 19th century. The Zulu nation was in trouble because the European imperialists invaded their land and it had a profound impact on the way of life of the Zulu people. This invasion resulted in the untimely death of King Shaka, and it was the time of the reign of King Dingane, brother of Shaka, who signed a treaty with the British. King Dingane’s reign was proof of the division within the Zulu nation at the time. His decision to become a converted Christian and sign over a portion of the Zululand greatly annoyed the Zulu people. Seeing this, King Dingane was soon overthrown by one of his key brothers, Mpande, and this essentially signaled the decline of King Dingane, who fled the Zululand. King Mpande had longed for an attempt to unite a torn nation and decided to have a reed dance in which the girls would be tested on their virginity as a way of preserving moral uprightness and maintaining a strong Zulu identity. This was because the actions of brothers and leaders alike had shattered the strong Zulu identity and signaled for a new identity to be formed. This was to be done by having virgin girls dance a reed dance. The reed dance performed by the maidens was the plea of King Mpande, and today that dance is a symbol of maiden’s culture. Every September – the start of southern hemisphere spring, tens of thousands of women, known locally as maidens, participate in the “reed dance” in KwaZulu-Natal province, which opens into the Indian Ocean. Prior to the reed dance, the participants had their genitalia inspected, a practice condemned by rights advocates who say it is demeaning and an invasion of privacy.

Traditional doctor and virgin inspector Nomagugu Ngobese defended the practice, saying it’s accepted across different societal classes.

During the Reed Dance, the maidens gather at the Enyokeni Royal Palace in Nongoma to pay homage to the Zulu king and queen. They wear traditional attire, including brightly colored beaded necklaces, skirts, and headbands. The main feature of the ceremony is the presentation of reeds, which symbolize their purity and virginity.

The maidens dance and sing traditional songs as they proceed to the palace, carrying the reeds on their heads. The importance of this custom, for the Zulu people, is in the concept of womanhood, which is central to the identity and prosperity of the community.

For instance, one of the women’s primary roles is to bear and nurture children. These children, upon reaching adulthood, are responsible for carrying on the family name and maintaining the continuity of their lineage. For this knowledge to be preserved and passed on to succeeding generations, it was so important, then, for the adults to instill reverence and respect for cultural traditions into the younger generation.

Therefore, the KwaZulu-Natal maidens’ cultural tradition is a sign of the importance to the importance of this transfer of knowledge amongst Zulu people. Additionally, the reed dance ceremony has been instrumental in fighting the propagation of HIV/AIDS amongst Zulu youth, which is presently the largest contributing factor to the death of young women in South Africa. This suggests that the event is not only a celebration of Zulu culture but also aims to promote abstinence, sexual purity, and HIV/AIDS awareness among young women.

Overall, the maidens in KwaZulu-Natal actively contribute to the preservation of Zulu traditions and customs through their participation in ceremonies and rituals. The maidens hold a special place in Zulu culture and are valued for their commitment to preserving traditions, promoting purity, fostering community cohesion, and ensuring that they are passed down to future generations.



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