Swaziland may be one of Africa’s tiniest countries, but its culture is among the continent’s richest and best-preserved. The Swazis are always happy to welcome visitors into their homes and to join their traditional Incwala and Umhlanga ceremonies. There are traditional Swazi songs for seemingly all special occasions, while Swazi Sibhaca dance sessions can last up to three hours.
Swaziland’s history is surprisingly long and fascinating for such a small nation. Artifacts up to 200,000 years old and ancient rock paintings from approximately 25,000 BC have been found in the country. Swaziland’s first documented inhabitants, Khoisan hunter-gatherers, were eventually displaced by Bantu tribes who migrated from eastern Africa’s Great Lakes area during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Most modern-day Swazis descended from these Bantu tribes, who established farms and ironworks throughout the land. The Dlamini clan of the Ngwane Kingdom eventually conquered most of present-day Swaziland, which had previously been occupied by several smaller kingdoms. The most impressive collection of Swazi artifacts from various eras is exhibited at the Swazi National Museum (Lobamba, Swaziland).
Shortly after Swaziland’s namesake, King Mswati II, ascended the throne during the early 19th century, he asked the British to help him defend the country against repeated Zulu raids. King Mswati II was the first Swazi monarch to permit white settlement on the territory. Boers formed the majority of white 19th century Swaziland settlers. The Mantenga Nature Reserve’s Swazi Cultural Village (Mantenga, Swaziland) provides the most accurate description of Swazi life during this time.
The British granted Swaziland independence in 1881, but the much larger South African Republic soon swallowed up its tiny neighbor in 1890. Several Boers fled Swaziland between 1899 and 1902, the years of the Second Boer War. Although Swaziland remained neutral territory at the start of the war, it essentially became a British protectorate by the end of 1900. Swazi militia helped the British capture countless fleeing Boers during the war, while other Boers surrendered to the British after learning about the local militia’s harsh treatment of their captors.
After the end of the Second Boer War, Swaziland became a British colony from 1906 until 1968. During this time, Swaziland’s own monarch remained the territory’s head of state although a British resident commissioner made many of the local legislative decisions. In 1964, reigning Swazi monarch King Sobhuza II led the Imbokodvo National Movement to victory during the territory’s first election.
During Swaziland’s first post-independence election in 1972, King Sobhuza II ignored the election results which saw his party defeated by the Ngwane National Liberatory and restored the territory to an absolute monarchy, a status Swaziland maintains to this day. The people of Swaziland remain friendly and optimistic despite the country’s continuing poverty, high HIV/AIDS rate, and economic dependence on South Africa.
Despite being surrounded by much larger South Africa and a growing number of Western influences, Swaziland has its own distinct culture that remains very much intact. Many men still carry traditional battle axes, many women still sport traditional beehive hairstyles, and both sexes still wear the same colorful outfits they have sported for centuries.
Most Swazis can easily identify which tribe people belong to by the shape of their huts. Nguni beehive huts have rounded frames, while Sotho hut roofs are pointed and detachable. Women are still barred from entering the fenced cattle pens, sibaya, in the middle of Swazi homes. Each Swazi homestead also contains a family shrine called an indlunkulu and which is dedicated to their patrilineal ancestors.
Songs accompany all Swazi rituals, from weddings to coming-of-age ceremonies. The most popular Swazi dance, sibhaca, is performed barefoot in colorful tasseled costumes. Sibhaca performances typically last between two or three hours and include several different musical styles.