It was a cloudy cool morning on the day of King Sobhuza’s funeral, the 3rd of September 1982. As the grey light of dawn appeared, we woke to the eerie sound of chanting as the warriors marched up the hill towards the valley that was previously used as a football stadium, to where the funeral was to take place. Out of the mist they came dressed in traditional striped loin cloths with skins around their waists, armbands and necklaces contrasting with their bare chests. As they marched, they beat their wooden spears on the ground to accompany their rhythmic chanting.
King Sobhuza had been greatly revered. He was the longest known reigning monarch in Africa having come to the throne 61 years previously. He died in his royal palace at the age of 82 surrounded by his retinue. Despite converting to Christianity, the King persisted in observing traditional customs, one of which was to take a new wife every year. This event took place at a colorful ceremony called the Reed Dance where all the local young women danced in traditional costume, bare bosomed for the King’s pleasure. As a result, he had more than 60 wives and hundreds of children.
The whole country went into mourning. All the women made a knotted cord belt which was worn as a symbol of their grief. The women living at the Royal Kraal were forbidden to see any male during the strict observation of mourning. Arrangements were made. For instance, if any medical care was required, only female nurses or doctors would be permitted to attend.
While I lived in Swaziland, I had joined a choir of European singers, mostly people like myself who were present on short term contracts working for various organizations, though there were also some permanent residents. We were amateurs, but enthusiastic and had performed Mozart’s requiem in the Cathedral in Mbabane—the capital city, not long before. We were amazed to be invited to sing at the funeral. Apparently King Sobhuza very much loved Handel’s Hallelujah chorus and wanted it to be sung. There would also be other local choirs singing hymns and traditional songs. We practiced in the short amount of time available and awaited the day in trepidation.
We wore our normal choir costume on the day; the men in black suits and white shirts, the women in black skirts and white blouses. We arrived at the venue and were ushered to some tiered seating close to the central area where the King’s casket would be displayed. To our right, another tiered seating area housed many African dignitaries including Piet Botha of South Africa, who must have been somewhat disconcerted to find himself seated near Oliver Tambo, the exiled president of the banned African National Congress. Prince Michael of Kent represented Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and I believe that there were delegates from 24 countries present.
The body of the King was carried to a central dais and the wooden casket was covered by flags. His body was said to be embalmed and was in the sitting position. Some caught a glimpse of him as the casket had a glass side and the flags lifted briefly in the breeze. He would later be taken to a secret location high in the mountains where his body would be left in a cave, known only to the guards and shepherds. As far as I know, these sacred caves continue to be guarded 24 hours a day.
The funeral began with the Swazi National anthem. More than 20,000 people were gathered and the warriors kept up a low wailing sound punctuated by whistles. The Queen Regent, known as Indlovukazi (Great She Elephant), arrived along with a multitude of the king’s wives and children. She was barefoot, as were all the women, wearing animal skins and a headband with a scarlet feather, a symbol of the Royal clan. We stood out in a group during the grieving family’s arrival and sang the Hallelujah chorus, accompanied by a rather tinny keyboard. It was difficult to make the sound carry as there was a breeze and we had no amplification.
During the ceremony, a band formed from the ranks of the police and army played and a respected Swazi choir sang hymns. The two planes of the Swazi air force flew over.
A mausoleum has been built at the site of the dais where King Sobhuza was displayed during the funeral and a small museum and cultural center open to foreign visitors provides a tribute to this man’s long reign.
I hope to return one day.
Written by Carol Price – Dumfries, United Kingdom
Photo by Jeff Nissen