LUDZIDZINI ROYAL VILLAGE, Swaziland—More than 50,000 bare-breasted virgins vied to become the King of Swaziland’s 13th wife on Monday in a ceremony which critics say ill befits a country with the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rate.
King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, arrived dressed in a leopard-skin loincloth to watch the Reed Dance ceremony, which he has used since 1999 to pluck new brides from the girls dressed in little more than beaded mini-skirts.
Wielding machetes and singing tributes to the king and queen mother, also known as the Great She-Elephant, the girls danced around the royal stadium in the hope of catching the eye of the 37-year-old monarch. “I want to live a nice life, have money, be rich, have a BMW and cellphone,” said one dancer, 16-year-old Zodwa Mamba, who wore a traditional brightly coloured tasselled scarf.
Critics say Mswati, who has courted controversy for his lavish lifestyle while two thirds of his subjects live in abject poverty, sets a bad example by encouraging polygamy and teenage sex in a country where 40 percent of adults live with HIV.
“The king takes a wife whenever he wants and that’s the way it is. This is our culture and we will never change,” said Tsandzile Ndluva, 21, another dancer.
Monday’s ceremony was the culmination of a week of preparations, which included the lifting of a royal ban on sex with virgins, decreed in 2001 to help rein in HIV.
Days after reviving the ancient ban, Mswati in 2001, married a virgin and fined himself one cow. Last week he lifted the five-year ban a year early, ordering thousands of maidens to throw off chastity scarves worn to ward of preying men.