Topless Virgins Vie for King in AIDS-Hit Swaziland

Rebecca Harrison, Reuters, Aug. 29

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.

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“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.

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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.

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