Some 38 teenage girls chosen to take part in Swaziland’s traditional reed dance festival were killed instantly as the flatbed truck they were riding in crashed head-on into another vehicle.
The girls were being driven to the royal homestead of Swazi King Mswati III. Some 40,000 girls take part in the 8-day ceremony, singing and dancing bare-breasted for the King who often selects one of them to become his new wife. Swaziland is polygamous and the king has 14 wives.
The event, which came to a climax on Monday, drew thousands of spectators who watched as the young girls swayed while singing traditional songs, said witnesses. King Mswati joined the dancing, while Ghana’s Ashanti king watched from the stands.
But there was no solemn moment of remembrance and prayer for the crash victims, prompting one dancer to criticize how the matter was handled.
“This event should have been stopped. Transport should have been provided to send the maidens home to mourn the death of our fellow sisters,” said Scebile Mahlungu. “It is wrong to pretend like nothing has happened. This business as usual pains some of us. It is like ants have died.”
“In respect for those killed, the king should have called off this year’s dance,” said Lucky Lukhele, spokesman for the Swaziland Solidarity Network, a South Africa-based rights group. He could have turned the reed dance into a prayer session to allow the Swazi nation to comfort the families of these flowers, he said.
The dancers are often referred to as ‘imbali’, the local word for flowers.
According to witnesses quoted by the Swazi Observer newspaper, the young women were thrown off the flatbed truck after the driver, employed by the government of Swaziland, smashed into the back of another vehicle.
Bodies were strewn on the road. Cellphone images also show bloodied bodies lying on the back of the truck.
According to a government press statement, fatalities included ten girls and women, aged between 11 and 19. Three men were also killed in the crash, according to the statement which listed the age and home district of each victim.
“Government is in touch with the parents and relatives of the deceased and all of them have been positively identified,” the statement said, adding that five more “maidens” were still in hospital.
Lukhele stood by the earlier numbers of deceased but added: “We are gone past wrestling with the regime on numbers,” he told The Associated Press, adding that it was unacceptable that the government used open flatbed trucks to transport the dancers to the festival. “Even if it was one (dead), one is too many.”
Meanwhile, extravagant expenses approved by the Swazi parliament are fueling anger among some members of the Swazi House of Assembly. These include US$3 billion for a canal from the Mozambican coast to Mlawula in Swaziland, over 100 kilometers long (Swaziland is landlocked); an international airport that cost $250 million – dubbed a “vanity project” by aviation experts – and a new high-end private jet for the King at an estimated cost of US$30 million.