The battle between tradition and tourism in eSwatini

By Mary-Ann Russon
Business reporter, BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionA king's warrior performing a dance during the Icwala festival

Africa's culture is a largely untapped resource that could give its economic development a major boost.

Some nations have embraced tourism, such as Kenya, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia and Zimbabwe, but it remains a struggle for others.

eSwatini - formerly Swaziland - is the last standing absolute monarchy in Africa, with a rich history of tradition.

It is keen to promote tourism, but some attitudes stand in the way.

According to data collected by the World Bank, a total of 947,000 international tourists visited eSwatini in 2016.

eSwatini is the smallest country in the southern hemisphere, but it makes a big splash every year with cultural festivals that attract guests from around the world.

The government has long realised that meaningful investment in the arts and culture such as traditional music, dance, clothing and drama could earn the country billions of dollars and create many more jobs.

But not everyone wants outsiders observing centuries-old sacred rituals, despite the many benefits that could be gained.

Opening up festivals

Icwala, which means "First Fruits Festival", is eSwatini's most important cultural event of the year.

It is often referred to as the "Kingship Ceremony". Heavily focused on the monarch, Icwala is a time where the country and society goes through a cycle of spiritual renewal and purification.

There are a series of events that occur over a period of three weeks between December and January, but the exact dates are never publicised.

And following Incwala, warriors begin to weed the King's fields - a culturally significant spectacle of music, elaborate costume and dance.

Guests and spectators are always welcome, but no concessions are made to tourism, and their marketing is minimal.

The dates of the 400-year-old festival also vary from year to year, as they are determined by ancestral astrologers' studies of the moon.

image copyrightAFP
image captionKing Mswati III arrives at the annual Umhlanga reed dance festival

eSwatini's Minister for Tourism Moses Vilakati told the BBC that the government can't determine the dates of the festival ahead of time, because of the high changeability of the dates.

"It's generally around the full moon, so those are usually the days, but otherwise it's sacred for us," he said.

"It's not overly commercialised because we want to keep it pure. Some of the commercialisation that usually takes place then dilutes the cultural event."

He is adamant that the rituals must stay the same as they have been performed for centuries, away from prying eyes, so as not to upset eSwatini's forefathers.

However, Mr Vilakati would also like to see visitor numbers double.

Currently, the tourist season starts in September and continues until early January.

There is another festival in September called the Umhlanga, or "Reed Dance", which draws in visitors, but Mr Vilakati wants tourists to turn their attention elsewhere.

He hopes that tourists will be drawn to visit the country more for other reasons, such as to go on safaris see the Big Five toughest animals to hunt on foot in Africa - namely lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffaloes.

Promote traditions

Sipho Fakudze, a branding expert who runs his own advertising firm in eSwatini's capital city Mbabane, completely disagrees with this point of view.

He thinks cultural festivals like Icwala and Umhlanga should be used to boost the country's economy.

image copyrightChristian Science Monitor
image captionTens of thousands of maidens, dressed in traditional garb, perform the reed dance for the king during the Umhlanga festival

He also feels the government should support and empower youths in rural areas in order to boost eSwatini's cultural profile on the international stage.

"The youth should take pride in their traditional customs and promote [them] in the best way that they possibly can," Mr Fakudze told the BBC.

"It's a calling really to the youth because they have got the energy, they are the future custodians of our customs and they should be proud to be the next vehicle promoting our culture."

On top of this, he thinks eSwatini could do with a national re-brand.

"Each African state should have a visible brand, like South Africa has got the 'Proudly South African' brand," he said.

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