Friday, September 5, 2008

A rich ugly king will always be handsome

By Charles Onyango Obbo

The other day, Daily Nation's naughty little brother, Daily Metro, had a huge photo of Swaziland’s King Mswati III bare chest and in loincloth, on the day of the Reed Dance.

The Reed Dance is an annual event where thousands of bare-breasted “virgins” gather at the royal court, bearing reeds for the queen in a colourful ceremony, that is one of the kingdom’s biggest tourist attractions. The dance is the occasion when Mswati selects a bride. This year, the 40-year-old king, already the proud husband of 13 wives, was expected to exercise his royal prerogative and pick the 14th.

I look down on the Reed Dance, and believe in a more competitive and democratic way of choosing a bride, but this year, something interesting happened. The number of maidens who registered for the Reed Dance rose sharply to 60,000 from 40,000 last year. The curious thing is that the King Mswati we saw in the Daily Metro is unlikely to be many women’s idea of an attractive man. He was better looking when he was still a young king, and hadn’t put on the weight that has left him with breasts bigger than those of some of the maidens in the parade.

Yet the news agency Reuters reported that; “Tens of thousands of bare-breasted virgins competed for Swaziland King Mswati III’s eye on Monday in a traditional Reed Dance.” Another one, the French agency AFP spoke to a young Swazi woman Landile Hlongwa, a university student, who said: “Being chosen by the king would be a bonus for me. I would like to occupy one of the royal palaces one day.”

If you take it that the increase in the number of maidens registering for the Reed Dance is crudely reflective of the rise in King Mswati’s sex appeal, then his attractiveness increased by 50 per cent!

That cannot be explained aesthetically because, as we have noted, King Mswati is a far cry from his youthful days. The logical explanation, we are afraid, might not please all men. The enduring appeal of Mswati seems to prove that women, according to experts who study these things, tend to be attracted to powerful men (while men tend to be attracted more by women’s looks or just bits and pieces of them). However, Mswati is also cynically benefiting from his failure to solve the mountain kingdom’s many problems. He has been slammed for his lavish lifestyle, while nearly 70 per cent of his subjects live in poverty. Despite that, recently Forbes magazine listed him as the 15th-richest monarch in the world. He was the only African on the list.

Marriage into the King's harem is, therefore, an escape from poverty for many Swazi women.

Thus Tenene Dlamini, 16, told Reuters; “I came here to dance. I wish the king would have chosen me because it’s nice at the king’s place. The wives live a nice life.” Critics also say Mswati sets a bad example by encouraging polygamy and teenage sex — he is the one who turned the Reed Dance into a grand event in 1999 — by picking brides during the ceremony, in a country where about 40 percent of adults live with HIV.

Without being unfeeling or frivolous, we have to point out that Swaziland’s infections rates are ironical because a company called YKK Zippers is based in its “neighbour” Lesotho. YKK Zippers manufactures nearly 100 per cent of the world’s jeans zippers. Maybe there is a message there for Swaziland and its king.

As an absolute monarch, everything in Swaziland basically belongs to Mswati, so we can’t hurry to accuse him of pinching from the Treasury. That is unlike the folks who have been linked to corruption in Kenya in recent years. But there is a ray of hope for them, following the calls by many people, including former anti-graft czar John Githongo recently, that they be granted amnesty. We say a ray of hope, because there are also calls for those who were involved in election violence, early this year, to be granted amnesty. The ODM says they were “freedom fighters” who were protesting against a stolen election.

The PNU says they were cold-blooded murderers, who planned the killings before the dispute over the elections broke out.

There’s a perception that most of those who support calls to grant the corrupt amnesty are either PNU supporters or leaders. On the other hand, that it’s mostly ODM supporters and leaders who favour amnesty for those being held on suspicion of participating in violent actions in the election crisis early in the year. If that be the case, then we could have a deal soon.

The PNU gets amnesty on corruption, and in exchange ODM gets amnesty on election violence.

There are precedents for both. India granted amnesty to people who had cheated on taxes, in exchange for them getting their act together and beginning to pay. There was such a huge uptake, the Treasury was just overflowing with money from the old tax cheats. And South Africa, even Rwanda, gave amnesty to those who had killed, and got its groove back.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am pleased the Reed Dance is getting attention, but it masks a really big problem. There are huge human rights issues in Swaziland. The king rules by decree, all political parties are banned and parliament has no real powers. Seven in ten people live in abject poverty earning less than one US dollar a day. Six in ten people rely on international food aid and four in ten are said to be moving from hunger to starvation. If you are interested in human rights issues in Swaziland come visit my blog