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African Festivals

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    The new year comes a little early in Swaziland, along with one of the biggest and most intricate African festivals of the year. Incwala, or "Festival of the First Fruits," brings the country together to gain the blessing of ancestors, sanctify the kingship, and kick off the harvest season with a party.

    The two main celebrations are Little Incwala and Big Incwala. Dates are firmed up by tribal astronomers just weeks before.

    The festival begins at "no moon," when people of the Bimanti clans or water people, trek to the Indian Ocean off Mozambique to collect the foam of the waves, which is believed to have mystical powers.

    They then return to the king's royal cattle kraal or palace, and at dawn of the new moon, the king chews sacred foods prepared with the foam and spits them to the east and west. Then Little Incwala begins.

    For two days, the people wear traditional outfits and chant sacred songs while the king remains in his kraal.

    Big Incwala begins at the full moon. It reflects the maturity of the king the more mature he gets, the wilder the party. The first day, young men walk over 25 miles to gather branches of the sacred Lusekwane bush by the light of the full moon. If any of the men ever made love to a married woman or made a young maiden pregnant, the branches will tell all. It is believed that leaves that touch his unpure hands will wither, and the "pure" people will beat him.

    Back at the king's kraal, locals sing and drink traditional beer.

    On the third day of Big Incwala, young men slaughter an ox and warriors perform the "inczuala" dance around the enclosure where the king hides, begging him to emerge. Eventually the king returns to his people in full Incwala dress. He performs a sacred dance, then eats the first pumpkin of the harvest. When he tosses the rind, the crowd performs a sacred song and dance, and then it's okay to eat the first fruits with the blessings of Swazi ancestors.

    After a day of rest and meditation, the celebrants build a huge bonfire to burn articles representing the past year, including the king's bedding and other household items. The Swazi people pray to their ancestors to bring rain to put out the fire, and then the big celebration of the new year starts, with feasts, singing, and dancing.

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