Incwala - Swazi New Year


Author: Grace Carter
Last update: 09/25/2005

Celebrated by:

The King of Swaziland and his subjects


The fourth day after the full moon nearest the winter solstice-which is to say, it depends. Because the date varies each year depending on the machinations of outer space, each year's particular date is determined by Swazi astronomers. This year, it will fall on December 29.

Next year will be:


How to say Happy New Year:

In Swaziland, the official language is siSwati. Yes, it's written like that-small 's' followed by a capital 'S' two letters later. Apparently, "happy new year" in siSwati is Umnyaka lomusha lomuhle. Looks cool, huh? Just don't ask us how to pronounce it.


Incwala is a traditional African ceremony, brought to Swaziland when the first Swazi king, Ngwane, migrated there from near what is now Maputo, Mozambique, in 1750. King Ngwane hailed from the Nguni tribe, which originated in Central Africa, and it's thought that most modern day Swazis are descended from him and his people. Beginning shortly before the 20th century, Britain governed Swaziland for 66 years. The union jack's colonial influence lingered after Swaziland regained independence, in the form of a constitution, but not for long. King Sobhuza II chucked it and reinstated a monarchy that highlighted traditional tribal values. He passed away in 1982, after 61 years on the throne. In 1986, his son, Mswati III, took the reigns and is still the King at present.

Values and traditions:

Incwala, also know as the festival of the first fruits, is in fact more of a celebration of the king than it is of the harvest, although sampling the new crops is one of the king's duties during the six ritual-packed days. It makes sense then, that without a King, there's no Incwala. No king, no new year. Got that?

At the top of this page, where we list the name of the celebration, you will have noticed a parenthetical addendum reading "(both Little and Big)". That's because this is a double-pronged celebration. Preparations for Incwala start before either part of New Year: on the last full moon in November, a troop of 'water people' (all from the Bemanti tribe) depart from the Queen Mother's house on a pilgrimage to the coast of Mozambique. There, they collect foam from the waves.

They arrive back at the Royal Cattle Kraal, the king's sacred circular cattle pen, the day before the new moon. At dawn, our boy, King Mswati III, munches on sacred food prepared with the well-traveled sea foam, and spits morsels to both the east and the west. This kicks off Little Incwala-two days of dancing, songs, and rituals, all undertaken in feathery costumes, while the king hides out in a special hut in the center of the Kraal.

Two weeks later, on the full moon, Big Incwala shifts into gear. Unmarried young men walk 25 to 50 miles to gather branches of the Lusekwane bush (a species of Acacia) by the light of the full moon, which they bring back and pile in the kraal. Rumor has it that if a boy has impregnated a young lady, or else slept with a married woman, his branch will wilt, resulting in a beating from his purer compatriots. (We wonder how that goes down in the heat of the moment. "I'm sorry, my darling, I can't-I'm too scared I'll be beaten with Lusekwane switches during Big Incwala next year!"). After any irresponsible Romeos have been sufficiently pummeled, the elders weave the non-wilted branches into the walls of the head honcho's private hut (a.k.a. his inhlambelo).

More pruning is on the agenda for the morning of day three. This time, the young unmarried men are sent in search of black imbonvdo, a red bushwillow. These branches are added to the walls of Mswati's inhlambelo, which at this point are rather bristly and dense. During the afternoon, as the king receives traditional medicinal therapy inside his hut, a black bull charges into the kraal. Three guesses who's in charge of subordinating and slaughtering the bucking bronco. As if strenuous branch-gathering trips weren't exhausting enough! The young, unmarried males set to work taming the bull, as they vow to find nice wives sometime in the next year. The meat of the Swaziland rodeo's slain star is used for the King's medicinal overhaul.

Day four is the most important day of Big Incwala. Warriors in full dress dance outside King Mswati's private quarters, begging him to emerge. When he does, he performs a dance of his own, and takes a bite of the year's first-harvested pumpkin. Then he chucks the rind behind him, and it becomes the stressful job of an unmarried Lusekwane branch collector to catch it on a black shield, before it hits the ground. Apparently, this whole process is tantamount to a blessing from the Swazi ancestors, which means it's cool to eat the first fruits of the harvest now. Everyone chows down.

Remember that time when you were really hyper in grade school and your teacher made you take a time out? That's what day five of Big Incwala feels like. It's an abstinence day: no working, no wearing decorations, no singing or dancing, no touching water, no touching each other, no sitting on chairs or mats. No scratching, even-sorry, boys. The Bemanti police the grounds while the king chills inside his inhlambelo for another whole day.

After the downer that's day five-and we're being a little facetious, of course; day five is a great time to meditate and mentally honor Mswati-the final day of Incwala begins, and hooeey! There's something special about fire at New Year's celebrations-read about Hogmanay, Diwali and Norooz if you don't know what we're talking about. Incwala is part of the pyro club too. A massive blaze is constructed, upon which the King's old bedding and household items are incinerated. Finally, Incwala ends like the best night on the town should: with singing, dancing and feasting.

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