Party time in Lobamba

THE IN­CI­DEN­TAL TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PAMELA O’CUNEEN

SWAZI­LAND: There was a day of cel­e­bra­tion at Lobamba’s Somhlolo National Sta­dium [ for the king’s 25th birth­day and the 25th an­niver­sary of in­de­pen­dence all rolled into one]. With so many guests the mas­ter of cer­e­monies did his best but got a bit bam­boo­zled as peo­ple ar­rived. As the cars drew up at the VIP stand, he doggedly read out what­ever he had on his list.

Hence the Swedish ambassador looked de­cid­edly African in ap­pear­ance, and Zam­bia’s prime min­is­ter ap­peared to be Chi­nese. Among the real VIPs were Prince Ed­ward, for­mer pres­i­dent of South Africa F.W. de Klerk, then pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela, the Crown Prince of Morocco and the Sul­tan of Brunei. Among the civil­ians was Tiny Row­land, ty­coon and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Lon­rho with his wife. A stat­uesque woman, Mrs Row­land wore a white bull­fight­ing cloak, sur­mounted by a white som­brero of monumental pro­por­tions, and re­sem­bled a very tall mushroom.

All of th­ese dig­ni­taries were ac­com­pa­nied to the dais by armed es­corts. But per­haps the best mo­ment came with the advent of one of Swazi­land’s lo­cal celebri­ties. Mr Goldblatt- Grant, a small, wiz­ened oc­to­ge­nar­ian who owned much of Swazi­land, chose for the oc­ca­sion to drive the long­est and whitest Cadil­lac any­one had ever seen and was dressed as a Chicago gang­ster in white silk suit, white Stet­son and enor­mous white win­kle-picker shoes. He was so im­pres­sive that he re­ceived a spe­cial round of ap­plause all to him­self.

The king wore the tra­di­tional incwala head­dress of glis­ten­ing black feath­ers, his young brown chest shin­ing in the sun. When he ar­rived, we were treated to a real spec­ta­cle. Spe­cially brought in from South Africa were 16 mo­tor­cy­clists straight from Toy­town. They had white uni­forms and white mo­tor­cy­cles, with two red flash­ing lights at the front and two blue flash­ing lights at the back. They were ev­ery lit­tle boy’s dream.

At the cru­cial mo­ment the Swazi air force flew over and its one plane streamed forth smoke in the red, black, blue and white of the Swazi flag. The colours blended in the wind, and we were bathed in a heav­enly cloud of baby pink which wafted and floated for some time. Only the an­gel choirs were miss­ing.

There was a long pro­gram of en­ter­tain­ment. The Manzini Choir and the Asih­la­belele Choir sang, swayed and jived, there was an orches­tra of Jew’s harps, diminu­tive drum ma­jorettes, and 1000 or so school­child­ren taught by the Tai­wanese em­bassy waved squares of coloured pa­per on com­mand, to fill the arena with the Swazi flag, and the king’s por­trait, and happy birth­day in bright colours.

Or, rather, the school­child­ren sched­uled to do this had not turned up for prac­tice, so in des­per­a­tion the Tai­wanese em­bassy mar­shalled 1000 scant­ily clad Reed Dance maid­ens at the last minute, clothed them in white T-shirts and drilled them fit to bust.

The Swazi army did pre­ci­sion march­ing in their bright red­coat uni­form, with a great deal of gold braid, ac­com­pa­nied by mil­i­tary band mu­sic, which was only very oc­ca­sion­ally out of tune. At the fi­nale ev­ery­body was ar­ranged around the cir­cum­fer­ence of the sta­dium. The small com­mand­ing of­fi­cer in front seemed un­ac­count­ably to have ex­changed trousers with some­one at least a foot taller.

His uni­form was im­pec­ca­ble but he wore trousers that flapped and con­certi­naed around his an­kles like Char­lie Chap­lin. We ar­rived home hot and tired, but there was still the state ban­quet to at­tend. At the Royal Swazi Con­ven­tion Cen­tre 400 peo­ple were seated at long ta­bles dec­o­rated with me­tre­high glass vases, so that roses and ivy cas­caded above guests’ heads. Sil­ver and glass sparkled and the army brass band played loudly.

On the stage sat the king and the many VIPs. Five of the queens were there, wear­ing iden­ti­cal slinky Las Vegas dresses of white se­quins, iden­ti­cal straight black wigs, iden­ti­cal tiaras, and iden­ti­cal red rib­bons across their bo­soms with iden­ti­cal saucer-sized dia­mante or­ders at­tached. But since they could not so­cialise with men, the poor girls, in their fin­ery, were rel­e­gated to a side ta­ble with ladies from the palace and spent the evening ad­mir­ing each other. This is an edited ex­tract from Cul­ture Shock & Canapes: Ad­ven­tures of a Diplo­matic Wife in Africa (Quar­tet Books, $25.99).

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