Party time in Lobamba
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
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).