Throngs of young Swazi women and girls gathered on Sunday to deliver bundles of reeds cut a week earlier and transported on foot to the Queen Mother's residence in Eludzidzini.
Wearing little more than the short, beaded skirts and tasselled scarves that traditionally denote virginity, the girls danced and chanted their way through cold, drizzling rain to the Queen Mother's quarters, pausing only to mug enthusiastically for tourists' cameras.
In recent years Swaziland's annual reed dance ceremony has become a focal point for criticism of King Mswati III's handling of his country's HIV crisis and the rights of his female subjects.
The dance is often framed in the international media as serving little purpose other than a showcase of virgins, from which sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch can select yet another new bride.
Controversy was fuelled by the King's announcement last week that a traditional five-year chastity rite for teenage girls, known as the "umcwasho" and reintroduced in 2001 to combat the spread of HIV, would be abandoned a year early.
Swazis interviewed at the event insisted that international portrayals of the ceremony had mischaracterised a centuries-old ritual that, far from being an exercise in exploitation, was a celebration of girl-power.
Mpumi Mdlalose, an information officer with the Swaziland Tourism Authority, participated in the reed dance 11 times before she hung up her tassels.
"I know some people think we're forced into it, but we love it," she told IRIN on Sunday. "It's showing off your beauty as a woman and as a virgin, but also paying your respect to the Queen Mother."
According to figures reported in the Swazi Times, the number of young women and girls choosing to participate in the eight-day ceremony, otherwise known as the "Umhlanga", has risen in recent years.
This year's ceremony, which culminated on Monday with a day of dancing before the King, attracted an estimated 50,000 girls. For most, the possibility of being chosen as the King's next wife is less of an incentive for participating than the opportunity to socialise with other girls in a rare outing away from home.
At the age of 13, Lindelwa Zwane has already taken part in three reed dances. She keeps coming back, she says, because of the fun she has with the other girls.
"I wouldn't want to marry the King," she added. "I've got so many other things I want to do - I want to go to university and be an administrator."
Most of the girls were unaware that a new national constitution, signed by the King this month, will elevate the legal status of women from minors to adults. In January 2006 women will have the right to own property and businesses, and to refuse to comply with customs they disagree with, such as one that requires a widow to marry her brother-in-law.
Mdlalose believed the constitutional changes were in keeping with the general trend of Swazis becoming "more westernised" and women feeling more powerful, but Philile Mlotshwa, a member of Swaziland Media Gender Watch (SMEGWA), argued that the new constitution does not go far enough.
"According to the changes, women have a right to refuse a custom they don't like, but the question is: are women empowered enough to refuse and, in any case, why can't we just abolish all customs that are detrimental to women's rights?" Mlotshwa asked.
She also feared that the changes would have little impact if women were not educated about their new rights. She claimed that efforts by local NGOs to spread the word had been curtailed by the government, which has insisted that only its officials can interpret the constitution.
The traditionally low status of women in Swaziland has been linked to the country's spiralling HIV/AIDS epidemic. Forty percent of the adult population is estimated to be infected with the virus - the highest incidence in the world.
Customs like the reed dance have received negative press in light of the crisis, but Mlotshwa asserted that the ritual could have the potential to be a forum for women's empowerment and HIV prevention, were it not for the current King's "abuse" of the event.
"Internationally it's now known as the forum for the King to pick a new bride, but it's not about that; it's about celebrating the girls' chastity," she said.
Celebrating chastity was a cause many HIV/AIDS activists had no problem getting behind: volunteers from the AIDS Information Support Centre (TASC) were out in force at the event to drive home the abstinence message.
"The reed dance is a positive thing for HIV prevention," said TASC counsellor Gcinile Nyoni.
Precious Mkhatshwa, a participant, agreed: "Right now, they [the participants] will abstain, because they want to come back next year."
Mkhatshwa told IRIN that most people in her village knew about AIDS, but had not changed traditional attitudes and behaviours. "When the wife dies, the husband takes another wife and they don't check their blood [have an HIV test]," she said.
For her part, 18-year-old Mkhatshwa planned to delay marriage until she was 25 and then find a non-Swazi husband. "Swazi men are too traditional," she complained.
While refusing to be drawn on the subject of the King's 12 wives, Nyoni conceded that certain Swazi customs, such as the acceptance of polygamy and men's extramarital affairs, were contributing to the spread of HIV. However, she attributed the country's high infection rate to worsening poverty rather than to the persistence of such customs.
The health ministry reported recently that the number of HIV-positive pregnant girls aged 15 to 19 years had declined slightly from 33.5 percent in 2002 to 29.3 percent in 2004, but it is not known whether the credit lies with AIDS awareness campaigns or with the official emphasis on customs such as the reed dance and umcwasho.
Traditionalists like Nomsa Vlakati, who busied herself on Monday scolding girls for wearing underwear beneath their beaded skirts, have claimed that participants' enthusiasm for the reed dance has more to do with their love of partying than their devotion to chastity.
Times had changed since she took part in the ceremony 30 years ago, Vlakati said. "We weren't falling in love with boys, unlike today. Girls were more pure; they were not doing those immoral things. Now they don't like the chastity tassels. Some of them pretend to be virgins but they're not."
Male chaperones, known as "tindvuna" [NOTE], accompany groups of girls from their villages to the reed dance to protect them from harm but, according to reports in the local press, their presence was not always enough to prevent girls from making the most of their week of relative freedom. According to the Swazi Times, the King's daughter, 17-year-old Princess Sikhanyiso, was whipped by an [NOTE] induna [an elder] for throwing a party for her fellow participants and refusing to relinquish a radio.
Walking beside a lively group of girls from his village, brandishing a stick at any sign of mischief, Canaan Hlatjwako took his responsibilities as an [NOTE] induna seriously. This was his eleventh year of accompanying the girls from his village to the reed dance. "They won't come if I don't come," he said.
On the subject of gender equality, Hlatjwako shared Vlakati's view that, according to Swazi tradition and the Bible, women were not meant to have the same rights as men.
"When a woman is sick or hungry, her husband is supposed to provide for her, so everything that belongs to the woman, belongs to the man," he said.
Hlatjwako mourned the fact that Swazi men were taking fewer wives than in the past as a result of poverty. His father had four wives, while Hlatjwako can only afford to support two.
Swaziland's rising poverty may also play a role in the popularity of the reed dance -participants get two square meals a day and a kilo of meat to take home to their families.
For 15-year-old Calsile Matsebula, whose parents are both unemployed, that was a significant improvement on her usual diet of ligusha - a traditional vegetable dish.
Sixty-six percent of Swaziland's 1.1 million people live on less than a dollar a day, and a third are dependent on international food aid.