“In one word… …Awesome” – Carol Lomas UK
“A truly genuine experience” – Paddy Dowsing UK
“I have been to cultural experiences all over the world and this was by far the best I have seen” – Delia Fearey UK
Reading the reviews you would be forgiven for thinking it was a multi-million dollar Broadway production they had watched and it is not just the tourists who are raving about Matsamo Cultural Village. The AA awarded it “Best Cultural Experience” in South Africa and inducted it into their ‘Hall of Fame’.
“We started Matsamo in 2000 because we are proud of our culture”, my guide Mampompo explains, “we were worried that the younger generations of Swazi’s were forgetting their heritage and we wanted people from other cultures to experience the Swazi way of life.” When I asked Mampompo whether he feels they have achieved this he smiles before saying, “we now have Swazi’s using Matsamo as a kind of ‘Swazi finishing school’ and guests from all over the world, so I guess so!”
So what makes Swazi culture different? Mampompo view is that “Swazi’s are more peaceful, humble and, most importantly, friendly than most other African tribes” After a day with them I would agree, but would also add resilient, passionate and enthusiastic. In 2010 a huge fire burnt the cultural village to its foundations and they lost everything. They are currently in the final stages of rebuilding the village and it looks fabulous, all that spirit and vibrancy shines through in the new Matsamo.
What makes the tour so unique is that they combine the singing and dancing show the tourists expect with an education experience that presents Swazi culture in a novel and very engaging way.
“Swazi culture is very different to Western cultures”, Mampompo explains, “We try to highlight the differences and why they have come about. The tourists really seem to enjoy this - sometimes more than the singing and dancing!”
Matsamo Cultural Village is located on the Jeppe’s Reef border to Swaziland and is the perfect stop off for anyone travelling through Mpumalanga on route to Swaziland or coming from Swaziland. I joined a group of five Brit’s on the educational tour. They were instantly under Mampompo’s spell as he introduced himself as their father and was quickly calling everyone by name.
“How many wives do you have Mike?” Mampompo asks with a smile. “One!” his wife cuts in before Mike had a chance to answer. “Poor you”, Mampompo replies not to Mike, but to his wife. “Me?” she answers indignantly. “Yes, in our culture it is often seen by the first wife as a promotion.” Mampompo continued unfazed. At this point I can see all the women in the group stiffen and by the smile on his face this was the reaction Mampompo was looking for. “A promotion?” one asks dubiously. “Yes”, Mampompo continues, “by the time a man takes a second wife he normal has 5 or 6 children with his first wife. She is cooking, cleaning and collecting water and firewood for them all. She needs help. That is the role of the second wife. Once the second wife arrives the first is promoted. She never has to cook again. She can now spend more time with her husband’s mother, learning this role as one day she will be head of the family.” Put like that, a second wife really does sound like a promotion, especially when Mampompo explains that a lot of the time the first wife chooses the second wife and they are often friends.
As we continue the tourists’ interest in the educational aspect of the tour, that Mampompo was so keen to promote, becomes more and more evident. There are so many interesting aspects of Swazi culture that to a Westerner seem at first foreign and perhaps unfair that become understandable and logical when Mampompo explains the reasoning behind them.
“Ladies first”, Mampompo cries in horror, “that is not gentlemanly at all, just dangerous. In our culture men go first because who knows what dangers they might be walking into!”
“Sharing a bed! How horrible for you”, Mampompo exclaims as he gives the ladies in the group a pitiful look, “men are sweaty, tired and irritable after a day in the fields, who wants to sleep next to that! Plus…”, and with a wink to the men in the group “they need their sleep, and we all know what women can be like!” He goes on to do an impression of a wife demanding trips to the salon, new handbags and a better social life that has us all in hysterics.
In a flash an hour had passed and educational tour was over. As I took my tree stump seat in the centre of an open Kraal I hoped the cultural entertainment would live up to Mampompo’s tour. I didn’t need to worry.
The dancing was spectacular, with each dancer trying to outperform the last as the leg kicks seemed to get higher and higher. The vivid colours of the traditional costumes, rattles of the seed pods that adorned the dancer’s ankles, atmospheric beats of the animal hide drums and the unique ambience of the Kraal where we sat added up to an amazing spectacle.
Mampompo had told me before we began the tour that Swazi’s were renowned for their singing, in fact, “If a Swazi couldn’t sing it meant they were an imposter born to another tribe!” It was clear all the villagers were Swazi. I have thought long and hard about which words could do justice to their singing voices, the simple fact is there aren’t any. Listening to the voices harmonise with such strength, passion and pride was a truly awe inspiring moment. Especially for someone not often moved by music. I suspect very few choirs in the world could match the voices of these villagers in that moment. In the open air under a tree, without any specially designed space to amplify or project their voices, the villages sang with a strength and beauty that brought goose bumps to your skin and a tear to almost everyone’s eye. 30 minutes of singing and dancing passed in a moment and the five Brit’s joined the 35 of the French tour group in a standing ovation while demanding an encore.
The encore was granted on the basis the tourists joined in with the dancing. My heart instantly plummeted with visions of the cringe worthy moment unwilling tourists would be levered out of their seats by enthusiastic dances. Only to embarrassingly shuffle on stage or perhaps worse pull off the kind of dance moves my Dad might try at a wedding. Again, and much to my surprise, I was completely wrong. Perhaps it was the infectious spirit of the dancers or simply that the tourists were caught up in the moment, but they seemed to need little encouragement to get up on the stage and seamlessly join in with the dancing. The real beauty was the smiles on the faces of dancers and tourists alike. When the final chorus died down and all the tourists were back in their seats the option of buying the villagers CD was offered. Almost every hand in the crowd was raised, proof enough of just how great the singing had been.
Speaking to the tourists afterwards as we ate our Swazi banquet it was quite clear that Matsamo had left its mark on everyone. Whether it was the size of the mini-skirts the maidens had to dance in, the enthusiasm of the older village members during the singing or the incredible flexibility of young warriors. Everyone I spoke to seemed completely overwhelmed by the experience. As one lady candidly put it, “in general cultural experiences are a bit of let-down. They often seem thrown together and somewhat clichéd. This is the exception; I would happily see it again and again and again!”
This to me really is bright star amongst cultural experiences as they seamlessly marry education with entertainment that promotes the spirit of Swazi culture. Matsamo really is like the phoenix rising from the ashes and it’s spirit burns brightly.