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LUDZIDZINI ROYAL VILLAGE, Swaziland - AFRICA - (Reuters ) Thousands of young Swazi women paraded in front of their king, Mswati III, to celebrate chastity and unity, dismissing criticism of the lavish ceremony in one of Africa's poorest countries for its last absolute monarch.
Bare-breasted Swazi women and girls as young as five gathered on Sunday and Monday to the king and queen mother, also known as the Great She-Elephant. The topless women dressed in beaded mini-skirts and clutching machetes and mobile phones, danced and sang tributes in a traditional Umhlanga Reed Dance meant to celebrate womanhood and virginity.
Maidens flocked in from across the country. Some attends the ceremony every year until they marry - cut reeds from river beds, which they then presented to the queen mother in a mile-long singing and foot-stamping procession.
18-year-old Gcebine Dlamini said that she is proud to be Swazi and to be a virgin. "We are here to show unity with the king and with each other.", she added.
King Mswati III (center)
King Mswati III, who has at least a dozen wives and a personal fortune estimated at $200 million, faced unprecedented protests last year when his appointed administration ran out of money after a 2009 recession in neighbouring South Africa.
In July, South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper reported that three of Mswati's wives joined a 66-strong royal entourage heading to Las Vegas on a shopping spree.
Afraid of what the topless Swazi women might tell to journalists and tourists roaming the grounds of the royal village, some 20 km (12 miles) outside the capital, local police kept a close watch to every participant for the entire course of the event.
"If chosen, I would be able to live a better life than what I have, have a lot of money, live a queen's life and travel overseas," said Fakazile Dlamini, 14, who arrived on a lorry from her village 60 km away to attend the ceremony.
New royal wives have often received a BMW and their own palace, fuelling criticism in a country where more than two-thirds of its 1.4 million people live in abject poverty.
Even though the girls refuse to criticise UK-educated Mswati III who arrived at the event dressed in beads and lion cloth, not everyone supported his polygamous lifestyle.
"I don't want to be a queen, I don't want to share my man. Polygamy is not okay," Siphesihle Mdluli, 20, who hopes to go on to study medicine said while waving her bundle of reeds.
Women's groups and political opponents say Mswati's penchant for multiple young brides ill befits a country with the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS, but the monarch says polygamy is part of Swazi tradition and helps cement national unity.