Not less than 38 girls and young women were killed in a crash on Friday while travelling to Swaziland’s most famous traditional festival.
Trucks transporting scores of young women to the traditional Umhlanga Reed Dance collided on Friday near the town of Matsapha on Swaziland’s major highway, the Times of Swaziland reported.
The young women and girls were travelling on the back of an open truck, the rights group said.
“According to inside sources, a total of 38 young girls have been pronounced dead, with more than 20 others seriously injured,” said Lucky Lukhele, spokesperson for the Swaziland Solidarity Network, an advocacy group based in neighbouring South Africa.
Swazi police at first refused to give any information on the accident but later disputed the death toll provided by the rights group. Only 13 people were killed in the crash, said police spokesman Khulani Mamba.
Cellphone images taken of the crash show the bloodied bodies of young women lying on the back of a flatbed truck.
The girls and young women were on their way to the Swazi king’s royal residence for the annual reed dance.
About 40,000 young women participate in the eight-day reed dance ceremony in which they sing and dance, usually bare-breasted, as they bring reeds to reinforce the windbreak around the royal residence. During the reed dance, the king often selects one of the young women to become one of his wives. Swaziland is polygamous and the king has more than a dozen wives.
“We all have heard about the dark cloud that has befallen the ‘imbali,'” said King Mswati III, using the Swati language word for flower, used to refer to the groups of women dancers.
Speaking Saturday at the opening of an international trade fair in Swaziland’s economic center Manzini, the king promised that the affected families would be compensated. He added that an investigation into the accident was underway.