She is old enough to be their grandmother, but, at 57, Ngipheni Ngcobo fitted in well with the thousands of bare-breasted Zulu maidens who flocked to Nyokeni Palace in Nongoma for the 24th annual Zulu reed dance on Saturday.
The reed dance was introduced by King Goodwill Zwelithini in 1984 to encourage young girls to abstain from sex before marriage. Ngcobo started attending soon afterwards.
She was once in love. Nearly 20 years ago, her fiance had even paid ilobolo for her, but his infidelity left her heartbroken. She vowed never to fall in love again.
“We had been seeing each other for 10 years, but we had never had sex. When I found out he was having an affair with another man’s wife, that was it for me. Maybe I would have understood if it had been just another girl, but did he have to do it with a woman who was married?”
Since then, Ngcobo, who looks a few decades younger than she is, has never been involved in a romantic relationship. Not that men don’t try to win her heart.
She is just too wary of contracting HIV/Aids from a relationship.
“The problem with men is they are after one thing and when they’re finished with you, they just move on. They have too much love and give it to too many women. That is why there are so many diseases. I’ve become strong and don’t get tempted.”
A school vendor by occupation, she is one of the mentors of Isimilo Samafuza, a Zulu cultural group that conducts virginity testing every month among girls whose ages range from 7 to, well, 57.
This is at odds with the recently amended Children’s Act, which makes the testing of girls under 16 a criminal act.