LUDZIDZINI ROYAL VILLAGE, Swaziland (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of bare-breasted virgins competed for Swaziland King Mswati III's eye on Monday in a traditional Reed Dance.
Walking through the dense crowds in a leopard skin loin cloth, Sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch was expected to choose his 14th wife.
Critics say Mswati, who has courted controversy for his lavish lifestyle while two thirds of his subjects live in poverty, sets a bad example by encouraging polygamy and teenage sex in a country where about 40 percent of adults live with HIV.
Some of the women did not seem to mind, hoping to escape from the southern African nation's hardships for the easy life.
"I came here to dance. I wish the king would have chosen me because it's nice at the king's place. The wives live a nice life," said Tenene Dlamini, 16, in a traditional brown skirt.
"Everything is done for them. They don't work. They earn."
The Reed Dance has been a big date on the Swaziland cultural calendar since Mswati began the ceremony in 1999.
But he may not be as relaxed this year among the throngs of young half-naked women.
Political groups seeking democratic reforms have become more active in a country where the opposition has been effectively banned since 1973 by royal decree.
They are critical of plans to hold next weekend's celebrations of the king's 40th birthday in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Swaziland's independence from Britain.
Still, some of Swaziland's women came to the Ludzidzini Royal Village to show their admiration for the monarch.
"I respect the king and I respect my culture," said Nontobeko Sdidlamini, 16, carrying a shield made of animal skin and wearing an orange bracelet which read "Sex Can Wait".
Some said they would not want to be part of a polygamous arrangement with the king and were taking part in the ceremony to prove their virginity. Others fear they lost out.
"My sister is the king's tenth wife. I don't think he can choose me because he has already chosen my sister," said Zandisile Ntentesa, a 21-year-old prison employee.
The king, flanked by bodyguards with pistols and sticks, may face pressure from emboldened critics. But he can take comfort from the wealth which wins him tributes and songs at the reed ceremony.
Last month, Forbes magazine listed him as the 15th-richest monarch in the world. He was the only African on the list.
During the reed festivities, one of the king's wives drove up in a fancy BMW. Policemen told people to look the other way.
(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Giles Elgood)