By CLARE NULLIS
MBABANE, Swaziland (AP) -- The Swazi king, bare-chested and wearing a traditional leopard skin loin cloth, celebrated his 40th birthday and his nation's 40th independence day in lavish style Saturday - hosting an extravaganza that contrasted sharply with the biting poverty of his subjects.
King Mswati III toured the national stadium in an open-topped BMW to cheers and fluttering flags. Tens of thousands of Swazi maidens who had performed for the king last weekend at the annual Reed Dance were at the festivities, which included traditional dancing and Zulu drumming, as well as a full military parade.
Visiting heads of state were whisked into the stadium in a long convoy of luxury cars, purchased specially for the occasion. The loudest cheer was reserved for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who climbed out of a car with a "Zimbabwe" license plate to a standing ovation. The 84-year-old autocrat is popular in the region because he is seen as standing up to the West.
"I'm aware that many in the world might be wondering why we are so excited about the celebrations of our 40th anniversary," Mswati told the crowd. "The answer is simple. We are celebrating our nationhood."
Mswati is Africa's last absolute monarch. He is widely revered, but there is anger about the luxurious lifestyle practiced by him and his 13 wives.
The so-called 40-40 party was preceded by demonstrations against its excessive cost - officially put at $2.5 million, but widely believed to be at least five times more - in a country where 70 percent live below the poverty line.
Only one in four Swazis can expect to reach 40, according to the latest U.N. estimates, because of the AIDS virus that has infected nearly 40 percent of adults - the highest in the world - and left a generation of orphans.
For Celane, Menzi and Thembelinwe Sifundza, Saturday was a day like any other: rising at dawn to collect firewood, making the trek to the river for water and scraping together a meager meal. The three children, aged 15, 13 and 11, have coped on their own since the death of their mother and then their father in 2002.
Their two-roomed house in a desolate village is devoid of furniture, save an old table and two chairs. There's just a mattress and mat on the floor covered by two dirty blankets, with two iron cooking pots in the corner. The single candle holder doesn't even have a candle.
Thembie Manana, a neighbor who tries to help the children even though she struggles to feed and clothe her own family and is herself weakened by AIDS, laughed bitterly when asked about the celebrations.
"That's not for us," she said. "There's nothing for us."
Hundreds of HIV-positive women took to the streets last month in fury at a Dubai shopping spree by eight of the king's 13 wives to purchase birthday outfits, and the fleet of luxury cars bought to carry VIPs around.
Mswati made no reference to the unhappiness among his subjects in his 45-minute address. Instead, he urged the southern African nation's 1 million people to redouble efforts to boost the nation's growth and tackle the scourge of AIDS.
He also told foreign investors that Swaziland was a calm, peaceful and safe place for their money, and invited more tourists to visit the small nation surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique.
"We are telling a world full of prejudices that we are a happy nation in spite of the challenges that face us," he said.
Swaziland holds parliamentary elections later this month, but critics have dismissed them as a sham because political parties are banned. Voters have to choose from a list of individuals with no strong political platform.
Mswati urged residents to vote for people who can tackle Swaziland's huge problems. Many previous government officials have been criticized for serving only their own personal interests.
"We need people who take their responsibilities seriously," he said.
One in five Swazis now depend on international food aid, partly because AIDS has devastated rural areas and led to an explosion in child-headed households who can't tend the fields.
Life expectancy has nearly halved since 1998 because of the AIDS epidemic and is now less than 31 years, according to U.N. figures.
Nowhere was the gulf between the haves and have-nots more striking than at the "garden party" hosted by the king at the Queen Mother's palace after the stadium celebrations.
The sirens of high-speed police convoys pierced the late afternoon calm and a long procession of luxury cars lined up for the parking lot as southern Africa's elite made their way to a gourmet meal in a large marquee.
Just across the dusty road an even longer line of girls and young women - who have stayed in the Queen Mother's grounds since taking part in last weekend's Reed Dance - waited hungrily for their meal.
Fourteen-year-old Sonia Fakudza was typical. She said her father was dead and her mother tried to look after herself and her two brothers. Her house has water but no electricity and she walks miles to get to school.
Despite the deprivations, she said she was proud of her Swazi culture and enjoyed dancing bare breasted for the king at last weekend's Reed Dance and at Saturday's ceremony.
"It's been a lot of fun," she said, a big beam lighting up her face.