18 June 2014 by Willem Steenkamp

The misty, magical story of Modjadji, the Rain Queen

Rain Queens have for two centuries ruled their people in an area of Limpopo that is also home to unique cycad trees – one of which, found only there, is named for Modjadji, the name successive Rain Queens take.

The misty mountains at the Modjadji Cycad Reserve, close to the royal kraal of the Rain Queen

Set in the majestic green mountains just north of Tzaneen, in Limpopo, is the seat of South Africa’s only matrilineal – and most secretive – dynasty: the royal kraal of Modjadji, the Rain Queen of the Balobedu people.

How the Balobedu settled in this area four centuries ago and formed their own, unique society, is a tale of incest and strife, of mysticism and ritual, says Moshakge Nerwick Molokwane, Secretary to the Balobedu Royal Council.

He relates how the Balobedu broke away from and fled the ancient kingdom of Monomotapa (Mutapa) in south-eastern Zimbabwe after the king’s daughter, Dzugundini, was impregnated by her brother. As in most societies, incest was taboo – and in this case, also punishable by death.

Moshakge Molokwane explains the rainmaking ritual, at the shrine where it is performed in the Rain Queen's royal kraal

Critically, says Molokwane, Dzugundini’s mother stole several rainmaking charms – ostrich and other red and blue beads, and a piece of an assegai (spear) – so that her daughter and her followers ‘would always be prosperous’.

The fugitives settled in the mountainous area that is now known as Modjadjikloof. Although the surrounding district is relatively dry, a mist belt here has resulted in the only pure cycad tree forest in southern Africa. The Modjadji Cycad Reserve, nearby the Rain Queen’s kraal (homestead), is the exclusive home of Encephalartos transvenosus, a species also called the Modjadji cycad.

Dzugundini’s son, Makalipe, was born around 1600. He would be the first of six male rulers of the Balobedu over the next two centuries.

It was during the reign of the fifth king, Keale, that the seeds of the matrilineal royal family were sown. Keale, a polygamist, was angered when some of his older sons showed inappropriate interest in his younger spouses. He decreed that succession would not automatically go to the oldest son, but rather through teachings and the approval of the ancestors.

Keale taught his youngest son, Mokoto, the Balobedu rainmaking rituals. And when he died, the Balobedus’ traditional hut-opening ceremony was held. According to Molokwane, a hut is built in the royal kraal; the person, male or female, who is able to open the hut, will be the royal successor.

‘The ancestors have decided, that is the successor,’ says Molokwane, who adds that the will of the ancestors is never questioned.

But Mokoto, a boy at the time, was not universally accepted as the sixth king. His own sons later threatened to kill each other, so he secretly trained his daughter, Modjadji, in the rainmaking rituals. After he died in 1800, it was Modjadji who opened the hut.

‘This one was the chosen one,’ says Molokwane. ‘Modjadji succeeded her father.’

Modjadjikloof, the home of the Balobedu people

Modjadji ruled for 54 years and was succeeded by her only daughter, Masalanabo. But Masalanabo was childless, which created a succession problem.

However, the Rain Queen traditionally takes ‘wives’ – in effect, ladies-in-waiting – from four royal families, and her ‘bride’ from the Makhubo family bore a son and a daughter. This girl, Khesetoane, acceded to the throne in 1895.

Khesetoane’s daughter, Makoma, became the fourth Rain Queen in 1959. Makoma’s only daughter, Mokope, became Rain Queen in 1981; she designated her second daughter, Makheala, as her successor, but Makheala died in 2001, two days before Mokope herself passed away.

Makheala’s daughter, Makobo, thus became the sixth (and youngest) Rain Queen. She took the throne in 2003, and light rain on the day of her coronation was taken as a good omen, but two years later she fell ill and died at the age of 27.

According to Molokwane, her nine-year-old daughter, Masalanabo, who was only a few months old when her mother died, will become the seventh Rain Queen when she turns 21. In the interim Masalanabo’s uncle, Prince Mpapatla, acts as the Balobedu regent – the first man to rule over his people, albeit in a caretaker capacity, in over 200 years. Rainmaking duties are handled by the women in the royal family.

And rainmaking remains at the heart of the Balobedu culture. ‘I trust and believe in my queen’s rainmaking powers,’ Molokwane states firmly.

The Balobedus’ precious rainmaking charms are ‘kept under lock and key’ until the first Saturday in October, when the Balobedu nation gathers at the royal kraal in the Bolobedu district. Shoes are strictly forbidden in the kraal.

A cycad, with its distinctive seed pods and fronds, in the Modjadji Cycad Reserve

A cow, named Makhubo, is led into the kraal. Beer is poured and praises are sung; the beer is offered to the cow. ‘When it’s had enough, it’s led out of the kraal with the other cattle,’ says Molokwane.

The remaining beer is taken to a special shrine adjacent to the kraal, where the rainmaking charms are laid out. Skins are laid out around the shrine, and mainly elderly people sit to one side. The beer is poured over the charms as the Rain Queen calls on the ancestors to make rain, and simultaneously the people praise the queen.

Once a complicated beer-drinking ritual is completed by those present, big drums are produced and songs for unity are sung, and the people dance around the shrine.

From there, the ceremony returns to the kraal, where the nation dances for the rest of the day. Children also take smaller drums and run around the village, singing, says Molokwane, adding: ‘When they pick a drum, we know it’s time to drink.’

Makhubo, the cow used in the rainmaking ceremony, also has a matrilineal heritage, says Molokwane. When she gives birth to a female calf, that calf then takes the Makhubo name, just as successive Rain Queens take the name of Modjadji, the first queen.

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