The BaLobedu are responsible for the Modjadji Lodge on the African Ivory Route along with the BaPedi people. Their representatives are elected to the Modjadji African Ivory Route Primary Co-op Ltd. The Primary Co-op sends two representatives to the African Ivory Tourism Secondary Co-operative, who have outsourced the management of the Lodges to Transfrontier Parks Destinations. [nggallery id=9]
The BaLobedu or BaLobedu ba GaModjadji are a small tribe that form part of the South Venda branch of the larger group of Northern Sotho language speakers in Limpopo. Their language is Silobedu or Khilobedu, a non-Pedi dialect of Northern Sotho with similarities to Venda. As the BaLobedu people came from Zimbabwe, and are descendants of the Shona, their language contains sounds that Sesotho does not.
The BaLobedu migrated southwards from Zimbabwe many centuries ago. Their traditional residence is in the mountains of Bolobedu in the Limpopo Province about 111km from Polokwane. The central tribal village is Sehlakong. Approximately 1,2m BaLobedu now live in South Africa. About 54,4% of the population are women and almost 59% are less than 20 years old. Only 34% of the local population are between 20 and 59 years old and able to work, due to the migrant labour system in the area. Literacy is at 34% and approximately 20-39% of the population live in extreme poverty.
The BaLobedu worship and revere their ruler, the Rain Queen Modjadji or ‘Ruler of the Day’. A loose federation of 150 villages, they are united by their loyalty to the queen. Each village has a leader who represents the queen locally. The real political power is vested in the minority who are descended directly from the original BaLobedu (Kwevo) with a bush-pig or golove/muyane totem. The queen’s mace has a statuette of a wild big with the words Modjadji and Pula or rain engraved on it. The groups that are descended from the Sotho and Venda have kept their own totems.
An interesting connection has been discovered recently between the Rozvi/Kalanga people of Zimbabwe and the BaLobedu. They have the same praise lines Shai and Dewa and call themselves the people of Thobela as do the Rozvi/Kalanga. The rainmaking powers of the queen are the similar to those represented by the Njelele Shrine in BuLozvi in Matabeleland in Zimbabwe. The Rozvi have Jewish connections and this should be taken into account when discussing the rainmaking history of the BaLobedu.
When the original royal kraal at Lebweng was excavated by a South African archaeologist, Sidney Miller, it was found to include stone foundations, middens and pottery. The ruins are similar to those of Great Zimbabwe and those discovered at Thulamela near to the Parfuri Gate into the Kruger Park. This confirms the many legends about the Zimbabwean origins of the BaLobedu.[nggallery id=10]
To the BaLobedu, rain is symbolic of order in nature and is essential for rural people’s livelihoods. The Lobedu originally left northern Zimbabwe, when the first Rain Queen escaped from her family’s anger by fleeing south a couple of 100 years ago.
A Kranga princess living in the Land of the Kranga People who were the famous inhabitants of the Monomotapa Kingdom in the 16th Century, the Rain Queen was accused of having a child by with her brother. Fearing her father’s anger she fled with a few loyal followers and as she left she stole the magic tribal rainmaking medicines as she left. After many years of wandering, she and her followers found refuge in the Daja forest in a valley by the Molotostsie river. Her rain-making power is a life-giving force on which the fertility of the soil depends. An alternate version of the legend says that an old chief in the Karanga kingdom was told to impregnate his daughter Dzugundini so that she could receive rainmaking powers and use them to expand his wealth.
For nearly 200 years, the Dzugudini tribe grew and prospered in the Daja forest. By 1800, they were a large tribe and built a smaller Zimbabwe ruins with stone terraces as a place of worship.
Their chief was Mugodo, a descendent of the first Queen, who spoke with the ghosts in the depths of the forest. Troubled by fighting in his family and worried about how the tribe would survive, his spirits warned him that he should kill his sons to prevent them from killing him. The spirits told him to marry his daughter and impregnate her before he died so that she would become queen, thereby restoring the tribe to its matrilineal tradition.
Deep in the forest in a secret village she gave birth to a son, who was strangled. Her second child was a girl and the female dynasty had begun. When Mugodo died, Maselekwane who was descended from Dzugundini became Queen Modjadji I but remained completely secluded in the secret village, weaving magic spells. Nobody ever saw her and this secrecy and the stories that grew up around her increased her fame tremendously. The myth that she lives forever is unfortunately not true.
Her fame as a rainmaker spread and visitors began to visit to beg for rain. Her prophesies were widely accepted and revered. Queen Modjadji I was so respected that even the warriors, Shaka and Moselekatsi would visit her without weapons.
In 1854, she was succeeded by Masalanabo Modjadji II who was a white woman according to legend. She was immortalised in Henry Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and She (1887) and SJ Du Toit’s Di Koningin van Sheba of Salomo syn oue goudfelde in Sambesia (1898). Research done in 1921 by Eugene N Marais for Die Volkstem indicated that it was common knowledge according to the Rev Fritz Reuter of the Berlin Missionary Society, who worked for 40 years at the Medinigen mission station in Duiwelskloof, that the Queen was white with blue eyes and long brown hair.
She was inaugurated as a rain queen before she was twenty but during her rain became famous for her excessive cruelty. Chiefs from many regions visited her and gave her gifts to win favour in rainmaking. When Gabriel Buys, wanted to visit to confirm the stories about her skin colour, she had a black woman parade in her place and from then on always wore a veil and refused all interviews.
Lieutenant-Colonel Henning Pretorius was in command of a group of soldiers sent in 1880 to collect hut tax from tribes who refused to pay tax to the South Africa Republic in what was called the Maloboch Campaign. He forced a meeting with the White Queen Modjadji and she was brought to him on a litter that was completely covered with animal skin mats, while her people sang praise songs. He left without having achieved any result.
Research done since by anthropologists the Kriges, and published in the Realm of a Rain-Queen, indicates that Modjadji II did have a fair complexion which could have caused the legend. An honorary title that she used was the white-faced Mankhadeni, bright as the setting sun.
Legends indicate that the White Queen was a powerful ruler who commanded total obedience from her people. She converted to Christianity just before her death which apparently improved her temperament somewhat. However in 1894 she drank a traditional cup of poison and died. This is a tradition whereby the Queen as she approaches death elects her eldest daughter as a successor and then ingests poison.
In the early 1900s, the Mfecane took place and Queen Modjadji III moved her tribe to the Molototsi Valley where they established the current kingdom. The Mfecane was due to a long drought causing people to move to find food. The entire Sotho-Tswana region was in a state of turmoil and as one clan conquered another, they would be defeated by a third. The turmoil allowed the development of a powerful Zulu empire by Shaka from a decentralised pastoral society to a well organised nation with a large army. As much of African history has been recorded by Europeans as they arrived as they made contact with the people inhabiting the interior, it is important to remember that this may not have been an isolated event as the Portuguese arriving in the 16th Century recorded similar fighting and the weather patterns were not significantly different.
Queen Modjadji III, ruled for 63 years and was well-loved for her hospitality, wisdom and just decisions unlike the previous queen. She died in 1985 at 89 years old. During her time, the royal kraal of Modjadji became a national monument in 1936. It is in the Modjadji Kloof and has the largest number of Modjadji bread trees in its vicinity, in the world.
The rain queen has always been believed to be a very powerful magician who was able to control making rain for her own people and creating droughts for enemies. Traditionally she was appeased by visitors who brought gifts and tributes such as cattle or their own daughters to her so that she would less their areas. The name Lobedu or Land of Offerings is thought to reflect the loss of daughters to the queen through this practice. The daughters would become her ‘wives’ and thereby extend her power to surrounding villages. These were symbolic not actual wives and reinforced the queen’s unusual ability to control others.
Rain doctors advise the queen in her duties and are blamed if the rainmaking ritual doesn’t succeed. No success is initially blamed on the rain doctor and should the rain not come for a longer time, the assumption would be made that the ancestors are unhappy and must be placated with sacrifices.
The rain queen is not supposed to be seen in public and a male member of the royal family must act as proxy for her. He is appointed by the royal council and authorised by the queen. The private council consists of only royal family members. The proxy is expected to be a senior and very loyal member of the family. His only powers are those delegated by the queen and he is to report regularly as all decisions must receive her sanction before being final.
In addition, during the enforced year of mourning after the death of a queen, he acts as a regent or holder of the axe, Moswaraseepe. The current incumbent is Michael Modjadji who acts for the rain queen Modjadji V. The announcement of the Rain Queen’s death only happens after the year has ended.
The magical powers that the Rain Queen has are passed from mother to daughter as the years go by. The powers include being able to intervene in situation with spells and dances (such as the legobathele) during doughts and for general upkeep of the daily rituals.
In 1996 the reigning queen, Modjadji V, gave interviews to the media. She told them that her rituals begin in October. First she places water in a shrine in her palace and begs the ancestors to send the area rain. In November, a festival is held and traditional beer is brewed, poured on the ground and people drink the beer off the ground. The queen plays the traditional drums that sound the beginning of the rain dance.
A drought for a few years before this, was due to the young people who set fire to the traditional palace and in the process destroyed cultural items of value. The new modern palace was built and Queen Modjadji V laid each brick with her own hands. As soon as the beautiful new palace was completed, the drought ended and the rains returned.
The Queen lives in the Madjadji Village in the Bolobedu Mountains near to the holy Rain Forest and about 35km from Duiwelskloof in the Northern Province/Limpopo. The Weather Bureau in Pretoria has recognised her for her contribution to the recent good rains. Nelson Mandela honoured her with a visit and asked her what she would most like to have. She requested an agricultural college which is now in the valley below. Mandela also gave the Queen two cars for her own use.
Next to her home, is the Modjadji Cycad Reserve, which has the largest and oldest Cycad specimens on earth. The queen recognised that this was an important piece of land and donated it to the government, who established the Reserve of 530 hectares in Lebowa in 1979.
The plants in the reserve are fascinating, not least the cycad itself. Prehistoric mammal-like reptiles ate Cycads or Encephalartos transvenosus as part of their diet. Known locally as mofaka, this tree is a cone-bearing evergreen plant and occurs in warmer climates. The Modjadji cycad can reach 1013 metres and have 34kg cones on separate sex plants. Seeds are wind-pollinated and the large red-yellow female cones make them popular as a garden plant. Cycads are found in humid regions. If grown in a private garden in South Africa, a permit is needed to prove ownership. Many plants are traded in illegally.
The Modjadji cycads date back to the Mesozoic or Stone age (60 million years ago) when dinosaurs still walked the earth. They are living fossils and were eaten by prehistoric mammal-like reptiles. One of 29 known species of cycads in South Africa, this is the greatest concentration of one species in the world. Under the Queen’s protection, the Cycads form a pristine natural forest. Permits must be obtained to visit the Park as it is a protected area. The reserve has a museum, day trails, bird life and some wildlife. The Venda collect and eat an variety of stinkbugs found in on the cycads.
The Big Baobab is in Modjadjiskloof and is the largest in the world at 43m in circumference. It has been carbon-dated at 6000 years old and has been on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Once a baobab is older than 1000 years it begins to become hollow inside. Inside this tree is the famous Baobab Tree Bar and Wine Cellar which can accommodate 5 people at a time. The tree has both an ecological and historical importance and houses and feeds many animals and birds. On private land, it is protected by the landowners and open to tourists.[nggallery id=11]
Makobo Caroline Modjadji VI (1978-2005) was the 6th Balobedu Rain Queen. She was said to be able to control the clouds and rivers. Crowned in 2003, two years after the death of her grandmother and mother, she was at 25, the youngest Rain Queen in the history of the tribe. Known as ‘Transformer of the Clouds’, Queen Modjadji VI was the first queen to be regularly and often in the public eye.
It is said that Makobo accepted the crown reluctantly as she was perceived as too modern to be the next Rain Queen. During her reign the royal palace was filled with fighting. It was alleged that she refused to fulfill tribal traditions or to submit to the authority of the elders. Unlike earlier queens, Makobo had been educated, used a cell phone, watched TV, attended parties and had a boyfriend. There was a delay of two years before her election, after her grandmother and mother sudden deaths at the same time, due in part to her modern lifestyle.
The Rain Queen is expected to obey traditional rules such as isolation from society in the royal kraal with their ‘wives’ and interacting only with nobles selected by the royal council. A suitable man from the royal family is chosen for her by the Royal Council when she is ready to have children. The children produced by her ‘wives’ and herself are all considered to belong to the Rain Queen.
Makobo’s boyfriend and father of her second child, David Mogale, was rumoured to have lived with her in the Royal Compound but was ultimately banned from the village. Her two children have never been recognised by the Council. Makobo also appointed her own royal council and this caused conflict with the council of elders.
Makobo was respected because she was the correct descendent. She had the abilities of a Rain Queen but as her death two years after her coronation was so sudden, rumours have arisen. Some believe she died from heart break because she was forced to end her relationship. Others believe that she was poisoned by the previous Royal Council because she was too modern for the revered position as Rain Queen. The hospital officially said that chronic meningitis was the cause of death but some staff believe she died of AIDS.
After Makobo’s death, the two royal councils fought over who would bury her. The dispute had to be resolved by the premier of Limpopo at that time, Sello Moloto. To add to the conspiracy theories, her brother Mpapatla was last seen on the day of her death and has not been seen since. The funeral took place without his presence.
Makobo Modjadji VI was a member of the Zionist Christian Church and was buried in the Maolwe royal cemetery. The funeral was attended by thousands of people, including dignitaries, chiefs and politicians. Her daughter Masalanabo, was 5 months old at the time.
Timeline of rain queens
1800 – 1854: Maselekwane Modjadji I
1854 – 1895: Masalanabo Modjadji II
1896 – 1959: Khetoane Modjadji III
1959 – 1980: Makoma Modjadji IV
1981 – 2001: Mokope Modjadji V
2003 – 2005: Makobo Mdjadji VI
2007 to date: Prince Mpapatla Modjadji, is now Regent of the Lobedu tribe.
For the first time in over 300 years, a Prince Regent was selected as there were no female candidates that were acceptable to the BaLobedu. Makobo’s daughter, Masalanabo was born in 2004 to a man who was not royalty, Greater Letaba municipal boss, David Mohale. The late Rain Queen Makobo was Mpapatla’s niece .
Prince Mpapatla Modjadji, was born in 1981 and educated at Polokwane High School. He married his cousin, the Princess Mokgawa Modjadji, and has one daughter and one son. The son is Mattarapane Modjadji and was born in 2004. The daughter, Princess (name unknown) Modjadji was born in March 2007 in Modjadjiskloof and will conceivably continue the Modjadji Rain Queen line when she grows up.
The Lobedu’s sacred drums are used for the rain-making ceremonies of the Queen. The drums give mystical access to the ancestors who protect the welfare of the people. The Queen brought knowledge of rain-making, sacred drums, sacred bead-like charms and the iron hoe to the Limpopo.
Rain-making is a part of a strategy for daily living combining beliefs regarding nature and human behaviour with an intimate understanding of the art of diplomacy. Particularly in the past, a female ruler in Africa could not wage war but must through diplomacy protect her people with alliances to neighbouring and related tribes, leaders and royal groups. This she would do by ‘marrying’ daughters of the surrounding tribe’s leaders. Due to her rain-making prowess, the Queen could be assured of good relations with tribes from as far away as Zululand, Mozambique and Botswana.[nggallery id=12]
For a month each year in the spring, rain-making ceremonies and communications with the ancestors are held in the royal village. The ceremonies involve blessing the soil, ensuring an excellent harvest and the continuing well-being of the people and communities. Beer is brewed from sacred millet at this time in the correct traditional fashion.
The BaLobedu have a unique way of speaking to their God. A circle in their homes is drawn in the traditional fashion and they sit next to it and call out their ancestors names. Many traditional customs have fallen out of use due to the influence of missionaries in the area.
The BaLobedu traditional dances are the females sekgapa and the males dinaka. The dinaka dance is a traditional dance for all Northern Sotho speakers in gaSekhukhune, gaDikgale and BaLobedu areas. These dances are performed during traditional weddings and events.
3. She: A history of adventure by H Rider Haggard, 1887, Longmans, Green and Co, London