The rain queens: South Africa’s female monarchs


The royal dancers entertaining visitors at the Balobedu royal ground where visitors are only allowed to enter barefoot. PHOTO | ANNIE NJANJA

Beautifully-adorned women who form the Modjadji Kraal Royal Dancers welcomed us to the Balobedu Kingdom of the Rain Queen, tucked away in the hilly region of South Africa’s Limpopo Province.

Here, the dancers dressed in traditional regalia that bore a mix of orange, white and baby blue colours, led us to the entrance of the monarchical homestead, all the while chanting welcoming tunes while pounding the ground harder as the beats to the song got more tempting.

We followed behind, eager to learn about a Kingdom that had been under the rule of women for centuries.

The walk through the narrow entrance took about three minutes mainly because the dancers kept pacing back and forth to emphasise the beat and thrill of the music.

Moshakge Nerwick Molokwane, the royal council secretary and the cultural tour guide, then informed us that we needed to remove our shoes before proceeding to the royal compound.

Footwear was banned from the homestead in the belief that some visitors would use them to hide charms that would affect the Modjadji’s power to make rain. In the Balobedu society, the queen is traditionally believed to have powers that bring rain to her people and drought to enemies.

The Balobedu people originally came from Zimbabwe and only settled in their present location after they were given a space by the South African community residing in the hilly region of Modjadjiskloof, neighbouring the Modjadji Cycad Reserve.

The empire began in the 16th century when the chief’s daughter Dzugundini fled the Kingdom of Monomotapa in south-eastern Zimbambwe after falling pregnant.

One version of the story says that her father impregnated her to give her rain making skills while another states that she ran to escape shame of carrying her brother’s child. Her mother would help her along and even secretly packed rain-making charms for her.

Dzugundini established the Balobedu Kingdom with her royal followers and bore the son around 1600AD who was later to become one of the six male leaders to rule Balobedu over two centuries. Power was passed down to first born sons, until the fifth King Keale broke the pattern by choosing a successor outside the pattern .

“During that time kings were allowed to marry many wives and there is a point where king Keale’s sons would have affairs with his wives who were younger than them and this made him very angry and he devised other methods of recruiting his successor,” said Molokwane.

Kaele groomed his youngest son, Mokoto, and shared secrets of the kingdom’s hut-opening ceremony. In those days, a special hut was built in the royal Kraal and anyone who could open it, male or female, became the leader-in-waiting. In earlier generations, the first born sons had prior knowledge on what to do, hence the easy succession.

Armed with inner secrets, when the time to pick a new king came, Mokoto was the only one that could open the door and he became the royal successor.

When Kaele died, Mukoto was too young to be presented as king and as his brothers threatened to kill each other, he taught his sister Modjadji the secrets of the door, and thus the first woman leader of the Balobedu Kingdom was installed.

The Kingdom has been ruled by six rain queens’ between 1800AD and June 12, 2005 when Makobo Modjadji died after an illness, leaving behind a five -month-old daughter who was too young to assume the role. Currently, the successor’s uncle is taking her place until she is of the rightful age to assume power.

“The queen is currently away at school and the uncle took over until she is of the right age and completes her studies. Once the royal council thinks she is fit for duty she will then go through the initiation process,” he said.

While the queen’s ranking is highest in the kingdom made up of 128 villages (four chiefdoms), the royal council makes key decisions in the kingdom, seeking her counsel whenever necessary. The royal council also acts as advisers to the queen on pertinent matters. She also presides over important traditional ceremonies like the annual rain-making dance.

The Rain Queen is supposed to avoid all types of distractions, and as such, is not allowed to have a husband. The royal council picks a suitor on her behalf and the man is only allowed to visit her house at night.

She is known to spread her influence through her “wives” — women that she handpicks from the village to help out in her daily chores.

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