Mokope Modjadji V, known as the rain queen, died on June 28th, aged 64
POLITICIANS liked to visit the Northern Province of South Africa, one of the poorest parts of the country. It enabled them to blame their predecessors for the poverty there, and to receive applause for promising a better future. The province was also the home of the Bolebedu, a small tribe but with a rather impressive leader, Queen Modjadji V, the only female tribal leader in southern Africa, and perhaps the only one in the world with a reputation as a rainmaker.
In 1994, when F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, was dismantling apartheid, he had a chat with Queen Modjadji and said she was “deeply committed to peace”. Nelson Mandela visited her several times. The queen had not much cared for his movement, the African National Congress. When its representatives had turned up with its message of “a better life for all” they had received a whipping for not being respectful to traditional ways. Mr Mandela assured her that his government did not want to erode her authority as tribal leader. The queen pressed her advantage by asking for a road to the cave where she liked to practise her rainmaking rites. He said he would do what he could, and meanwhile made her a present of a car. Mr Mandela told reporters that his relations with the rain queen were “close”. He asked them not to question her. Like Queen Elizabeth, he said, “she does not answer questions”.
All this made readable stories, and Queen Modjadji became quite famous in South Africa. It turned out that she was not as reluctant to talk as Mr Mandela had said, although she asked for a small fee before granting an interview. In these sceptical days, she explained, there was less demand for her rainmaking skills, so times were hard. But did she really claim to produce rain to order? Of course, she told a disbelieving interviewer on television. Her appearance was followed by a downpour, an event all the more impressive because it had been preceded by a long spell of dry weather.
First take a royal lotion
Everyone said it was coincidence. Well, almost everyone. There is a mysticism about rain. Even in the unsentimental world of business, a rainmaker is someone who makes things work. The South African Weather Bureau took an interest in Queen Modjadji’s claims. It did seem she was good at predicting weather, a talent not all that rare among rural people, and perhaps more reliable in a country such as South Africa where weather is more strictly seasonal than, say, Britain’s. However, in the ceremony to make rain, a key ingredient apparently was a lotion obtained from the bodies of previous queens, something beyond the resources of the weather bureau.
The Bolebedu homeland does get a more reliable supply of rain than the surrounding area. This, say no-nonsense geographers, is because it is situated in a high valley in the Drakensberg mountains that enjoys a more favourable climate. Whatever the reason, the favoured area was never attacked by warriors of the Zulu and Swazi nations that once dominated much of southern Africa. Rather, they sent gifts to the Modjadji queen, requesting that she bring rain to their own domains at times of drought. She was thought to be an oracle and to will the death of anyone who displeased her. The queens were matriarchs. They mated but did not marry. Daughters were valued, and in the old days sons were killed off.
Queen Modjadji’s great grandmother, Modjadji II, was believed to be the model for the queen in “She”, a novel by Rider Haggard. He made her a white woman, presumably to satisfy Victorian sensibilities, but otherwise “She who must be obeyed” was up to her deadly African tricks, casting her spell over men in the Modjadji manner. Holly the Englishman describes his first encounter.
At length the curtain began to move. Who could be behind it? Some naked savage queen, a languishing oriental beauty?…She held the curtain aside with her ivory hand to let me pass in. I entered, shuddering…The place was softly lit…and the air and curtains were laden with subtle perfume. Perfume seemed to emanate from the glorious hair and white-clinging vestments of She herself. “Sit,” said She, pointing to the couch. “As yet thou hast no cause to fear me. If thou hast cause, thou shalt not fear for long, for I shall slay thee. Therefore let thy heart be light.”
She had lived seemingly forever, although Holly assured readers that she was a good-looker. Queen Modjadji did not complain of her more modest lifespan: as a practitioner of reincarnation she assumed that she and her magical powers would pass into another person. This was to have been her daughter, Princess Makhaele, but she died suddenly a few days before her mother. Her subjects will now have to decide who is to be the new queen of the Bolebedu.
At the funeral of the mother and daughter this week the premier of the Northern Province spoke of the queen’s 20-year reign during which numerous schools had been built in her territory. Then, turning to less earthly matters, he noted that there had been a recent eclipse of the sun, plunging parts of southern Africa into darkness. “I think,” he said, “the African heaven chose to mourn her demise in this spectacular way.”