“Balobedu – Ba Lobedu – Lovedu – Balovedu”
Who are the Lobedu ?
The Balobedu (Ba Lobedu – Ba gaModjadji) are a Bantu tribe of the Northern Sotho group, with strong affinities to the Venda, or Vhavhenda, to the north. They have their own kingdom, in the district of Balobedu – Limpopo Province – South Africa.
The Lobedu Kingdom comprises over 150 villages. Each has a headman who represents the Modjadji, or Rain Queen. The central Lobedu tribal village is Sehlakong.
Sidney Miller, an archaeologist of the University of South Africa, excavated the ruins of the original royal kraal at Lebweng. Archaeological finds include stone foundations and pottery.
These ruins also bear resemblance to those discovered at Thulamela near Phafuri in the far north of the Kruger National Park, as well as the Great Zimbabwe ruins in south-eastern Zimbabwe. This lends credibility to the many legends about the origins of the Lobedu Kingdom.
The Balobedu speak Lobedu or “Khilobedu”, which is grammatically similar to both Sesotho and Tshivenda. The Kingdom is situated between the Venda, other North Sotho speaking peoples and the Tsonga-Shangaan. Khilobedu has become more similar to Sesotho since Sesotho became the language of the schools in the region. However, Balobedu culture originated to the north, in what is today Zimbabwe. The language contains sounds that do not exist in Sesotho.
Balobedu have their own way of praising and talking to their God. They sit next to a traditionally designed circle in their homes, then start calling the names of their ancestors to ask for luck. However, missionary influence has caused many traditional customs to be discarded.
Balobedu have their own traditional dances called sekgapa for women and dinaka for men.
The Rain Queen – Modjadji
Modjadji or the “Rain Queen”, is the only traditional ruling queen in Southern Africa. Historically she was known as an extremely powerful magician, able to bring rain to her friends and drought to enemies. Her position as paramount ruler is based on this power. Modjadji have been feared and respected for centuries. Not a single African king would seek her wrath, fearing punishment meant drought. Shaka Zulu sent top emissaries to request her blessings.
Visitors to the area always brought Modjadji gifts and tribute, including cattle and their daughters as wives, to appease her so that she would bring rain to their regions. The custom is allied to an emphasis on fertility of the land and the population. The name Lobedu is thought to derive from the practice, referring to the daughters or sisters who were lost to their families. The Rain Queen extends her influence through her wives, because they link her politically to other families or villages. Her status as marrying women does not appear to indicate lesbianism, but rather the queen’s unique ability to control others.
During the Mfecane, which took place in the early 19th century, Modjadji moved her tribe further south into the fertile Molototsi Valley, where they founded the present day Kingdom.
Mfecane – Lifaqane – Difaqane
According to custom, the Queen must abstain from public functions, creating a mysticism fuelled by isolation. Modjadji cannot leave her kraal and very few people outside her royal village have seen her. She communicates to her people via her male councillors and village headmen and chiefs. Annual rainmaking ceremonies are meant to take place every year at her royal compound. The Royal Kraal is is located near Modjadjiskloof (Mujaji Kloof), formerly Duiwelskloof.
What the queen does to evoke rain is a matter enshrouded in the greatest secrecy. It is doubtful that anyone other then the queen is in possession of the secrets as they are bound up with the title and power to succeed to the throne. The secrets are always imparted to the successor just prior to the death of the chief, via a tradition of suicide. When a chief dies, her body is left for some days in the hut so that when rubbed in a certain way, the skin falls away. The skin is kept and later added with many other ingredients to mehago rain pots. From time to time a black sheep is killed, to be washed with water into these magical pots, but it is said that this is just a modern day substitute for a human being, usually a child, whose brains were used for the washing. The mehago pots are never seen by the public.
The Rain Queen is not meant to marry, but bears children by her close relatives. She is cared for by her “wives”. When she is near to death, she appoints her eldest daughter as her successor and ingests poison.
When a member of the royal family dies, the entire Lobedu nation mourns, and it is the women of this matriarchal society who dance away the grief.
For months after a death, hundreds of women head for the queen’s kraal. Villages representing five or six of the queen’s headmen come to mourn with their queen. The dancing starts in the early evening and continues until morning light.
It is every woman’s obligation to dance at the sacred kraal. After a death in the Modjadji’s family, each Lobedu village turns its drums upside down. Until they come to dance, the villages cannot play their drums and they cannot dance at home. If the women of a village do not make the pilgrimage to the queens kraal, they may not dance at any other traditional function and the village’s drum must stay silent.
Six Modjadji Rain Queens
Rain Queen Maselekwane Modjadji I (1800-54)
Rain Queen Masalanabo Modjadji II (1854-95)
Rain Queen Khesetoane Modjadji III (1896-1959)
Rain Queen Makoma Modjadji IV (1959-80)
Rain Queen Mokope Modjadji V (1981-2001)
Rain Queen Makobo Constance Modjadji VI (2003-2005)
According to legend, a Kranga chief named Mugodo was warned by his ancestral spirits of a plot by his sons to overthrow him. He had them killed and told his daughter Dzugundini, that according to the wishes of the sprits, he must marry her a father a girl child. By doing this he ensured that the new heir to his throne would be a Queen and thus a new dynasty of woman founded. The ancestors bestowed onto the princess rainmaking powers, which expanded the wealth of the kingdom. When Dzugundini gave birth to a son fathered by her father, the child was strangled. Her second child was a girl, which signalled the start of the female dynasty as follows.
Maselekwane Modjadji I (1800-54)
The child who became the first Modjadji was known as Maselekwane Modjadji I. She lived in complete seclusion, deep in the forest where she practiced secretive rituals to make rain. In 1855 she committed ritual suicide.
Masalanabo Modjadji II (1854-94)
Masalanabo Modjadji II succeeded her mother Modjadji I to become the second Rain Queen. Like her mother she never married the father of her children, but was cared for by a number of “wife’s”. The Queen was practically inaccessible to her people, appeared seldom in public and is said to have had the mystical power to transform clouds into rain. She committed ritual suicide in 1894 after having designated the daughter of her sister and great wife Leakkali as heir.
Khesetoane Modjadji III (1895-1959)
Khetoane Modjadji III became the third Rain Queen and reigned from 1895 to 1959. Khetoane was the daughter of Masalanabo’s “sister” and became heir, as Masalanabo’s council had designated this before Masalanabo’s death.
1959-80 Makoma Modjadji IV (1959 – 1980)
Makoma Modjadji IV was the fourth Rain Queen. She succeed her mother Khetoane Modjadji and reigned until death. Breaking from tradition, she married Andreas Maake, with whom she had several children. She was succeeded by her eldest daughter Mokope Modjadji.
Mokope Modjadji V (1981-2001)
Mokope Modjadji V was the fifth Rain Queen. She played a very traditional role, followed all the customs she was expected to follow and lived in seclusion at the royal compound in Khetlhakone Village. Mokope Modjadji met and became good friends with President Nelson Mandela. The first contact was in 1994, but Mandela could only speak to Mokope through the traditional intermediary. Later they became better friends after Mandela bought a Japanese Sedan to help her travel up the steep roads to her royal compound. Afterwards, he was able to meet her in person. Mandela noted that like Queen Elizabeth II, the Rain Queen Modjadji did not answer questions. Queen Mokope did not support the idea of an ANC Government as she believed that its anti-traditional ideas would dilute her authority. At the same time, she did accept an annual salary from the ANC government.
Mokope Modjadji had three children, and her designated successor was Princess Makheala. However Makheala died two days before her mother in 2001. Mokope Modjadji was 65 years old at the time. As a result, Princess Makheala’s daughter Makobo became the next Rain Queen.
Makobo Constance Modjadji VI (2003-2005)
Makobo Constance Modjadji VI was crowned the 6th Rain Queen on 16 April 2003 at the age of 25, after the death of her grandmother, Queen Mokope Modjadji. This made her the youngest Queen in the history of the Lobedu tribe.
Makobo was the only Rain Queen to be formally educated. As mentioned, her mother was the designated successor, but died two days before her grandmother Mokope Modjadji. On the day of the coronation, a slight drizzle fell which was interpreted as a good omen. The coronation was an elaborate ceremony but it is believed that Makobo only reluctantly accepted the crown.
Though respected for her abilities and lineage, Makobo was seen as too modern to be the next Rain Queen, which may have been why there was such a long delay before she was crowned. Custom dictated that rain queens live reclusive lives, hidden in the royal kraal with their “wives”. However Makobo Modjadji liked to wear jeans and T-shirts, visit nearby discos, watch soap operas and chat on her cell phone.
Modjadji also had a boyfriend, David Mogale, who was believed to have fathered her second child. He is the former municipal manager of Greater Letaba Municipality. He was rumoured to have moved into the Royal Compound. This caused great controversy with the Royal Council as the Rain Queen is only ever supposed to mate with nobles who the Royal Council themselves chose. Mogale was banned from the village, and the Rain Queen’s two children were never been recognized by the Council.
Makobo was admitted into the Polokwane Medi-Clinic with an undisclosed illness on the 10th of June 2005 and died two days later at the age of 27. There is a lot of controversy surrounding her death. Some villagers believe she died from a broken heart because her lover David Mogale was banned from the royal village. Mogale himself claims that the royal council poisoned Makobo as they saw her unfit to hold the much revered position of Rain Queen, and this was the easiest way to have her removed. Hospital staff believed she died of AIDS whilst others are concerned with the disappearance of Makobo’s brother Mpapatia, last seen on the day of Makobo’s death.
A fire broke out in the local chief’s house where Makobo’s coffin was being kept before her funeral. The fire was extinguished before Makobo’s coffin suffered any damage, but the event seemed to arouse more suspicions of foul play surrounding Makobo’s death.
Officially Makobo died of chronic meningitis.
End of a Dynasty?
There has not been a new Rain Queen chosen since Makobo died. Because Makobo’s daughter, Princess Masalanabo, is fathered by a commoner, the traditionalists are not likely to accept her as the rightful heiress to the Rain Queen Crown. Therefore, there are worries that the 200 year old Rain Queen dynasty may have come to an end.
The focal point of Lobedu culture is the Rain-Queens Royal Kraal and more specifically the khôrô. The khôrô is a circular arena at the centre of the royal kraal, which served as a meeting place. It was surrounded by a palisade of large poles, some figured, which were brought to the kraal by visitors in tribute to the Modjadji Queen.
Headmen from all the district are called up to provide poles for the Queen’s khoro when in need of renewal. This symbolized the solidarity of the Kingdom. Figured palisade examples were exclusive to the queens khôrô. Jurgen Witt of Tzaneen advised that craftsmen of particular skill carved the poles to distinguish their contribution to the khôrô.
The photographs “above left and lower right” were taken at the Rain Queen Royal Kraal insito. The two poles depicted in the upper right photograph were collected by Witt, as was the example to the lower left. Krige collected the carved pole, above right, with breasts.
The unique figure [above] was presented to Minister de Wet Nel during his meeting with the Rain Queen on the 22nd October 1959. At the time it was positioned near the center of the khôrô.