A visit to the village of the Rain Queens in Limpopo province, South Africa – By Odile Jolys
The rain rituals still followed in the northwest of the country show that old traditions can go along with modern democracy. Even practicing Christians keep up the old ways.
The village shows no sign of luxury. Families here have electricity but share their water supply. Maize kernels, peanuts and spinach leaves are laid out to dry on the floors of the mud houses. Kept away from the public eye, a five-year-old girl is growing up – the future Rain Queen Modjadji VII. Her mother died at the age of 27, a few months after Modjadji’s birth.
You must be barefoot to go into the round meeting-place at the entrance to the village. This sandy space, surrounded by a thorny hedge, is where the grand rain ceremony takes place every year in October, when spring comes to South Africa. “Anyone can come,” says Ballpen Molokwane, a member of the royal family.
The ritual is performed by the queen or the regent. Its focus is Makobo, a holy cow. The animal is named after the woman who once bore a child to an infertile king; it embodies the ancestors who are being asked to send rain. In these people’s faith, the dead remain in the world. They can wreak havoc and they can bring blessings; and they are the spokespeople for mortals before God.
The cow is drenched with beer and praised by the people. They drink and dance, drum and sing until the queen closes the ceremony. Molokwane loves going to the festival – “This is my tradition, even though I was christened a Lutheran,” he says.
If the spring rains do not come, Modjadji withdraws to the holy forest – where the ancestors are buried – for secret rituals. But if too much rain falls (as it did in 2000, when nearby Mozambique was inundated) the women of the clan ask their queen in song and dance to stop the precipitation.
They say here that even the mighty King Shaka, who fought for the independence of the Zulu nation in the 19th century, feared the power of the Rain Queens.
Today’s Rain Queen is no figure of myth. She is among the traditional rulers whose rights are anchored in the South African constitution. They receive funding from the state and are included in local political processes. “The queen administers the land in the name of the people,” Molokwane explains. He is the secretary of the royal council, the institution that prepares decisions for the queen and to all intents and purposes, exercises power.
“We have a voice in how the land is used,” says the strapping old man. The power of traditional rulers has increased since the end of apartheid. President Jacob Zuma has given them a key role in rural development. And to defuse criticism of their legitimacy, democratic rules for the composition of traditional councils have been enshrined in law.
In Limpopo the effects of climate change are tangible. Less rain falls, and it is less regular. Yet that does not diminish respect for the Rain Queen. The rain ritual is part of the faith in nature that has been handed down through the generations. “It is like a prayer,” says our guide, Oubaas James Ndhlovu. “If the desired outcome does not eventuate, we ask ourselves what we did wrong.”
The ritual follows a strict code, which sets out which hand may be used to lift the beer bowl and what to do when the holy cow dies. It says who may eat which parts of the animal, for the smallest deviation from the old laws could anger the ancestors.
The last queen broke with tradition. She had a public relationship with the man she loved – but that is something the queen is not allowed to do. She is only allowed to receive selected men in the dark, and their identities remain secret. “Modjadji VI’s lover made a claim on her,” says Molokwane. “But she must serve her people. For that reason alone, some people wanted to kill him.”
Times have changed, and the old man regrets what is happening. “Young people have fallen under Western influence,” he says. “Traditions are being lost.” But Oubaas James Ndhlovu believes that, for a majority of the people, the young democracy and the old customs are not at odds. However, the legitimacy of the Rain Queen will also be measured according to her ability to improve conditions in her region. Many of the Balobedu have moved away, looking for work. There is no longer enough rain to ensure a good life for everyone.
For that reason, much hope is pinned on tourism. Yet so far, few visitors stop at the Modjadji Nature Reserve to admire the majestic ancient cycads that grow here. There are no hotels or restaurants, and tourist guides touch only lightly upon the mysterious history of the Rain Queens – before taking their groups on to the world-famous Kruger National Park.
Yet maybe that will change when the Balobedu kingdom is officially recognized. Molokwane is confident. “President Zuma has promised to announce the decision soon,” he says. After all, the South African navy has named a new submarine after the Rain Queen. The SAS Queen Modjadji is already on patrol in the Indian Ocean, helping to protect South Africa from terrorist attack. And that is something Molokwane is very proud of.
Source: The African Times