11 April 2003
The Balobedu people of South Africa have crowned their new queen. Traditionally, the ruler of the Balobedu is known as the Rain Queen, and she is revered by people far beyond the boundaries of her tiny kingdom for her legendary ability to bring rain to the drought-prone region.
The coronation was part sacred ceremony and part joyful celebration. The Balobedu people of northern South Africa have not had a Rain Queen since Queen Modjadji V died nearly two years ago.
Now, her 25-year-old granddaughter, Makobo, has ascended to the throne. She was crowned by King Mphephu, who rules the neighboring kingdom of Venda.
"May you enjoy many years of good life, and good relationship with your people, and that of South Africa at large," With those words, King Mphephu introduced the world to the new Rain Queen, Modjadji the Sixth.
It was raining as the ceremony began. Although the rain put a bit of a damper on the celebration, it is considered an excellent omen for the new queen.
Royal family spokesman Mathole Motshekga says the key to her authority is her legendary ability to make it rain in a region prone to long periods of drought.
"Every Rain Queen is seen as the intercessor or intermediary between the people, the royal ancestors, and the gods and God," he said. "So, she is the agent of the royal ancestors for bringing the rain. So she is responsible for all the rituals that have to be conducted to make sure it rains."
Queen Modjadji rules over a relatively small kingdom of about 150 villages. But for hundreds of years, the Rain Queen has been revered by people far beyond the boundaries of her tiny kingdom. According to legend, even the great Zulu king Shaka left her tribe untouched, although he conquered most of the neighboring tribes as he created the most powerful kingdom in southern Africa.
Mr. Motshekga says Shaka revered the Queen Modjadji's rainmaking abilities.
"In fact, Shaka used to send black cattle to pay tribute to Modjadji One, and he called her the rainmaker of rainmakers. Not only Shaka. Moshoeshoe [of Lesotho], the Swazis, all of the kingdoms in southern Africa paid tribute to her," said Mr. Motshekga.
The legend of the Rain Queen carries on to this day. Queen Modjadji V once famously kept the newly-inaugurated President Nelson Mandela waiting, and when she finally did agree to see him, he was only allowed to speak to her through an intermediary.
The Rain Queen is unique in many ways. Custom says she may never marry, but she can have children. Their fathers are selected by the royal council. She may also have a number of "wives," who are attendants sent to her by the chiefs over whom she rules.
Perhaps the most unique thing about the Rain Queen is that she is a queen, not a king. Most of the neighboring peoples are ruled by men, but the Balobedu have a maternal line of succession. Mr. Motshekga says many people can learn lessons of survival from the Balobedu and their female rulers.
"You know you have a woman dynasty that was established during wars between blacks themselves, and Europeans and blacks. And they held the kingdom together," he said. "When others collapsed, this one survived, and is still going on. So that says a lot about the capacity of women to rule. And also it explodes the myth of inequality between men and women."
At 25, the new Rain Queen, Modjadji VI, is not only the youngest ever crowned. She is also the first Rain Queen to have a formal education, and in a break from tradition, she has vowed to continue her schooling, possibly even accepting Mr. Mandela's offer to send her to university abroad.
Thousands of people from all over the country traveled to the remote mountain village where the royal family is based, to witness her coronation. The Balobedu and their guests will continue celebrating for several days. They have slaughtered 28 cows for the occasion.
The rain that fell at the coronation will be welcomed by many in South Africa's Limpopo Province, which has been suffering from drought. In fact, most of southern Africa has been experiencing a drought over the last two years. Queen Modjadji's more devout followers point out that the drought started around the time of the last Rain Queen's death.