The Rain Queen or Modjadji is the hereditary queen of Balobedu, a people in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. The succession to the position of Rain Queen is matrilineal, meaning that the Queen’s eldest daughter is the heir, and that males are not entitled to inherit the throne at all. The Rain Queen is believed to have special powers, including the ability to control the clouds and rainfall. Queen Modjadji is a direct descendant of the once powerful royal house of Monomotapa, which ruled over the Karanga people in Zimbabwe in the 15th and 16th centuries.
There are several different stories relating to the creation and history of the Rain Queens of Balobedu. One story regarding the creation and history of the Rain Queen states that an old chief in 16th century Monomotapa (South eastern Zimbabwe), was told by his ancestors that by impregnating his daughter, Dzugundini, she would gain rain-making skills. Another story involves a scandal in the same chief’s house, where the chief’s son impregnated Dzugundini. Dzugundini was held responsible and was forced to flee the village. Dzugundini ended up in Molototsi Valley, which is in the present day Balobedu Kingdom. The village she established with her loyal followers was ruled by a Mugudo, a male leader, but the peace and harmony of the village was disrupted by rivalries between different families, and therefore to pacify the land, the Mugudo impregnated his own daughter to restore the tribe’s matrilineal tradition. She gave birth to the first Rain Queen known as Modjadji which means; ‘ruler of the day.’
Droughts are common in southern Africa, but when the rain does fall there are excellent opportunities for grazing cattle and developing agriculture. So it is not surprising that one of the most critical threats against the well being of a southern African rural society was failure of the rains. Whilst many of the Sotho speaking groups of southern Africa have a supreme being who is ultimately responsible for the weather, rain rituals are predominantly directed towards the ancestors, and specifically to the ancestors of the chief – such rituals helped protect and legitimize chiefdoms. The chief’s ancestors were supposed to intercede on the people’s behalf, and drought would occur when they were negligent. The Modjadji is considered to be the living embodiment of the rain goddess and is also known by the title Khifidola-maru-a-Daja (‘transformer of clouds’). She is considered the embodiment of the rain, guarantor of the yearly seasonal cycle, and her very emotions are said to be paralleled by the weather. Amongst her other royal duties she presides over an annual rain ceremony held each November.
The annual rain-making ceremony is held at her royal compound in Khetlhakone Village. The land of Modjadji, the Rain Queen, is an impressive setting of ancient baobab trees, untouched bushveld, breathtaking mountain ranges, and an abundance of wild creatures, flora and bird-life to compliment this treasure chest of enchanting legends, myths and culture. The Kingdom of Modjadji comprises of a rural community of over 150 villages. The Balobedu Kingdom has a population of more than a million people. The Rain Queen’s mystical rain making powers are reinforced by the beautiful garden which surrounds her royal compound. Surrounded by parched land, her garden contains the world’s largest cycad trees which are in abundance under a spectacular rain belt. One species of cycad, the Modjadji cycad, is named after the Rain Queen. An archaeologist of the University of South Africa, Sidney Miller, has excavated the ruins of the original royal kraal. Archaeological finds in Lebweng village include stone foundations, pottery, and middens. In addition these ruins bear resemblance to the famous ruins discovered at Thulamela near Phafuri in the far north of the Kruger National Park and the Great Zimbabwe ruins in south-eastern Zimbabwe. It lends further credibility to the many legends about the origins of Ga-Modjadji.
Since 1800 there have been six Rain Queens. They are expected to remain unmarried and to bear at least one daughter by a royal relative. At the age of 60, when their powers are perceived to have waned, they are expected to commit suicide by poison – so achieving divine status – at which point the eldest daughter takes over as Rain Queen. She is not supposed to marry but has many ‘wives’ (these are not wives in the actual sense of the word; as a noble woman she has to have servants so these women ought be to called “the servants of the queen”), sent from many villages all over Balobedu Kingdom. These wives were selected by The Queen’s Royal Council and in general are from the households of the subject chiefs. This ritual of ‘bride giving’ is strictly a form of diplomacy to ensure loyalty to the Queen. The Rain Queen’s sexual partners are chosen by the Royal Council so that all of her children will have blue blood. However the Rain Queens are not expected to confine their sexual activities. In the past, the Rain Queen was only allowed to have children by her close relatives, probably to ensure that her children were of ‘pure blood’ although this probably meant the children may have displayed some genetic defects as a result of inbreeding.
Modjadji, whom author Sir Rider Haggard immortalizes in his novel She, has been revered far beyond the boundaries of her tiny kingdom, and according to legend many great kings, including Zulu king Shaka, have left her nation untouched, and often called on her for her awesome rainmaking powers. The first Modjadji was succeeded by her eldest daughter (fathered by Mugede) around 1850. Modjadji II, in turn, ruled until 1894. The second Modjadji is said to be the inspiration for H Rider Haggard’s excellent books. The third Modjadji was described by Jan Christian Smuts (prime minister of South Africa from 1939 to 1948) as “handsome and intelligent”. It was reported at the time by the news magazine ‘Time’ that she refused to drink poison and thus give up the throne “even at the age of 80” – she ruled for eight more years. It is believed by some that this action placed a curse on the Mudjadji bloodline.
The forth and fifth Modjadji reigned for much shorter periods – around twenty years each. The fifth Modjadji died on 28 June 2001, and was succeeded by her grand-daughter Makhobo, her daughter having already died. Makhobo was installed as Rain Queen on 11 April 2003 (it rained that day – supposedly a portentous occurrence) and ruled until 12 June 2005. She was only 27 years old at death (some say of Aids). Controversy still surrounds the life and death of the last Modjadji. Her son and daughter were not fathered by a ‘royal’ consort, and their official status was uncertain, which is why her daughter was not automatically installed as the new Rain Queen. A successor has still to be appointed. The present regent in Prince Mpapatla Bakhoma Modjadji.