Ancient rituals beckon the rain

2010-10-16 10:04

Modjadji royals call on ancestors to bring relief to drought-stricken areas.

There is not a single rain cloud in sight as dawn breaks over Khetlhakone.

The stark blue sky above the village points to a swelteringly hot day ahead.

This is the day on which the people of Khetlhakone in the kingdom of Modjadji, 100km east of Polokwane in Limpopo, are supposed to summon the rains.

The palace is perched at the ­summit of a great hill reached on a meandering­ tarred­­ road that twists and swerves in gentle curves, as if it was deliberately built this way to make the drive up to it slow and smooth.
 
The Balobedu people have gathered here every October for the past two centuries to perform rituals they believe bring the rains, and to continue­ this tradition they have gathered here again.

It is said even the great King Shaka of the Zulus sent a delegation bearing­ gifts for the rain queen, Maselegwane Modjadji, who reigned from 1800 to 1845.

The Balobedu’s rainmaking ­abilities have always been one of those issues that sparks fierce ­debate among those who believe in it and those who don’t.

But standing in the main kgotla at the centre of the royal palace – watching elderly women pound on massive cowhide drums fashioned from the trunks of baobab trees while young and old form a circle around them, clapping and dancing to the rhythm of the drums – it seems clear that to the Balobedu rainmaking is not a myth but an important­ aspect of their being, culture and religion.

Now and then someone breaks from the circle to perform impressive solo dance involving the stomping of feet and reciting of battle cries and praise names of the clan.

“Pula!” (rain) an elder calls out.

“Ha ene!” (let it come) responds the gathering.

It all started early that morning when the reigning regent Mpapatla Modjadji led members of the royal­ family to the sacred shrines of the palace.

Although Balobedu culture dictates that a woman leads the tribe, Mpapatla has been appointed a caretaker king after the death of his sister, Queen ­Makobo Modjadji VI, in June 2005.

Queen Makobo’s teenage daughter is being groomed to succeed her.

The sacred shrine is a small, leafless­ tree encircled by a wall.

It is here that the Balobedu elders perform rituals to appease their ancestors to summon rain to their land.
 
“That tree grows for more than 30 years and when it is old, we are instructed to remove it and plant a new one. The one you saw there is still new – about two or three years old,” says the royal council spokesperson, Clement Modjadji.

Shortly after 6am, a group of young girls mark the start of the ceremony by dancing their way into­ the royal household.

Later, royal elders spill traditional­ beer and spear an assegai­ through it. A special cow, named Mokgadi, is then made to drink the traditional beer, known as Mophapo.

All the royal families take part in the ceremony, and take turns hosting­ the same function in their households over four weeks.

The Balobedu are credited for the rain in Limpopo, where most of the biggest commercial farms in South Africa are situated.

Clement adds: “Those who take these things (our practices and rain-making ceremony) for granted are often punished by drought, while our area experiences heavy rains and turns green.”

In 2005 and 2006, the sky opened up hours after the rituals were performed.

However, most parts of the province have been ­experiencing drought that has led to the loss of livestock and crops.

More than a million people in more than 300 villages across Mopani have been sharing unhygienic ­water with animals because there are no boreholes and water pumping machines need repairing.

Empty drums are still the reason for long lines in most of the Balobedu’s villages. But Modjadji ­insists the Balobedu are still ­capable of ­producing rain.

Their rainmaking powers are undermined­, he adds, by those who fail to observe the rituals by not following royal instruction during the October­ rainmaking ceremony.

“We have seen it. It happens. It rains. We believe once we do this ritual and follow the ancestors’ instructions­, such as planting ground nuts at Christmas time, we are definitely going to get rain,” says Clement.

“The process is not in danger. But people who defy it will be in danger.”

It remains to be seen when the rains do eventually come, whether people will simply attribute­ it to one of nature’s ­wonders or offer thanks to the ­Balobedu for bringing the ­showers.

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