Give us this day the rain

2012-10-20 18:10

The rain had already come down hard the night before the Balobedu gathered for their annual traditional ceremony to summon the rains.

One of two marquees set up to accommodate guests for the day’s festivities was almost swept away in the storm.

But the next morning, last Saturday, as Balobedu elders began beating sacred cowhide drums signalling the beginning of the rituals, the rain suddenly stopped.

Under a dark grey sky pregnant with rain, a group of barefoot elderly women draped in traditional cloths and blankets emerged from the lapa opposite a rondavel where the regent Mpapatla Modjadji received important guests to perform a traditional rain dance known as lesoko.

They moved slowly, forming a circle, singing a haunting salutation to the gods in the Khelobedu language in an open field facing the two marquees where guests sat watching.

Now and then, they paused to kneel down, cupping their hands and tilting their heads sideways.

They clapped their hands rhythmically as if beating drums, with silver bangles on their wrinkled wrists and an outbreak of enthusiastic ululation adding a beautiful melody.

As the procession retreated back to the lapa, a chorus of ululation echoed through the village of Khethlakone, where the Balobedu, subjects of the legendary Rain Queen Modjadji, have gathered every October for the past two centuries to perform rituals they believe bring the rains.

The elders’ performance was merely a glimpse into the rain-making rites, which begin in early October when the Balobedu pay homage to the gods at the royal cemetery.

The rituals take place at different locations during the course of the month.

But in keeping with the clan’s reputation of jealously guarding the rain-making secrets, outsiders are not allowed into the kraal where the main rituals are conducted.

As part of the rituals, royal elders spill traditional beer, called Mophapo, and spear an assegai through it. A special cow, named Mokgadi, is then made to drink it.

The sacred rites are performed at a shrine – a small, leafless tree encircled by a wall. The tree is left to grow for 30 years, then removed and another one planted.

Oxen and goats were sacrificed for the big occasion the previous day, the aroma of meat and pap emanating from big three-legged pots.

The weatherman had forecast cloud and thundershowers for Tzaneen, the nearest town.

All day long, the sky grew ever darker, but still the heavens wouldn’t open.

“We turned it (the rain) off this morning,” Phetole Mampeule, a royal elder, said when asked if it would rain. “It won’t rain until we are done with what we are doing today.”

Traditional leaders and politicians addressing the 500-strong gathering used the platform to call for a return to traditional cultural values.

They also called for government to give other traditional leaders the same treatment that Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini enjoys.

A storm of a different kind is now brewing over the Balobedu.

The Modjadji Tribal Council has asked the Kgatla Commission of Inquiry, instituted by President Jacob Zuma earlier this year, to investigate their claim for the restoration of their leader to the status of queen.

In 1972, the apartheid regime stripped the then Rain Queen Makoma Modjadji of her powers, reducing her title to that of chieftainness.

Villages and indunas under her jurisdiction were incorporated into the Lebowa and Gazankulu homelands.

The Balobedu trace their lineage of queens back 400 years to the Lozwi and Monomotapa kingdoms in present-day Zimbabwe and Zambia.

They have made submissions to the Kgatla commission in a bid to have their kingdom restored.

Mampeule said the Balobedu are also battling to have their language, Khelobedu, which was wrongly assumed to be a dialect of Northern Sotho, made one of South Africa’s official languages.

“Our children struggle in school because they are taught in Sepedi while at home they speak Khelobedu.

Also, we cannot claim to be a kingdom when we speak a language that is not our own,” said Mampeule.


In keeping with changing times, the Balobedu have lined up other activities to coincide with the rituals.

Phetole Mampeule, a member of the Modjadji Royal Council, said these include a golf day, and a jazz and cultural festival to raise funds for the queen’s bursary fund.

The fund helps matric pupils in 150 villages spread out in the rolling valleys of Ga-Modjadji.

It did not rain in Khetlhakone that day, but torrential rains soaked much of the northern parts of the country.

Perhaps the rain gods had finally answered the Balobedu’s pleas for blessings.


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