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 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.
Typical rain rituals in the time of drought would involve the sacrifice of a black bull (representing rain clouds), the use of powerful medicines (usually involving muti which contained human remains), and even the beating of royal graves with sticks (to berate the ancestors for not doing their job properly).
Rain medicine and rituals were also used to ward off hail and lightning – amongst the Zulu, special 'heaven-herders' would be sent out into the storm with weapons and shields to drive the lighting away. To the south, Xhosa chiefs would often employ San shamans (San family groups lived amongst the Xhosa, existing on charity) to intercede on their behalf.
However for the Lovedu of South Africa the Rain Queen, (Mudjadji), works her medicines alone.
Origins of the Lovedu Rain Queen
The Rain Queen is an integral part of Lovedu culture and history. Oral traditions have the Lovedu being formed by Dzugudini – the daughter of the chief of the Monomotapa (part of the Karanga Empire) who were based near Maulwi in Zimbabwe. Dzugudini fled south when she fell pregnant while still unmarried. Rather than face the wrath of her father the chief, Dzugudini and her followers started a trek which ultimately ended amongst the Sotho. She didn't travel, however, unprepared – Dzugudini's mother stole the chief's rain charms and sacred beads, and taught her daughter their use.
The first paramount chief of the Lovedu was Dzugudini's son, Makaphimo, who according to oral tradition set up his court at Khumeloni. He was aided by his younger brothers: Mahash, who was the first to sow seeds and developed the Lovedu's skill in agriculture, and Mudiga, who protected the homestead and drove off the lions.
The timeline given by oral tradition is imprecise, but it is believed that the separation of the Lovedu from the Karanga Empire took place in the early 1600s.
Makaphimo, the first in a line of male rulers which lasted until 1800, was succeeded by his son Muhale. Oral tradition names just a few others: Peduli, Khiali, and Mugede. Mugede was the last of the male line. With the royal rain-making abilities apparently in decline, Mugede decided to rejuvenate the process by committing incest with his daughter. The daughter became the first in a line of Lovedu Rain Queens, known by the ceremonial name Mudjadji, which means 'ruler-of-the-day'. Alternative spellings include Mujaji, Modjadji, and Modhadje.
The Mudjadji's Rule
Since 1800 there have been six Rain Queens. They are expected to remain unmarried (although they do take female 'wives') 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.
The Mudjadji 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 Lovedu Rain Queen maintained political power by 'marrying' the daughters of district headmen (such woman-to-woman marriages are also known amongst the Venda and Pedi). During the first half of the nineteenth century, the first Mudjadji was recognized as a significant 'power' in the region – her fame even acknowledged by the Zulu leader, Shaka kaSenzangakhona, who consulted her about drought in the Zulu kingdom.
The Royal Succession
The first Mudjadji was succeeded by her eldest daughter (fathered by Mugede) around 1850. Mudjadji II, in turn, ruled until 1894. The second Mudjadji is said to be the inspiration for H Rider Haggard's book She.
The third Mudjadji, (ruled 1894-1959) 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 (7 May 1951) 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 Mudjadji reigned for much shorter periods – around twenty years each. The fifth Mudjadji 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 controversy still surrounds the life and death of the last Mudjadji. 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.