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Give us this day the Rain

The Balobedu people perform a traditional ceremony to ask the gods for rain:

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

A storm of a different kind is now brewing over the Balobedu. The Modjadji Trial Council has asked the Kgatle 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 queen
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 on 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

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

It did not rain in Khethlakone that day, but torrential rains soaked much of the northern parts of the country. Perhaps the rain gods had finally answered the Balobedu’s please for blessings.


Article: Published in City Press News Paper

Writer: Lucas Ledwaba

Photos: By Muntu Vilakazi

Dated: 21 October 2012







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