Modjadji the Rain Queen, "She Who Must Be Obeyed"

South of Venda is the land of Modjadji, the rain queen who inspired H. Rider Haggard's immortal "She". Modjadji means "ruler of the day", and this queen was said to be both immortal and white. In truth, an ailing queen would commit suicide with poison said to be made from the brains and spinal cords of crocodiles. It was through her successor that she would live forever. This sort of immortality was the subject of Frazer's classic The Golden Bough. Modjadji's pale skin was due to her being kept in darkness, so that even most of her own subjects would never see her.

Chieftainess of the BaLovedu, or Lobedu tribe, Modjadji joined with the VhaVenda and BaTlou tribes in their struggle against the Boers, during the nineties of the nineteenth century. Until her defeat, no white man had ever seen her.

The BaLovedu tribe was founded by Dzugudini, a rainmaking princess of Zimbabwe's Karanga tribe. In the sixteenth century, she fled with her followers to the Daja Forest on the Molototsi River. Until the early nineteenth century, the ruler of the tribe was usually a man. Then, a chief called Mugado had visions, and executed his own sons. He married his daughter, and any male children were strangled shortly after birth. By this incestuous relationship, a dynasty of queens was founded. Modjadji may not marry a man, but has a number of "wives". Her children are fathered by royal consorts.

Modjadji became the most powerful rainmaker in Southern Africa. Even the mighty Zulus feared and respected her, and gave her the name Mabelemane ("four breasts"). They were certain that the fertility and richness which she brought to the earth would be mirrored in her own body.

The necessary rituals are usually performed in October. The rain comes at a price. The magical medicine once included the brain of a sacrificed child. Nowadays, a goat is considered sufficient. The skins of dead rain queens and their counsellors were also used. Apparently, after a corpse is left for a few days, the skin comes away easily in skilled hands. A human skull is used in the ritual, as are "gomana" drums, which help to summon the rain. The medicine is stored in pots called mehago. When the medicine is burned in magical horns, the smoke rises into the sky and seeds rain clouds. While the magical horns are placed on the ground, rain continues to fall. When Modjadji wishes the rain to stop, she hangs up the horns.

Modjadji reigns from her capital, which is also called Modjadji. However, she is rarely seen by tourists, unless special arrangements are made. The old queen Modjadji "died" in June 2001, but will live on through her successor.

Near the village is a sacred forest of unique Modjadji cycads.

South of Modjadji's realm is Duiwelskloof ("Devil's Gorge"). I remember reading that it was named after a demon, but another explanation is that the name stuck because ox wagons had a tendency to become trapped in the muddy roads of the area.

Further south is Magoebaskloof ("Makgoba's Gorge"). The BaTlou tribe refused to pay taxes to the South African Republic (later called The Transvaal). Less skilled in bushcraft, by African standards, the Boers could not overcome the BaTlou in their forested mountain stronghold. Instead, in 1895, they hired Swazi mercenaries, who eventually trapped the BaTlou. In true Rob Roy fashion, the Swazi captain promised to spare the BaTlou, if their chief, Makgoba (Magoeba), agreed to meet him in single combat. The old chief fought bravely, but was killed. His head was cut off by the Swazis, to show to the Boers. The BaTlou paid their taxes, but the Boers were sufficiently moved to immortalise Makgoba, when they named the area.

Nearby is the beautiful Debegeni waterfall, on the Ramadipa, or Politsi River. The falls form a succession of cascades over a sloping rock, sometimes used by brave souls as a water slide. The pool below is shaped like a pot. "Debegeni" actually means "place of the pot". Gifts of food and beer were left by the pool, to appease dangerous sprites.

The sprites are still dangerous. I still have a printed official warning concerning wet rocks, given to me routinely on one of my visits to Debegeni Falls in the nineteen-eighties. It mentions that during January 1981 alone, there were seven serious accidents, including two fatal, one broken back, one broken neck, two with manifold injuries, and one broken ankle. You have been warned.

The surrounding area is well-forested, both with indigenous woods and plantations. Animals found in the indigenous forest, which is called Woodbush, include leopards. They are rarely seen by casual visitors.

COPYRIGHT © June,August 2002 : No material on this site may be copied by any means, without the author's permission.


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