The Lobedu or Balobedu (also known as the BaLodzwi or Bathobolo) are a southern African ethnic group within the Sotho-Tswana people group. They were initially known as Bakwebo (wild pigs). The name "bolobedu" means place of tribute, go loba/lobela. Hence Balobedu are people who receive tribute from others. They have their own kingdom, the Balobedu Kingdom, within the Limpopo Province of South Africa with a female ruler, the Rain Queen Modjadji.
The population of Balobedu numbers around two million. It is estimated that around 30%-40% of Northern Sotho speakers are of Lobedu ethnicity. Their population is distributed in around Mopani and Vhembe regions of Limpopo. Some are found in Gauteng as labour migrants especially in Tembisa and Alexandra townships. The majority of Northern Sotho people living in Tembisa are Balobedu.
Their language is known as Lobedu, KheLobedu , which is a "non-Pedi" dialect of Northern Sotho. Khelobedu is grammatically similar to other Sotho–Tswana languages. Mutual intelligibility between these TshiVenda dialects and Khelovedu is so high that speakers of these Venda dialects can effectively communicate with Khelobedu speakers without difficulty. A TshiGuvhu speaker can understand a Khelobedu speaker so easily, or vice versa, Khelobedu could easily have been classified as a Venda dialect or an independent language. For example, Northern Sotho and its parent dialect Sepedi have a higher mutual intelligibility with Southern Sotho and Setswana than with Khelobedu.
Most Khelobedu speakers only learn to speak Northern Sotho at school, as such Northern Sotho is only a second or third language and foreign to them like English and Afrikaans. Until recently, Khelobedu existed only in an unwritten form, and the standard Northern Sotho language and orthography was usually used for teaching and writing. As of 2018, a Khelovedu dictionary is being compiled and a specific Khilobedu orthography is also in the process of being developed.
There are three sub-groups of the Lobedu:
The Balobedu originally migrated south from Egypt and present day Zimbabwe to their present location in South Africa. The central tribal village is Khethakoni in the district of Balobedu. These Kalanga migrants consisted of the Mokwebo, who are the ancestors of all wild pig clans (va ana golove/ba bina kolobe) like Mamabolo Ramafalo and Modjadji, the Nengwekhulu, who are ancestors of all elephant clans (Ditlou) and the Ramabulana, ancestors of the other elephant clans (Ditlou), are also uncles of the Nengwekhulus. All BaLobedu are descended from these three groups BaKwebo, Nengwekhulu and Ramabulana. The rest of the people are descendants of East Sotho or BaLaudi refugees and indigenous South Venda groups like BaNgona. As a results the most common animal totems among BaLobedu are the wild pig (Goloe/Kolobe) and the elephant (Dou/Tlou).
The wild pig clans (Dikolobe) are the Modjadji, Mohale, Modika, Mahasha, Mabulana, Mohale, Mokwebo, Mampeule, Molokwane, Thobela and Ramafalo all this are descendants of the ancient Mokwebo (wild pig) royal house. All Chiefs in Bolobedu are of the wild pig clans with the exception of the chiefs of Taulome who are Dinoko. The elephant clan are Rabothata, Selowa (Khelowa/Tshilowa/Shilowa), Shai, Matlou (Ma₫ou), Mabulana and Maenetja, these are the descendants of the ancient royal house of Nengwekhulu.
The BaLobedu are more closely related to the Lozwi Kingdom started by Dlembeu. As they were migrating southward, another splinter went South-East. The Northern Lozwi or Lozi are found in the present day Southern province of Zambia. They settled alongside the Zambezi River Banks day establish it as Musioa-thunya (storms that thunders), present day Victoria falls. They have the praise lines Sai/Shai and Dewa, and call themselves the people of Thobela, which is the same as the Lozvi/Kalanga. The rainmaking powers of Queen Modjadji are also synonymous with the Njelele Shrine in SiLozvi (in present-day Matabeleland, Zimbabwe) and it is therefore accepted that there is an intertwining of their history with the rest of the Lozvi. Linguists have listed Lobedu together with Kalanga, Nambya (a dialect of Kalanga), Venda, Lemba, Shankwe, Nyubi and Karanga, as a language of the Lozvi, and consequently connects them to their history. Their rainmaking history is tied to that of the Banyai in northern Matabeleland and. Kalanga in southern Matabeleland ad there re two areas called Njelele in Matabeleland.
Balobedu have their own traditional dances called khekhapa for women and dinaka for men. Dinaka is a traditional dance of all the Northern Sotho speaking people covering such areas as gaSekhukhune, gaDikgale and Bolobedu.
Balobedu have a male initiation ceremony called Moroto. The female initiation ceremony is called Dikhopa.
Balobedu have their own way of praising and talking to their God through Dithugula. They sit next to a traditionally designed circle in their homes and start calling the names of their ancestors.
The Lobedu have female rulers known as "Rain Queens". The queen is believed to have powers to make rain. The Balobedu Kingdom consists of a number of small groups tied together by their queen. On 12 June 2005, Queen Makobo Modjadji died, leaving no clear successor acceptable to all members of the Queen's Council. The late queen's brother has served as regent since then.
The area of Balobedu consists of around 150 villages and every village has a male or female ruler who represents Modjadji, the rain queen.
The Rain Queen was historically known as an extremely powerful magician who was able to bring rain to her friends and drought to her enemies. Visitors to the area always brought her gifts and tribute, including cattle and their daughters as wives (though their role is more akin to what those in the West would call ladies-in-waiting), to appease her so that she would bring rain to their regions. The name Lobedu is thought to derive from this practice, referring to the daughters or sisters who were lost to their families. The rain queen extends her influence through her wives, because they link her politically to other families or villages.
The Rain Queen was referenced in literature as a basis for H. Rider Haggard's novel She.
List of rulers of Balobedu
“The original territory of the Bolobedu included the land situated between the Little Letaba and Great Letaba rivers in the North and South respectively and the common source of the two rivers in the West and their confluence in the East.” “The home of most of the northern Sotho is in Lesotho and in South Africa's Free State Province.
There are also many Sotho who live in South Africa's major cities. Lesotho is a mountainous country that is completely landlocked within the borders of South Africa. It has an area of about 11,700 square miles (about 30,350 square kilometers). The Free State is a highland plain, called a highveld in South Africa, bordering Lesotho to the West. The eastern section of Lesotho is also a highveld, with plateaus similar to those found in the American Southwest. The Maloti and Drakensberg mountains are in the central and western parts of the country. The Drakensberg Mountains form sharp cliffs that drop off dramatically to South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province. The climate of South Africa is temperate, but the mountains make for cold winters. In winter, snow sometimes falls in the Lesotho highlands.”
“According to one Sotho tradition, the first human being emerged from a sea of reeds at a place called Ntswanatsatsi. However, little is known or said about the events of this person's life.”
Agriculture is their major economic activity, with corn (maize), millet, squash, and peanuts (groundnuts) cultivated by hoe. Animal husbandry is a secondary means of food production. Cattle are also a form of currency in some social and economic transactions, and in many common daily activities beer is traditionally used to make compensation. For the Lovedu the accumulation of goods is frowned upon, and produce is consumed rather than marketed.
Main carbohydrate staples: “The economy was based on...the cultivation of grains such as sorghum.”
“Staple foods are corn (maize), eaten in the form of a thick paste, and bread.”
Main protein-lipid sources: “Beef, chicken, and mutton (lamb) are popular meats, while milk is often drunk in soured form.”
“In Sotho tradition, the man is considered the head of the household. Women are defined as farmers and bearers of children. Family duties are also organized into distinct domains based on gender for all Sotho...” hildren, her husband and her mother in law from her fields. Each time she cooks she sends food to her husband and to his mother. What is left must be returned to her ‘house’ unless the husband himself gives it to the herd-boys or other children as a group.”
“In addition to having her own granaries and cooking utensils, every wife has a right to raise livestock. She may keep chickens; she may acquire goats by the exchange of her produce; she may get pigs by feeding other people’s pigs in exchange for a pigling. She may even acquire cattle if she is a doctor.”
“The economy of the Lobedu is a subsistence one based mainly on agriculture and stock-raising supplemented by migrant labor in European areas. Land for cultivation is allotted to individuals by the district head. Once allocated, fields are inherited in the male line and cannot be taken away so long as they are in effective use.”
Most Lobedu used to engaged in polygynous marriage. Currently “most Lobedu who are not Christian have more than one wife.” “Polygynous marriages (more than one wife) are not uncommon among the elite, but they are rare among commoners.”
“Control over material resources also plays an important part in the structure of the polygynous domestic group with its economically independent ‘houses’ so characteristic of the Lobedu. As head of the family the husband has full control over all family resources. Yet each wife forms with her children a unit of production and consumption, the independence of which as against other ‘houses’ has to be respected even by the husband, whose control becomes limited the moment he marries a second wife.”
“In cases where a man has received cattle on the ‘security’ of a small girl...the creditor also hands over cattle a second time when the girl comes to be married...the Lobedu usually quote the proverb ‘mobula ndo oa nywala’–the opener or establisher of a house pays marriage cattle’, i.e., every girl commands a bride-price.”
“Marriages are arranged by transfer of bohadi (bride wealth) from the family of the groom to the family of the bride.”
“Each wife has her own fields which it is her duty to cultivate for the needs of her ‘house.’ On her death her sons have first right to inherit her fields unless their father wants to use them for himself or arrange for their cultivation to provide food for the younger children; but they may not be used for the benefit of any other ‘house.’” “A daughter may be given her deceased mother’s field to cultivate while she is still in her parental home, but she cannot inherit it.” “...a married woman may, and often does, get fields from her own people to cultivate.
The difference between these fields and those given by her husband’s people is that the latter are hers as a right and are inherited by her sons; the former she obtains through the goodwill of her bloodkin and on her death they revert back to them unless the children are still young and the fields are needed to feed them.”
“The use of a woman’s bride-price by her brother, and the interest which his cattle-linked sister has in maintaining this ‘house’ in which her son will find a wife, made divorce difficult in the old days. Today, however, partly owing to migrant labour, divorce is more common and girls, especially in the case of arranged marriages with old men or cross-cousins, quite frequently run away to a lover either before or after the marriage knowing that they cannot any longer be forced to return. A return of the bride-price is not always insisted upon...When there are complicated cattle claims a husband, especially he is already old, may find it wiser not to press for a divorce if the wife absconds.”
“The rule in Lobedu divorce was, in the old days, that the husband’s family should receive back the full bride-price plus all increase, irrespective of where the blame lay, in accordance with the saying ‘mosila mobe o boya le noto ea hwe – even the bad workman (husband) returns with his tools.’ The children went with their mother to her people and when she remarried, the new husband had a right to all of them.”
“With European administration came the introduction of the Pedi idea that a man has a claim to both the cattle and the children in the case of malicious desertion. Old men in the 1930s called this a white man’s law; today people are claiming it as a Lobedu custom.”
“This desire to keep alive the links between brother and sister and to maintain and renew marriage limks with women of the lineage from one generation to another is very strong. The marriage of a woman at her father’s sister’s (i.e., mother’s brother’s daughter marriage) is called ‘ho dsosa moloko’–to awaken or renew relationship. There are several variations of mother’s brother’s daughter marriage that arise from or are bound up with obligations connected with cattle...If in the case of a cattle-linked brother and sister, the latter has a daughter but no son who could marry her brother’s daughter, she might, rather than break the link with her brother and allow her husband to use the cattle to create new links with strangers, nevertheless, with the
agreement and consent of her husband, hand over her daughter’s bride-price to her brother so that he can marry a second wife and establish a ‘house’ from which her daughter may claim a woman later to marry her son and to ‘come and cook for her’.”
“Besides marriage with the mother’s mother’s brother’s daughter, other variations of mother’s brother’s daughter marriages are found, such as marriage with the mother’s brother’s son’s daughter (one generation below), with the father’s mother’s brother’s daughter or even with a father’s mother’s brother’s son’s daughter.”
“The same tendency is present in Lobedu polygyny where the sororate is very popular. Most Lobedu who are not Christians have more than one wife. But it will almost always be found that at least one is a sister or younger relative of one of the other wives.
“...the Lobedu are a patrilineal people in the sense that a man belongs to his father’s lineage, property is inherited in the male line, and marriage is patrilocal.” “Dating was not part of traditional Sotho life. Marriages were arranged between families, and a girl could be betrothed in childhood. Nowadays, most people pick their mates.”
“It (the Balobedu population) is essentially a federation of smaller groups united by their common alliance to the queen. The political power resides in the minority group descended from the original Balobedu with the bush pig as totem. The majority is descended from immigrants of different Northern Sotho and Shangaan tribes. These have largely assimilated with the central minority group culturally, although retaining their original totems. The tribal designation is Balobedu ba gaModjadji, and the central tribal village is Sehlakong in the district of Balobedu.”
“The form of government is that of a central authority with the queen as the head of state and spatially defined political units which, each under a headman, enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy. A large proportion of these districts in which the country is divided are ruled by the descendants of original sections of the nuclear group; a few have been allocated by alien groups under their own headmen while some are held by royal women, batanoni or ‘wives’ of the queen.
Many districts now held by commoners originated from batanoni but since women do not succeed one another as heads of districts these have been inherited by their sons of husbands given to them by the queen. Royal wives (batanoni) are of various kinds. Some are of royal blood, daughters of close relatives of the queen to whom they have been given as a token of homage (ho loba). Only these are set up by the queen as rulers over districts...Other royal wives are the daughters of district heads, while a number are daughters of foreign chiefs who come, sometimes with cattle, sometimes with money or a daughter to loba the queen for rain.
Once a woman from within the tribe has been accepted by the queen as a royal wife, the tie is renewed from generation to generation on the pattern of cross-cousin marriage. Men may offer a daughter to the queen also in return for, or in the expectation of, economic help or political favour...and there is a tendency today for districts to be subdivided into smaller and smaller units to satisfy the political aspirations of ambitious subjects. Royal wives bind to the queen not only her closest relatives but most of the important people in the tribe. Some wives are given away in marriage to her councillors, relatives and district headmen. Some remain with her and have allocated lovers. Children of these latter call the queen ‘father’ and she is responsible for helping them to marry.”
“The Lobedu proper appear originally to have regarded themselves as an aristocracy but today it is only the royal lineage (ba Mohale) and a number of important Lobedu heads that are looked up to. Many non-Lobedu lineages have, by virtue of marriage links through royal wives, a higher status and are more closely related to the queen than sections of Lobedu themselves. The society is remarkably egalitarian and there is no concentration of wealth in the hands of the ruling group. Nor would this be easy in a tribe in which the limited resources in property (in cattle) are used primarily for, and are constantly being converted into, marriage alliances.”
“Upon marriage, a woman is expected to leave her family to live with the family of her husband.”
Territoriality ; “Traditionally, then, property is of value to the Lobedu only in so far as it can be consumed or meets an immediate need on the one hand or, on the other, is used for creating and maintaining social relationships.”
Here Lovedu women, unlike their Southern Sotho counterparts, play an important role in family affairs and public administration, often holding positions of office. Indeed, four out of five recent Lovedu rulers were women. Consequently, argues Kuper, linked brother-sister ties are predominant in Lovedu society, as are corresponding relations between agnates and the father’s sister. This relationship, he notes, is reflected in kinship terminology, which tends to underline the ‘relatively greater status of women on Lobedu society.’”
“Lobedu homesteads vary in size and composition from a typical minimum of a married man with his mother, wife, and children to a group of half-brothers, their mothers, wives, children and grandchildren, still living together after the death of the father. Very often other relatives, such as a widowed sister and her children, a maternal relative or an affine of the head are to be found living in the homestead. But these are the least stable elements and tend to move away in a short time.
Though small units continuously hive off, and there is a good deal of change in the small homesteads of more recent immigrants or where a migrant labourer husband has never returned, the Lobedu homestead is on the whole, especially in the case of the chief son and his descendants, a remarkably stable unit. Over a period of thirty years most of the larger homesteads known to me have remained in the same place or been rebuilt a few hundred yards from the old site after the death of their head.”
“Family life for many rural Sotho has been disrupted for generations by migrant labor. Today, many Sotho men continue to live in all-male housing units provided by the gold-miningcompanies that employ them. With the end of apartheid, some of the families previously separated by the old labor laws now live together in urban areas.”
“The Sotho have clans, many of which bear animal names, such as the Koena (crocodile). These clans stress descent through the father's side, but there is flexibility in defining clan membership. A feature of Sotho kinship was that a person was allowed to marry a cousin (ngwana wa rangoane) who was a member of the same clan.”
“The tribe is made up of a large number of different totemic groups, Lion, Elephant, Crocodile, Wild Pig, none of which, not even the royal Lobedu totem, is confined to the Lobedu tribe.”
“The supreme being that the Sotho believe in is most commonly referred to as Modimo. Modimo is approached through the spirits of one's ancestors, the balimo, who are honored at ritual feasts. The ancestral spirits can bring sickness and misfortune to those who forget them or treat them disrespectfully. The Sotho traditionally believed that the evils of our world were the result of the malevolent actions of sorcerers and witches.”
The most powerful religious leaders in Balobedu society are their rain queens, who are believed to have powers over the weather and other natural phenomena. “The Balobedu of Modjadji...are renowned for their female rulers, the mystical rain queens. It is traditionally accepted that the Balobedu queen has the powers of rainmaking and is still regarded as the most famous rainmaker on the subcontinent. Fear of her powers has always restrained both internal opposition and any attack from outside. Even the mighty Shaka, king of the amaZulu, treated her with great respect and paid her tribute. The rain queen Modjadji still is the focal point and strength of the Kingdom.”
“The rain-making powers of their queen, enhanced by the mystery and secrecy of her ritual seclusion, attracted many accretions from diverse tribal groups from surrounding areas who sought peace and security...For enemies feared to attack the Lobedu queen lest they be visited by drought and locusts.”
“ Traditionally the rain queen was expected, in her old age, to pass on her secrets to her successor and then to commit ritual suicide. Missionaries to break this tradition prevailed upon Modjadji III, who came in power in 1896, and she died of old age in February 1959, aged eightysix. Although some of the traditional customs have become obsolete, the sacred drums may still be heard on special occasions, and when the Balobodu appear before their queen, they still do so barefooted and in a kneeling position. To her people Modjadji is still a mystical ruler whose powers and health are vital to the nation. As in bygone years, she is still held in high esteem as rain queen of the Balobedu tribe.”
“The list of wild animals believed to have medicinal and curative properties is long...the pangolin is considered to be a particularly potent medicine by the Lobedu tribe in north-eastern Transvaal.”
‘Witchcraft and Sorcery:’ There is a distinction between ‘day witches’ (sorcerers), and night witches. The (day) sorcerer utilizes ‘natural, known powers of medicine for anti-social ends,’ while the (night) witch utilizes evil powers beyond ordinary understanding.”
The costume above represents the supernatural Muwhira, known as the recruiter for the Sungwi initiation school for girls. He is both deaf and dumb. North Sotho, including the Ba Roka, Venda and Lobedu, all know Muwhira. His character is made of reeds and body parts of hawks, owls and hammerhead birds. This example was collected in the Sekororo Area by J. Witt during the early 1960's. Later it became the property of the Potchefstroom University Collection. Few examples are known, in that traditionally Muwhira was burned at the end of Sungwi.
“There are elaborate rites of initiation into adulthood for boys and girls in Sotho tradition. For boys, initiation involves a lengthy stay in a lodge in a secluded area away from the village. The lodge may be very large and house dozens of initiates (bashemane). During seclusion, the boys are circumcised, but they are also taught appropriate male conduct in marriage, special initiation traditions, code words and signs, and praise songs. In Lesotho, the end of initiation is marked by a community festival during which the new initiates (makolwane) sing the praises they have composed. In traditional belief, a man who has not been initiated is not considered a full adult.”
“Initiation for girls (bale) also involves seclusion, but the ritual huts of the bale are generally located near the village. Bale wear masks and goat-skin skirts, and they smear their bodies with a chalky white substance. They sometimes may be seen as a group near the homes of relatives, singing, dancing, and making requests for presents. Among some clans, the girls are subjected to tests of pain and endurance. After the period of seclusion the initiates, now called litswejane, wear cowhide skirts and anoint themselves with red ocher. Initiation for girls does not involve any surgical operation.”
Lobedu girls wore short wraps around the hips during the early stages ofvuhwera. At a later stage the girls wore bandoliers platted from grass. On special occasions, both girls and woman wore beaded panels.
“Women give birth with the assistance of female birth attendants. Traditionally, relatives and friends soaked the father with water when his firstborn child was a girl. If the firstborn was a boy, the father was beaten with a stick. This ritual suggested that while the life of males is occupied by warfare, that of females is occupied by domestic duties such as fetching water. For two or three months after the birth, the child was kept secluded with the mother in a specially marked hut. The seclusion could be temporarily broken when the baby was brought outside to be introduced to the first rain.”
“When someone dies, the whole community takes part in the burial. Speeches are made at the graveside by friends and relatives, and the adult men take turns shoveling soil into the grave. Afterward, all those in attendance go as a group to wash their hands. There may also be a funeral feast.”
“Interpreting aspects of the structure of Lovedu society, social anthropologists Krige and Krige claim that natural order among Sotho-speakers in the north-eastern Transvaal region of South Africa is premised upon the assumption that ‘cosmic forces’ are controllable events. Hence, they identify four methods whereby the Lovedu control natural phenomena: First, vunaga, is the skilled use of impersonal power believed to be inherently concentrated in persons and objects. The vunaga is a ‘medico-magical’ practice performed by an expert doctor (ngaka) and applied in the interests of health and well-being.
The dithugula is deployed to indirectly influence the ancestors; the ancestors may cause harm and sickness to descendants who neglect them and are therefore propitiated to ensure good crops, fertility, good fortune, and success. Here, the use of objects once in the possession of, or in close contact with ancestors (beads, animals, or clothing), are employed. Third, the divine queen may be approached to secure the regularity of seasonal change; her death, by contrast, might mark the onset of drought, famine, or the breakdown of social order. Fourth, and finally, cosmic forces can be controlled or manipulated to promote abundance and rain by using a ‘sacred drum’ during the designated digoma (drum) ritual.”
“...evil is symbolically represented by ‘heat’ or ‘burning’ (leswa). Indeed, heat is perceived to denote a disturbance caused by negative events such as abortions and miscarriages. ‘Cooling‘ medicines, such as the burying of dead fetuses in wet soil, by contrast, are considered effective mechanisms for realigning social imbalance.”
“Sotho traditional music places a strong emphasis on group singing, chanting, and hand clapping is an accompaniment to dance. Instruments used included drums, rattles, whistles, and handmade stringed instruments. One instrument, the lesiba, is made from a pole, a string, and a feather. When it is blown, the feather acts as a reed, producing a deep, resonant sound.”
“Generations of mine labor have led to a distinct migrant-worker subculture in Lesotho. This subculture developed its own song and dance traditions. Some types of mine dances have synchronized high-kicking steps. One song tradition, difela, has lyrics relating the travels, loves, and viewpoints of the migrant workers. Other popular music in Sotho includes dance tunes played by small groups on drums, accordions, and guitars.”
The lower left necklace has two beaded leather medallions. The old Balobedu woman in the centre image wears a number of necklaces which very much resemble them and the others. She was alive and well in 2007. She reported she had owned her necklaces since she was a young girl.
The focal point of Lobedu culture is the Rain-Queens Royal Kraal and more specifically the khôrô. The khôrô is a circular arena at the centre of the royal kraal, which served as a meeting place. It was surrounded by a palisade of large poles, some figured, which were brought to the kraal by visitors in tribute to the Modjadji Queen.
Headmen from all the district are called up to provide poles for the Queen'skhoro when in need of renewal. This symbolized the solidarity of the Kingdom. Figured palisade examples were exclusive to the queens khôrô. Jurgen Witt of Tzaneen advised that craftsmen of particular skill carved the poles to distinguish their contribution to the khôrô.
The royal nucleus of the Lobedu descends from one of the Rozwi states that gained prominence in the southern part of the former Karanga empire. The Lobedu people live in the Limpopo Province below the Drakensberg escarpment near Duiwelskloof. For the past six generations they have had female rulers, all bearing the dynastic title ‘Modjadji’, the legendary ‘Rain Queen’. According to Hammond-Tooke (1993), the southern Bantu have been living under the rule of various chiefs since at least 800AD.
The coming of chieftainship transformed the essential nature of these societies because certain persons were accorded authority to make decisions on behalf of individuals and the group as a whole. According to Hammond-Tooke (1993:65), the only way to safeguard this authority was through ritual, ‘by clothing the chieftainship in mystical sections to ensure, as far as possible, compliance with this new political (or governmental) authority’. To achieve the adherence to chieftainship:
The Lobedu people are surrounded by the Shangaan-Tsonga people to the east, the Pedi to the south, the Venda to the north, and several other tribes to the west. Contact and influx from the Sotho groups in the southeast had a significant influence on Lobedu culture from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. Tsonga refugees, on the other hand, entered the Lobedu area from about 1840 (as recorded in one of the rain songs that will be discussed), but remained segregated subjects within Lobedu territory. An interesting point is that despite the acceptance by the Lobedu of Shangaan-Tsonga elements of material culture, a great divide exists between the two cultural configurations. According to Krige and Krige (1943:313), they have:
"different views as regards sex, morality, different marriage patterns, different conceptions of the hierarchy of age and the position of women, they deal differently with the situation of death, with rainmaking, display, and regimentation, and, whereas the social groupings are totemic among the Lovedu, they are non-totemic among the Shangana-Tonga."
Because of their diplomacy, reputation as rainmakers, and strategic position in the mountains, the Lobedu were the most influential tribe in the Lowveld between the Levubu and the Olifants rivers. The disturbances of the nineteenth century had only a slight effect on the Lobedu because of their well-protected sanctuary in the mountains. Unlike other chiefs, Modjadji did not depend on an army to maintain peace, stability and political integrity in her territory. She accomplished this through her ritual position as rainmaker and through marriage ties. Her enemies were afraid of attacking her, because the consequences to her attackers were drought and famine.
The Lobedu rain cult
The rain cult amongst the Lobedu consists of an intricate network of customs with consequences for many aspects of tribal life. The lives and functions of individual members in the tribe are closely intertwined with rain – the indispensable element for human survival. Irregularities in the community, such as the birth of twins, an abortion or a miscarriage, children or animals with deformities, and unrecognized corpses of dogs are thought to have an effect on the rain. In these cases, the children or animals have to be killed and buried in moist soil, and certain rites have to be performed in order to prevent a terrible drought.
Numerous rain making rituals are also observed for agricultural purposes. Schapera and Goodwin (1953:136) point out that ‘various important taboos (e.g. on the cutting of certain trees) must be observed by the whole community during the early part of the rainy season, lest drought, hail, or some similar disaster destroy the young crops’. The Lobedu also possess sacred rainmaking objects such as rain beads, rain horns containing rain medicine, and rain pots filled with holy water – kept in secrecy in a rain hut that is in close proximity to the queen’s residence.
It is believed that the Lobedu use the body dirt and skin of deceased queens as part of the rainmaking medicine. Krige (quoted by Eiselen & Schapera, 1953:266), describes this process as follows:
"On the death of the queen, which is kept secret for a whole year, the body is washed every day and the dirt is made to fall into an earthenware basin. This is done until all the skin comes off, and only then is the chief buried. This skin is put into the rain pots."
The souls of deceased persons become the ancestral spirits of the Lobedu, and are regarded as their most intimate ‘gods’ (badimo) who act as intermediaries between the living and the spiritual world. According to Eiselen and Schapera (1953:250), the ancestral gods are:
"exclusively interested in the affairs of their own family and tribe, and without their help and guidance
their living descendants cannot hope to flourish. As long as the moral code is strictly followed, they
confer blessings and abundance; but if offended by any breach of custom, they can also send drought,
cattle plague, tribal or personal disaster, sickness or death."
Unless sorcery is involved, the misfortunes of a community are ‘almost always attributed to the intervention of some offended or neglected ancestor, whose spirit must be propitiated before relief can be expected’ (Eiselen & Schapera, 1953:252). Many of the rainmaking rites have a magical as well as a religious character because magic and religion, according to Eiselen and Schapera (1953:247), are closely inter-related in belief and practice. For example, ‘when sacrifices are made to the ancestor gods, the meat eaten by the worshippers is often “doctored” with medicines as protection against witchcraft’.
When studying the collection of texts documented by Eiselen in the 1920s among various dialect groups such as the Kopa, Pedi and Lobedu, one gets the impression that an assumption does exist among some tribes that a supreme being closely related to the sky exists:
"Ge komelelo e godile vasadi va tla tshela metzi kua levitleng la kgoshi le vzhalwa vzho vontzhi. Vzhalwa vsho ge vo tshelwa levitleng vo vitzhwa metzi. Ge va tshela va volela va re: Modimo o lego godimo a o fe o lego fase metzi (Eiselen, 1923:23). ‘When the drought worsens, the women will pour out water and huge quantities of beer on the graves of the chiefs. The beer that is poured on the graves is also called water. As they pour out the beer they utter: “God, you who are above, give the god below water!”.
Considering the corpus of literature on the Supreme Being (Modimo) in the Sotho religion on the other hand, one becomes aware of the influence caused by encounters with Christian missionaries and the extreme difficulty to ‘disentangle the strands of Christian and traditional discourse about Modimo’ (Chidester, 1997:278). In a personal interview conducted with the late Queen Modjadji V in 1996, she confessed that her rainmaking powers could be attributed to the grace of the Christian God and the powers of her ancestral gods.
Observance of the Lobedu rain cult
According to tradition, the Lobedu must observe the rain cult at all times. Either the rain queen or the chief should be approached in times of drought, since the whole tribe acknowledges the queen’s ancestors as a source of communal well being and prosperity. The Lobedu queen is, in the words of Krige and Krige (1943:271):
"primarily not a ruler, but a rain-maker, and men rely for their security, not on regimentation, armies, and organization, but on the queen’s power to make rain for the people and to withhold rain from its enemies."
Although the queen assumes total responsibility for rain and fertility, it should be pointed out that she always has a rain-doctor (moroka wa pula) who co-operates with her, as all rainmaking rituals have a political character that is linked to the well being of the tribe’s polity. For example, as a last resort the rain-doctor will reveal to the queen the forces that prevent her powers from working properly, and remove these forces. Krige and Krige (1943:275) state that ‘the queen can control rain only “in agreement with her ancestors” who are able, if they wish, to stay her hand just as she herself is able to stay the hands of rain-doctors’. Specially prepared beer has a sacred significance in the observance of the Lobedu rain cult and is regarded as the ‘ritual food of the ancestors’. The queen is not only regarded as the ‘transformer of the clouds’, but also as the modifier of the seasons and the guarantor of their cyclic regularity. Huskisson (1958:150) points out that the queen is in possession of rain horns (dinaga ja bula) filled with medicine (dithugula). According to Huskisson, the medicine is burnt to produce smoke which rises up in the air to draw and produce the required clouds for rain to fall. Rain is supposed to fall as long as the horns are placed on the ground, but when they are hung up, the weather clears and the sky becomes dry. The queen’s rainmaking ability takes continuous care of her people in times of severe drought as well as in good seasons. According to Lobedu interlocutors, the queen’s emotional state affects her rainmaking powers.
When she feels upset, sad, dissatisfied or angry, her powers are reduced and her work is less successful.
There are various ways of approaching Queen Modjadji for rain. Councillors whom she holds in high esteem or important relatives may approach her in person; district heads may pay tribute to her (ho lova) in the form of money, cattle or gifts; dancing groups can visit her ‘to evoke her pity at the sorrowful sight of people dancing in summer when they ought to be ploughing’ (Krige & Krige, 1943:272). After cooking food for their families, married women would assemble at the royal kraal every morning for up to a week to lova (pay tribute to) their queen with dances to arouse her pity or to bring her joy. The great hardship that this dancing entails for nursing mothers who have no time to feed their babies is thought to melt the heart of the queen. The music used during the rain dancing performances consists of lesugu songs, which are also ‘sung at the annual harvest ceremony, on the death of important royal people, and at the girls’ initiation school’ (Krige & Krige, 1943:273).
According to the performers of the songs that I documented, a difference exists between multi-functional rain songs and mono-functional or proper rain songs.
• Multi-functional rain songs can include loba songs, which refer to songs that are sung to pay homage to the
queen. The verb ho loba/ho lobela means to pay respect, tribute or allegiance to somebody by giving gifts. The following example is used in Ziervogel and Mokgokong’s Northern Sotho dictionary (1975:766) to explicate the meaning of the verb: ditšhaba tše ntšhi di lobela pula ga Motšatši (many tribes pay tribute to Modjadji for rain).
• Mono-functional or proper rain songs (lesugu) are usually sung concurrently with the dancing of a special
dance called the legobathele. These dances are regarded as the most acclaimed dancing for rain. Krige and
Krige (1943:272) describe this dance as follows:
It is more dignified, its movements slower and more stately, and its drumming more subdued than in an ordinary gosha. Only two drums are used, and none but those who have lost at least one parent may perform, and it is begun in the dim light of the dawn before sunrise, when, after a short spell, it stops and is resumed later in the day.