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‘Shèun Ominira-Bluejack | The Raging Storm

“The one who loses the cattle is the one who herds them.”

                        Lobedu Proverb.

In the Modjadji Mountain range of South Africa’s Limpopo province, there lies a kingdom that is unlike any that you would have come across before. Named Balobedu after the Lobedu people, its majority tribe and historic rulers, the state is famous for being ruled by a dynasty that – until recent events threatened its traditions – practiced exclusively female primogeniture when it came to royal succession. Having queens that were expected to be high priestesses of the Lobedu traditional religion in addition to being regnal rulers, the kingdom would go on to influence the Southern African sub-region in particular (due to the rain that the Modjadji – or “Ruler of the Day” – is believed to be responsible for causing for her people and their allied tribes) and the world as a whole (with elements of the history of the kingdom having inspired both Sir H. Rider Haggard when he was writing the Victorian classic “She: A History of Adventure” and the writers and illustrators that later created the Marvel Comics character Storm, Queen of Wakanda and leader of the X-Men).

Storm Clouds

The Kingdom of Balobedu is located in a fertile pocket of an otherwise arid locale. According to tradition, this is due to the fact that its monarch – known as either the Modjadji or, in English, the Rain Queen, has the hereditary power to summon various atmospheric phenomena that are tied to the weather as she sees fit.

Claiming a pedigree that stretches back to the ruling line of the medieval Empire of Mwenemutapa, the House of Modjadji is said to have been founded when a Mutapa princess known as Dzugudini was found to be pregnant due to an incestuous relationship with a close male relative. The resulting scandal caused a significant amount of trouble for her, and rather than face what could be a potentially fatal judgement from her family, Dzugudini and her followers set out from Mwenemutapa thereafter with the intention of finding a new home for themselves.

After journeying for many moons, they eventually came to what is now Balobedu and decided to settle there. Initially, the state that was founded there was ruled by male members of her progeny. The last of them to rule – Chief Mukoto – became privy to a plot to depose him that apparently had the support of all of his sons. Deciding that this was caused by the fact that the kingdom’s matriarchal traditions had been subverted, he had all of his sons executed, then married his own daughter thereafter.

In time, the first of the modern Modjadjis – Modjadji I – was born to the incestuous union between father and daughter. This was the start of the dynasty, and ever since the commencement of her reign in 1800, the women of the line have exclusively ruled. When Shaka the Zulu was setting the whole region a-light during what is known as the Mfecane, he purposefully left her territories alone and offered her tribute in the hopes of securing her spiritual support for his conquests.

During the so-called ‘native relocations’ of the 1890s, Piet Joubert, the commandant-general of the Boer South African Republic, forced her reigning successor Modjadji II to come out of her ritual seclusion and parley with him.

This event would later influence the creation of Ayesha, the Queen of Kor, antagonist of the novel “She: A History of Adventure”, as Sir H. Rider Haggard used the stories that circulated at the time about this African monarch to create a thoroughly original character. Due to his book’s popularity with the Western public, the Rain Queens gained Ayesha’s title She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed as an informal sobriquet in subsequent reigns.

The racist policies of white South Africa would continue to have an effect on the kingdom in the following years; during Apartheid, the Rain Queen would have her title demoted to that of a chieftess by the government. Part of her traditional territory would also be re-assigned to other rulers during this time.

By the 1970s, another fictional character would be created by the writer Len Wein and the illustrator Dave Cockrum using the Modjadjis as templates, further securing their place in history; the mutant stateswoman Ororo Munroe, better known as Storm, was made a direct descendant of the line of the Rain Queens. Her position as a prominent superhero and a sometime ruler of the African superstate of Wakanda would ensure that she would become the most popular Black heroine in comics. She remains this today.

By 1994, when the ANC succeeded the National Party as the rulers of a post-Apartheid South Africa, Modjadji V – who was reigning at the time – is said to have regarded the party with suspicion due to her conservatism. Regardless of this, she later developed a cordial relationship with its leaders, and was friendly with Dr. Nelson Mandela during his presidency. She was the last of the traditionally-minded monarchs to rule over the Lobedu people.

In 2004, her granddaughter Modjadji VI was enthroned. She was the first ruler to be extensively educated, and rather than live a life of ritual and taboo, she famously engaged in more modern activities like watching television, using a cell phone, wearing modern clothes and even going to nightclubs. This led to immediate controversy, and probably would have resulted in a major rupture within the state if Modjadji VI hadn’t tragically died two years after her coronation.

These events have all led to the succession crisis that is currently happening in the kingdom, one which I will now explore in some detail in the next section.

The Tempest

Modjadji VI was more than just iconoclastic in her social activities; she also turned the romantic traditions of her dynasty on their heads by taking a lover – David Mogale – who was not of noble ancestry and thus did not have the approval of her royal council. This was the father of her daughter and presumptive heiress Masalanabo, and due to it a great deal of trouble was caused upon her death.

Mr. Mogale claimed that the Modjadji had been assassinated due to disapproval of their relationship; this sort of thing was not unheard of (it had once been customary for a reigning Rain Queen to be poisoned so that the throne could pass to a younger monarch in short order), but the accusation – which is as yet unproven – did not win him any friends amongst the council.

Neither did what followed… Mr. Mogale sought an order from the courts of South Africa appointing him as the legal guardian of the infant Masalanabo due to the fact that she was his biological daughter. This was the final straw for the council, who challenged the application angrily as an abomination according to Lobedu tradition.

Eventually, the courts would appoint a neutral guardian for the girl and she would grow up with him and his family in Gauteng – miles away from the kingdom of her ancestors. This is what has led to the current situation; a faction of the royal council is now claiming that the fact that she was raised away from Balobedu has made her unfamiliar with the magic that she is supposed to wield as Modjadji. As a result, they have decided – despite the fact that she has been recognized as the heiress apparent by Presidents Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa – to enthrone her older half-brother Lekukela as Modjadji VI’s successor.

Although there hasn’t been much said about the kind of relationship the half-siblings had prior to these events – Lekukela was raised in Balobedu, and Masalanabo was not – one imagines that it can’t be very friendly now that Masalanabo and her supporters have challenged this contravention of the tradition of female succession in court. The matter is still pending.

This case has a multiplicity of elements to it; Firstly, the fact that Masalanabo’s father was a commoner must have alienated some people. Then, there is the fact that he accused the Modjadji Royal Council of having had a hand in the Modjadji’s death. He also sued them for custody. Finally, Masalanabo has been raised far away from the kingdom… The Lobedu don’t know her, and she probably has only the faintest grasp of their customs and traditions. How then, a dispassionate observer would ask, can she be their ruler?

On the other hand, I have yet to see the claim being made by anyone that Lekukela has a better command of the Lobedu magic than his half-sister does… He has been proclaimed as king regardless, with his half-sister supposedly being recognized by his supporters as something akin to a Princess Royal. This begs the question: If Masalanabo can be the princess royal of Balobedu, why can’t she be its queen? Do you solve the contravention of one custom – in this case, the one on the royal council choosing a Rain Queen’s sexual partners – by contravening another one, especially one – that of female succession – that is said to be responsible for your kingdom existing in the first place?

I can’t help but feel that the real problem here is the fact that Masalanabo is a woman. After all, other kingdoms have had kings that haven’t necessarily checked all the boxes in terms of ancestry and preparedness for the throne, and the heavens haven’t fallen. Why would her matter be different? Why is it that it’s when her title is upgraded to the position of a sovereign queenship according to the terms of the Traditional Leadership clause of South Africa’s current constitution that we are suddenly told that now a man can hold it?

These are complicated questions, and they lead to answers that are equally complex. I’m now going to examine a few of them in the next section.

 A Rainbow Nation

There aren’t many kingdoms that privilege their female royals over their male ones officially. Even Western monarchies like the United Kingdom have only just gotten around to altering their rules regarding royal succession so that the eldest child, irrespective of gender, succeeds to the crown. Historically, so-called male preference primogeniture had been the norm. As a result, monarchism as a political system has always – rightly or wrongly – skewed male in practice. The past two centuries of female rule in Balobedu have therefore been unusual – they have guaranteed the kingdom’s place in the history books due to the fact that just about everywhere else on Earth has been almost exclusively ruled by men for their duration.

If things are this way in general, they are especially acute in Africa. From Cape to Cairo, men have ruled and are still ruling their kingdoms largely alone. Events such as those that have occurred in Balobedu are greatly troubling therefore; the men that control these states will no doubt cite this debacle as a cautionary tale… Allow women to inherit crowns, and have lovers suing for custody of royal heirs, have heirs growing up without any understanding of tradition as a result, and have the courts being called in to mediate in internecine feuds between heirs and royal advisors thereafter. Being an heir to a royal legacy myself, I know for a fact that chauvinists in African kingdoms require little in the way of an incentive to denigrate the notion of a woman leading in this way.

Beyond this, there is also the fact that the Lobedu people – a nation who have every right to be proud of their history – are now poised to have even more of their age-old customs subverted. This is the part of the case that I find to arguably be the most egregious. The royal councillors that are supporting Lekukela could have easily gone another way if they genuinely cared about preserving tradition… After all, the Prince Regent of Balobedu, Modjadji VI’s brother, is married to a cousin of his – a woman that is also of the Modjadji bloodline. Their daughter, according to strict tradition, would therefore have a greater claim to the throne than Masalanabo due to the latter’s paternity. Why didn’t the royal council choose to enthrone this woman instead? Why go with a man?

When future visitors to Balobedu ask to be taken to She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, are you going to show them such a man? Also, what of the point that an online petition challenging Lekukela’s usurpation of Masalanabo’s dynastic rights has already received countless signatures. Clearly, the vast majority of the rank-and-file Lobedu have been scandalized by these events. They at least seem willing to overlook the fact that she was raised elsewhere if it would mean getting their rightful queen. This is an important factor to remember.

Ultimately, my sister Bebe was the one that gave me the solution that would benefit the Lobedu people the most. She recommended that since the thing that started this was customary worthiness, a trial by custom would be the best way to solve it… Have both Masalanabo and Lekukela do that which is essential for the holding of the office of the Modjadji – have them each try to summon the rain. Whoever does so successfully will then be proclaimed monarch thereafter.

I am recommending this now as well partly as a result of the fact that I am cognizant that the Modjadji is the high priest or priestess of the Lobedu religion and must therefore have such powers (or rather, must be thought to by their people), and partly because it irks me that Masalanabo’s abilities in this regard were called into question without being put to the test first. As Modjadji VI’s recognized heiress, she deserved better than this from the royal council.

Events relating to this matter are occurring with lightning speed. Following Lekukela’s factional coronation, a rival ceremony for Masalanabo is slated to take place in April of 2024. If this doesn’t resolve the situation once and for all, the court’s decision will be expected to. Come what may though, I think that this trial by custom should take place at some point regardless of its outcome… If only for the Lobedu traditionalists to grant their support to the eventual victor (although that would then conceivably open them up to the possibility – distressing to consider – that the courts will affirm the succession of someone who fails to successfully make it rain).

Conclusion

In many of the other kingdoms of Africa, women are having similar struggles. In Ghana, whose pre-colonial traditions had a dual gender power sharing method that saw every chief have a complimentary female counterpart known as the queen mother, the sexist influences of colonialism stunted the further development of this method, and led to a situation where at Independence in the 1950s, only the chiefs were recognized as rulers. The queen mothers have since fought a long battle to have their traditional positions as partners to the men in power restored to their pre-colonial forms.

In eSwatini, the Queen Mother was once supposed to serve as a check on the power of her son the King. Her office has since had its powers curtailed by both colonial governors and the most recent independent kings, and now that country is officially one of Africa’s most despotic as a result. Its monarch, Mswati III, has taken all of the powers of state for himself and the country has suffered immensely as a result. His mother, meanwhile, is now mostly confined to presiding during the annual Reed Dance rite.

Here in Nigeria, we actually once had a number of queens regnant. Some of them were my ancestresses, women that are now venerated in my clan as divine figures. Be this as it may, it is unthinkable for a woman to rule in Nigeria as a monarch in her own right in most of the kingdoms in this country. The only exception to this rule is a tiny state up north called Kumwada, which is ruled by a dynasty whose women exclusively reign. True to form, the traditions governing the throne in this kingdom have recently been dismissed by surrounding rulers as witchcraft – a serious charge in Muslim Nigeria. Who knows, perhaps this state’s unique traditions will be jettisoned someday in the same way that people are attempting to do in Balobedu right now.

At the end of the day, my own dynastic rights come down to me through the female line, so a person might say that I’m biased in this matter. Still, you shouldn’t have to have a dog in this race to know that Africa should be moving forward, not backwards… Balobedu has a tradition that deserves preservation. Its rulers have conquered conquerors, upended the status quo, and brought forth the thunder and the lightning. Women throughout the continent in fact, in a less dramatic but no less impressive fashion, have built legacies to rival those of the women of any other place. They should be able to tell future generations of women that in a place called Limpopo, there is a magical realm where they – and they alone – have always ruled.

The sluggard has no locusts, even if they sleep in his courtyard.”

                     A Lobedu Proverb.

————

Image: Microsoft Co-Pilot AI modified

Know more:

The Rain Queen

Lekukela’s Coronation

The Lobedu

Queens of African Kingdoms

'Shèun Ominira-Bluejack
'Shèun Ominira-Bluejack
Born in England into an old Nigerian family that counted kings and commoners as ancestors, the Nigerian writer 'Shèun Ominira-Bluejack was raised and educated in various parts of Africa over the course of the succeeding three decades. He has a mother, a sister and three cats that he loves dearly, and has been writing and performing for most of his life - even if it was mostly only for their consumption. A leftist and a womanist by inclination, his mediums are varied, but upper class frivolity, fabulism and allegory often occur in his pieces, and a short film that he co-wrote - Esther - won the award for best cinematography at the 2013 edition of the 48 Hour Film Festival in Cape Town. A prince of the Iralepo and Fubara Manilla Pepple dynasties in the Nigerian chieftaincy system, Mr. Ominira-Bluejack currently serves as the administrative co-ordinator of the anthropological, genealogical and historical service "African Royal Families".

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