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Tuesday, June 14, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

South Africa's rain queen, 27, dies of undisclosed illness

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Makobo Modjadji, the famed rain queen of South Africa's Balobedu people, has died of unspecified causes after just two years in power, the Modjadji Royal Council said yesterday. She was 27.

The queen was admitted to the Medi-Clinic in Polokwane on Friday with symptoms that included vomiting and died Sunday, council spokesman Clement Modjadji told the South African Press Association. He did not disclose the cause of death.

The Balobedu of the northern Limpopo province believe magical powers are passed down from queen to queen, allowing her to transform clouds and create rain at a special ceremony held each November. Modjadji, who was crowned in 2003 at the age of 25, was the tribe's sixth and youngest queen and the only one to be formally educated. The tribe is one of the few in Africa to have a leader who comes from a female line of succession.

H. Rider Haggard's classic novels "King Solomon's Mines" and "She" first drew the world's attention to the legendary rain queen in the 1880s.

Her power was so feared that the Balobedu were left in relative peace for centuries despite the wars that raged around the region. While the rain queen is monarch, she governs through a council of men. Custom forbids the queen from marrying, but the royal council chooses consorts for her for the sake of procreation. The queen is served by a number of "wives" — women sent by the tribe's many villages and whose children are considered hers.

Modjadji was chosen to succeed her grandmother, Mokope, who died in 2001 at the age of 64. She was crowned in a light drizzle, seen as a sign of her power.

While modern meteorology has robbed the rain queen of much of the awe she once commanded, her cultural influence is acknowledged even by secular politicians. Modjadji's predecessor received visits from former presidents Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk.

A funeral is tentatively planned for Friday. Burial rituals must be completed before the council decides who will be the next rain queen.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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