The Rain Queen
By Fred Owens
I checked out of the hotel in Calvinia. I walked over to the gas station at the edge of town. The bus was coming at midnight. I got there early because I like to get places early. I looked at the stars. It was very quiet on the outside of town. The bus was an express to Johannesburg and we got there the next day. I had a four-hour layover to get the bus to Zimbabwe. I checked my bags and took a walk. I think I walked out the wrong door because the neighborhood looked a little seedy. There were a few vendors with their wares displayed on blankets. I was going to visit the Johannesburg Stock Exchange where I might view traders in frantic motion buying and selling shares in the gold mines which tunneled under the busy sidewalks of this great city. Gold. Five thousand feet down. Sweating mine workers. Dangerous work in the mines. Up above the gold was traded in the Stock Exchange. I could view the action from a balcony reserved for visitors.
So I headed in that direction, down this seedy street with vendors showing their wares on blankets. An urchin came up to me and asked me where I was going. He didn't ask for money. I told him where I was going. He said a quicker way was down that street, pointing somewhere. Why was I walking alone? I went down this side street, too quiet. Two men jumped me. One in front with a dead look on his face. The other in back grabbing my arms. They threw me to the ground and grabbed at my back pocket, ripping my pants, gashing my blood, and grabbing $50 worth of currency in Rands from my pocket. Then they ran off. Ten seconds and done. These guys were pros. I'm glad they ripped my pants and gashed my blood, because then they didn't need to kick me. I'm glad they ripped my back pocket and took the cash, because I had my wallet and passport tucked inside my pants in a money belt and they didn't get that.
This could have happened in an American city, except in truth, Johannesburg has a much higher crime rate. Crooks are armed. Citizens are armed. Egoli is the Zulu name for this godless city. Gold. Money. Crime. I limped back to the bus station, put on fresh pants, threw away the ripped and bloody pants. Found a cup of coffee. Replenished my nerves. And just to feel like a winner. I asked around to find the right door out of the bus station, the one where all the tourists go, to the nicer part of town and heavily policed. I walked out there and I saw this was the well-beaten track. This is a good view. It's safe. But when you wander off the track and you're walking alone, you better pay attention. Why didn't the urchin ask me for money? I should have wondered. I got on the bus for Zimbabwe. We drove north through the Balubedo country to the border with Zimbabwe.
Makobo Modjadji VI was the sixth in line in of the Balubedo tribe's Rain Queens. Her mother and grandmother had been Rain Queen before her. It is believed that the Rain Queen controls the rivers and clouds in the tribal territory along the Limpopo River. Visitors from neighboring tribes bring her tribute lest she withdraw the rain and they go into drought. Makobo Modjadji VI died in 2005 after only a few years on the throne. She was 27. It is suspected she died of AIDS. She was too modern, she wore jeans and talked on her cell phone. She was not supposed to have a boy friend. The Rain Queen must maintain a semblance of virtue and be mating only with men of noble birth. But of course she had a boyfriend, a back door man, if she could just keep it quiet. But the boy friend appeared at her side in public and the matrons of her court were shocked and angered. Then she died an early death. They said it was poison, but it was probably AIDS. Here is something I learned about African people. Nobody dies of AIDS. I knew many young people who died, much younger than me. What did they die of I asked and their family always said the same thing -- She had cancer. Really? Cancer? This is Africa. I did not come to challenge or change local custom. If they say say it's cancer, then it's cancer. After that I never asked how they died. It was just sad. So the Rain Queen died in 2005 and she has not been replaced. And the world is getting drier and hotter. We need a new Rain Queen, but I don't know what to do about that.
Too many people died when we lived in our rented house on 21 Shottery Crescent in Bulawayo. Christopher died. Francis died. Maphuto had velvet black skin and he died. Aunt Janet was my favorite. She was much younger then me and she died. We took her in a casket out to the cemetery and there were six other funerals going on that day, digging graves. But I stopped asking how they died.
I brought a small sketch book with me with colored pencils. I did not have a camera. They steal cameras, and the weather can ruin them and you need to buy film, and you might offend local culture by pointing your camera at someone or something. But nobody minds a sketch pad. They come up to you and say "I see you are arting. Is it fine?" And I would reply, "Yes, I am arting that bird, which is sitting in that tree." And the man would lower his head and look closer at the drawing, "Yes, you have made a good drawing." "Can I give it to you?" I might say, if I truly wanted to share. But when you bring out a camera, people get stiff and self-conscious. Later I bought a camera and brought it to weddings because African people expect that and they are wearing their best clothes at a wedding.
We crossed the Limpopo River into Zimbabwe. The people crowded around the customs station selling things. They were black. It dawned on me like Forrest Gump sitting on a park bench. Black people live here. Not mixed blood Coloured people like Hugh Masekela, the jazz trumpeter from Capetown, but all-black people. In America you can go to a part of town and that's where the black people live. So you are used to that. Okay, now I'm in the black part of town. But in Africa it's everything. It is all-black. There is no place or thing or tree or person that is not black. It's not really scary but it's awesome. People on the bus ignored me. I don't think they noticed or cared. There's this white man on the bus. In Zimbabwe they call a white man a kiwa. Kiwa is the Shona word for fig. The inside of a fig is pale pink, so a white man is a kiwa. I heard people say that, in kindness. But it's all-black. Is there any part of Africa that is not all-black? Yes, Capetown, but we're gone from there.
So I just read my book and looked out the window as the bus rolled north to Harare. I had no need to apologize. I was going to stay in Harare for a few days and then head to the Eastern Highlands to find Nyanga.
Then I will write about my wife. That could be the best part of the story, but I am building up to that. I am surprised about how much I remember.
I heard from Judy in LaConner and from Mary in the Hollywood Hills asking the same thing. When are we going to hear about your wife? Soon.
Current Events. Current events -- the virus, the election, and the stock market crash -- can be overwhelming. It is important for all of us to stay calm and stay grounded. I offer this African story as a kind of escape, a journey to another reality. Please send me your reaction to this story. Where do you want it to go? What did I forget?