Rainmaking rituals and ceremonies of southern Africa
“He who brings rain, brings life” (Ancient Zulu Saying)
Rainmaking rituals and ceremonies have been practised throughout the world, particularly during periods of drought and just before the agricultural season. These practices varied from culture to culture, but good examples include the rain dances of both the Native American tribes and the San of Southern Africa. Rain dancing in Africa was also practised by the Akamba of Kenya (kilumi dance), the Lovedu of South Africa (legobathele), the Shona of Zimbabwe (mukwerera) and many other groups. These rain dances were popular as they often accompanied other rituals such as prayers and sacrifices to the ancestors and/or gods.
In most parts of Southern Africa rain rituals were directed towards royal ancestors because they were believed to have control over rain and other natural phenomena. Among the Tswana, the chief was responsible for organising and presiding over these rites as his reputation and popularity were determined by the nature of rain that fell during his reign. The planting season, therefore, began with rainmaking ceremonies organised by the chief. One of the ceremonies practised by the Tswana was the annual ritual of tseola (also known as tsheola) or sephai that took place in August or September. The ceremony took place on the grave of one of the ancestors of the chief. The chief, with the help of the rainmaker, was responsible for offering prayers and a sacrifice at the ceremony. The sacrifice offered was usually a black ox (other ethnic groups also utilised a black sheep or goat) because this colour expressed the darkness of the rain clouds.
The role of animals at these rites went beyond their sacrificial function as some were perceived to be religious symbols. San rock art sometimes depicted animals such as the buffalo and hippopotamus (or hippopotamus-like creatures) that were associated with rainmaking rituals. Snakes were also part of San rainmaking beliefs and were depicted in their rock art, particularly that of the south-eastern San. Mythical serpents had religious significance for most Bantu groups and were often associated with water or fertility. In Venda culture there was/is close association between the python and rain. The killing of pythons was therefore forbidden when the first rains began to fall or during planting season. If a python was killed, the head and tail were always buried in a cattle kraal to ensure the fertility of the cattle, and the body was dragged to a river. The Zulus, on the other hand, believed in Nomkhubulwana (princess of heaven or goddess of corn). She was considered to preside over grain and was attributed with the power of bringing rain.
Certain animals were believed to have great medicinal and magical potency. The pangolin, for example, was associated with rain by some Shona speakers. They believed that this creature came from the clouds together with rain because it was usually seen during the rainy season. Parts of ‘potent’ animals were mixed into rain medicines. These medicines and charms were usually kept at the residence of the chief. Tswana chiefs possessed rainmaking enclosures in which rain medicines were kept in clay pots. Just prior to the planting season each year young girls filled these pots with water, then sprinkled their contents in the fields. The Pedi kept their rain medicines (mohlapo) behind the hut of the principal wife of the chief, in a large pot called mphoko. The contents of these pots were also sprinkled into fields by young girls.
The skill of rainmaking was typically learned from a young age and was seen as a calling, much like the gift of healers. In 2013 archaeologists discovered a rainmaking centre in Southern Africa that was used by shamans to call on the gods to send rain. It is believed that the San used this site to conduct rituals for rain. Farmers who came to live in this area often asked for their intervention in praying for much needed rain during dry seasons. For some Southern African groups hilltops or mountain tops were the ideal places for offering prayers and sacrifices for rain, because many believed that prayers made at these altitudes brought them closer to God (the Supreme Being). Rain was believed to be a gift from the deities and a lack of this resource was seen as a form of punishment. It was therefore important to appease them in the hope of getting rain.
Most of the practices, including rain ceremonies, were discontinued by the early twentieth century because of the influence of missionaries. The lesokoane ceremony was popular in Lesotho and the Free State Province. Lesokoane is a playful Sotho ceremony, usually performed to call for rain, in which maidens and adult women from one village raid another in order to capture the lesokoane (a wooden porridge stirring spoon), and those from the raided village have to attempt to steal it back. In the western world this can be related to a relay because once the spoon has been captured it is tossed to other women who are waiting outside the raided village along the way back to their village. Once the spoon had served its purpose, the women from the raided village attempt to steal it back or request it from the chief or headman, but the women from that village still defend it. Based on the stories of informants, it became evident that there are various versions of lesokoane. In some places there have been attempts to re-introduce the prayer for rain ceremonies, particularly in the Free State.
Krige, E.J. 1965. The Social System of the Zulu. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter.
Moninig, H.O. 1967. The Pedi. Pretoria: J.L Van Schaik Limited.
Schapera, I. 1971. Rainmaking rites of Tswana tribes. University of Michigan: Afrika-Studiecentrum.
Schapera, I. 1984. The Tswana. London: KPI Limited.
Stayt, H. 1931. The Bavenda. London: Oxford University Press.
Rain bull with buffalo features, southern Lesotho. (Photo: National Museum)
Rain Serpent with antelope head, Free State Province. (Photo: National Museum)
Hippos, Eastern Cape Province. (Photo: National Museum)