Part One: Essence of Travel
Looking for Lovedu–Ann Jones
To Jump or Not to Jump?–Hannelore Hahn
Climbing Mt. Everest–Margo Chisholm and Ray Bruce
Bread upon the Waters–Brenda Peterson
The Deer at Providencia–Annie Dillard
Rocks in My Head–Terry Strother
Hawaii, New Zealand, Hong Kong
The Pelican–Lynne Cox
Am I Blue?–Alice Walker
A Desert Affair–Tehila Lieberman
Part Two: Some Things to Do
Diving the Jungle–Denise M. Spranger
Hang Gliding Big Sur–Carol Droge Clark
The Catch–Sara Fraser
No Road? No Problem–Lesley Hazleton
Rafting the Boh–Tracy Johnston
Tracking Lessons–Hannah Nyala
Up the Volcano–Lucy McCauley
On Flying–Lesley Hazleton
In the Clouds
Part Three: Going Your Own Way
Rescue in the Exotic Animal Market–Karin Muller
Swimming Titicaca–Lynne Cox
Bolivia and Peru
Skunk Dreams–Louise Erdrich
Feeling the Green–Kyle E. McHugh
Walking Her Sorrow into Life–Sharon Balentine
Among Chimpanzees–Jane Goodall
The Nature of Birth–Rebecca Aaland
USA and Spain
Alone with the Rabari–Robyn Davidson
Part Four: In the Shadows
Lightning Strike–Gretel Ehrlich
Kenya and Israel
Looking for Footprints–Susan Fox Rogers
Beyond the Ruins–Joy Nicholson
Nature, Fear, and Race–Evelyn C. White
Survival at Sea–Deborah Scaling Kiley
Part Five: The Last Word
Undressing the Bear–Terry Tempest Williams
Looking for Lovedu
by Ann Jones
Three women travel across Africa to the land “where women rule.”
I set out from London in a bright blue Army surplus 1980 Series III Land Rover bound for Capetown. With me was my friend Muggleton, a British photographer and ace mechanic, who coaxed our disintegrating vehicle some 6,000 miles from London to Nairobi. In five months, we crossed the Sahara on our own, dodged roadblocks in Nigeria, ferried across a river in central Africa on a home-made bamboo raft, slogged through the bottomless mud and revolutionary politics of eastern Zaire—while our Land Rover got smashed, scraped, dented, bashed, fractured, crumpled, crimped, and very nearly sunk. Muggleton loved to do manly battle with hostile soldiers, corrupt police, rough roads, wild animals, greedy bandits, and Mother Nature—that was his idea of travel—but at last, after two bad bouts of malaria, he bailed out of the expedition, sold off the remains of the Land Rover (which only he could fix), and went home.
Hakuna matata, I told myself. No problem. Muggleton’s defection left me in Nairobi with a second chance to focus on the real purpose of my expedition. All along, as Muggleton propelled us into macho adventures, I had imagined myself on a quest: a mystical mission in search of a peaceable land ruled by a great queen.
I first got wind of the queen on a visit to the Natural History Museum in New York City. There in a display of African household articles, I’d read this caption: “Except for a few tribes like the Lovedu, where women rule, they seem unimportant in political life.” The words “where women rule” stopped me in my tracks. Did some mad feminist lurk in the back rooms of the museum, writing subversive signs? Or could it be true?
A search of the library turned up She, written in 1886 by the popular British novelist H. Rider Haggard, a minor classic reputedly based on legends of a powerful Bantu queen. Haggard called her “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.” More important, I found a scholarly study published in 1943 by two South African anthropologists who had actually visited the Lovedu tribe and met the Queen—Modjadji. They reported that she lived in seclusion with her wives.
Yes, wives. What distinguished the Lovedu from other Bantu tribes was that women as well as men held property. And what is a wife but a piece of property? Wives came as payments to Modjadji, like cattle or corn: as tributes, taxes, bribes. At her kraal, the wives did for the Queen, their husband, what ordinary Lovedu wives did for theirs: they hoed her fields, brewed her beer, cooked her food, and kept her in domestic comfort. And she used them in trade and diplomacy like any other commodity. In this way, the anthropologists said, Queen Modjadji built alliances and knit her realm into a family.
It was a family without a husband or father, for the royal lineage of the Lovedu is a succession of single mothers. It was founded perhaps three or four centuries ago by Dzugudini who—unmarried, expecting—fled her father’s kingdom in Zimbabwe with sacred charms to set herself up in the mountains of the Transvaal as a Rain Maker.
Under the rule of Queen Modjadji, Lovedu society placed the highest value on traditionally “feminine” ideals: cooperation, appeasement, compromise, tolerance, generosity, peace. Invading Europeans who took over the Transvaal in the 1890s saw Queen Modjadji III as a powerful, unscrupulous madam, little better than a bordello keeper, who pacified intruders with beer and girls, and dealt diplomacy by poison. Accustomed to shooting Africans, they branded her pacifist tactics “immoral” and stole her lands, reducing her realm from 600 square miles to 150.
Africans, on the other hand, so revered the Modjadji queens that even Shaka, the great Zulu warrior-chief, paid homage. And in the 1930s, the visiting anthropologists reported that Modjadji III still ruled “without official husband to cramp her authority.” She was still thought to be immortal and possessed of magical powers to transform clouds into rain. The Modjadji dynasty, the most powerful queens in southern Africa, made rain, not war.
Here were rulers after my own heart. I tried to learn more about them, but I kept running up against experts whose scholarly objectivity wasn’t up to the job of contemplating powerful black queens. A couple of anthropologists told me the Lovedu queens were fair-skinned, probably descended from white European traders. A curator at the British Museum assured a colleague who inquired on my behalf that the Lovedu queens were actually men in drag. What could I do but go and see for myself?
In Nairobi I met Debo Kingsland, an Australian-born, British-based filmmaker, temporarily between jobs. Yes, she said, she’d love to meet the queen. Somehow we persuaded UTC, the United Touring Company, the biggest tour operator in Africa, to lend us a Land Cruiser for our search; and in November, a little more than a year after I originally set out from London, Debo and I hit the road in earnest in search of the Great Queen.
We’d invited another friend to come along. Joanne Luhongo, a Kiswahili-speaking Luhya woman, a young widow with two small daughters, had never traveled outside Kenya before. On the morning of our departure from Nairobi, she showed up at dawn carrying a small duffle bag, a cooking pot, and a big bottle of the ashy water that Kenyan women use to tenderize tough green vegetables. Four-year-old Sweetie and two-year-old Charleen clung to her skirts. We would drop off the girls in western Kenya at Joanne’s home place, with her mother, Mama Beritah. A strong woman of great dignity, Mama Beritah is the daughter of one of the ten wives of a powerful Luhya chief, and her mother as well was the proud daughter of a chief. It seemed only fitting that we should pay our respects to this royal lineage as we set out in search of the Queen of the Lovedu.
With Joanne and the girls ensconced in the back of the Land Cruiser, we crossed the Rift Valley, passing by soda lakes ringed with pink flamingos. Then the western hills rose around us, patched with garden plots of cabbages and beans and greens, tall rows of maize, and stands of exotic eucalyptus trees raised for firewood. At Mago village, a radiant Mama Beritah waited for us in her front yard, her head wrapped in a beautiful red scarf. “Mirembe,”she said, clasping our hands. “Mirembe, mirembe. Peace, peace.” Brothers Mahagwa and Gichuru were there too, to say “safari njema”—good journey. Mama Beritah ordered platters of matoke (stewed bananas) brought to us. She prayed over us. And quietly she embraced Joanne’s weeping children as we drove away.
We came out of the hills above Kisumu and descended the escarpment to the broad plain that stretches away to Lake Victoria. The Kenyan patchwork of tiny gardens dissolved into the bush of Tanzania—dry flaxen grass studded with leafless shrubs and thorny acacias—broken only here and there by clusters of crumbling mud-and-wattle thatched houses. Herds of dusty cattle—white, dun, and black—plied the roadside tended by Masai children.
For days we drove the rough roads eastward across the Serengeti, from the rolling bush-covered western hills to the flat grassy eastern sector, while all around us the wildebeest tramped on their annual migration. They came in long lines, not massed in one herd but strung out like streamers converging, strand upon strand, braiding themselves into a single thickening rope of wildebeest.
One day, after we passed through the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro and turned south along the shoulder of the Usambara Mountains, we followed a dirt track into the hills and began to set up camp, miles from nowhere. Just then a woman walked out of the bush. Wrapped in faded cloth of red and yellow, she was a little stick of a woman—so slight that the machete she carried appeared to be enormous. “You are welcome to camp,” she told us in Kiswahili. She, Hadijah, had seen campers before, she told us proudly, and she would inform her neighbors that we did not intend to stay and steal their land. We were surrounded, it seemed, by an invisible community of squatters who survived by raising maize and chopping wood for charcoal—as Hadijah had been doing.
Hadijah is a widow, she told us, and must get money for her three surviving children—she had eight—who stay with her mother miles away in the village where the school is. Most of the time, Hadijah lives alone on this mountainside in a mud hut no bigger than a garden shed. She sleeps on the dirt floor and spends her days chopping firewood. She’s strong and lithe and swings the machete with an easy grace, but this is back-breaking work.
In the morning a man dressed up in trousers and velveteen sport coat materialized near our tents. He was the husband of Hadijah’s friend and neighbor Amina, and as the headman of the area he had come to greet us officially with many rhetorical flourishes of Kiswahili. We walked down the hillside with him to the squatters’ homes. There the women were working outside Amina’s hut, pounding maize kernels in a wooden mortar with wooden pestles the size of fence posts. Rhythmically they raised the heavy poles and brought them down again and again while half a dozen men lounged on the big sacks of maize meal the women had already prepared.
This is the standard arrangement in Africa, where women do something like 80 percent of the work and produce something like 90 percent of the food. (The statistics vary from study to study, but you get the idea.) It’s not that men do nothing. They supervise. They make decisions. They accumulate the fruits of women’s labor. They hold the capital: goats, cattle, machines. These men, notified of our presence by Hadijah, had gathered to look us over and express opinions. When they saw me give a Polaroid photo to Hadijah and Amina, the men let it be known that they collectively were prepared to pose for such a portrait. One raised his machete in salute. Another unwrapped one carefully saved cigarette and put it in the corner of his mouth, at a rakish angle. A third dragged his goat into camera range. A fourth displayed his portable radio. They stood up proudly—the menfolk. They had the goods.
As we drove on toward Lovedu land, we tried to imagine what it might mean to be a queen in Africa. All around us, all along the way, we saw women doing nothing but work. Debo, who had been filming women at work, had footage of women hoeing, planting crops, weeding, harvesting, gathering wild edibles, shucking maize, pounding maize, grinding maize at the mill, carrying maize meal home, chopping wood, gathering firewood, carrying firewood home on their heads or on their backs, building fires, cooking, serving food, washing dishes, scouring pots, making clothes, buying clothes, washing clothes (after first carrying the laundry to the river, or carrying the river water home), selling clothes and just about anything else in the marketplace or beside the road, building houses, painting houses, gathering thatching, preparing mud plaster, polishing floors with cattle dung (to keep out insects), scrubbing floors, weaving palm fibers, making mats, making baskets, making hats, dying fabrics, sewing, knitting, embroidering, making pots, minding children, doctoring children, teaching children, feeding children, washing children, dressing children, plaiting hair, milking cows, feeding chickens, butchering chickens, shopping, making brooms, sweeping houses, sweeping yards, cleaning churches, cleaning wells, planting trees, and keeping accounts. So far she had no footage at all of women being queens. What would a queen do?
When we filled out exit and entry permits at border crossings, I noticed that Joanne always checked the box for “single.” One day I asked her why she didn’t check “widow.”
“No, no,” she said emphatically, as if alarmed at the thought. “A widow must have permission to travel from the father-in-law.”
Among the Kisii, the tribe of Joanne’s late husband, a woman belongs to her husband’s family. When he dies, she may be claimed in marriage by his brothers—together with all her property. Joanne has avoided that fate, probably because she owns nothing but her own independent spirit. But it’s hard to imagine an African Queen when the average African woman has no right to her own property, or even to herself.
We inched our way—almost 900 kilometers—down the skinny passage that is Malawi, passing the barren windswept hills of the high Nyika plateau, the rolling surf of the great inland sea of Lake Malawi, the steaming lushness of the Shire River valley where the lake drains away into the forest. We camped on the beaches of the great lake where mango trees dropped their ripe fruits beside our tents. Thousands of kilometers still lay between us and the Rain Queen, but as we drew closer the skies darkened and fierce winds whipped sheets of rain across the road. The windshield wipers whooshed back and forth whispering, “Rain…Queen…Rain…Queen…Rain…Queen.”
We crossed Mozambique through the Tete Corridor, passed into Zimbabwe, and pressed on—on good roads now—to South Africa and the Transvaal. Exploration not being what it used to be, we learned that to visit the Lovedu we must ring up the Tribal Council to make an appointment. Phone calls sputtered along uncertain wires, and soon word came back: Her Majesty Mokope, Modjadji V, reigning (and raining) Queen of the Lovedu, would grant us an audience.
On the morning of the day appointed, we drove through the Drakensburg mountains as fog rose from the valleys. Spectral plantations of eucalyptus covered the hillsides, cloaked in mist. We turned a corner into the valley of GaModjadji—into the realm of the Rain Queen—and the factory forests were replaced by a human landscape of huts and maize fields and people walking in the road. A long, winding gravel track carried us up a mountainside to the tribal headquarters of the Lovedu. There waiting for us were two men smartly dressed in western sports shirts and trousers: Nerwick Molokwane, a teacher who would serve as translator, and Victor Mathekga, a member of the royal family and the Queen’s Council.
Our guides led us through an iron gate marked “Modjadji Head Kraal” to a small rondavelsurrounded by a dozen slumbering yellow dogs. We removed our shoes and followed our guides into the hut. There a barefoot Queen Modjadji V was seated on her throne—a red leatherette la-z-boy Recliner with the label still attached. She was dressed for the occasion in a navy blue polo shirt and a wrap of leopard-patterned cotton. She wore gold earrings and a bright red print scarf about her head. On her face she wore a look of queenly implacability.
“Fierce!” Debo hissed.
That look intimidated me no end and filled me with chagrin that the meeting I’d looked forward to for more than a year, the meeting I’d trekked all the way across Africa to bring about, should occasion so little response in the object of my quest. What had I expected? A smile? A handshake? A warm embrace?
Bowing awkwardly before the Queen, we presented our gifts—gold earrings, cloths of regal purple, a waterproof flashlight—then shuffled backwards to seat ourselves in fat vinyl chairs opposite the throne, while our guides crept across the floor to kneel on grass mats.
“You may ask your questions now,” Nerwick said, after he had expressed our greetings and thanks to the Queen.
“Do we find the Queen in good health?”
“Is the Queen responsible for the current rains?”
The Queen seemed a woman of few words—though she kept Nerwick and Victor chuckling at remarks they did not translate into English.
“Did the Queen take action to end the recent drought?”
Nerwick elaborated. Every October the Queen carries out three ceremonies, one at each of three sacred shrines. The Queen pours out bowls of beer, and important men, including Nerwick and Victor, drink it from the ground. She beats the sacred drums. Everyone dances. The rain falls.
“Is it true that the Queen has many wives?” I asked.
“Plus or minus twenty-five,” Victor said. They are given to her by the indunas, or headmen, who govern the villages. They live in huts within the royal compound, together with their children, and they serve the Queen. Certain men of the royal family see to it that the Queen’s wives bear plenty of children.
“It is my duty,” Victor said proudly. He explained that the Queen herself gave birth to two daughters (one of whom died) and a son—although of course she has no husband.
“Does the Queen enjoy good relations with the new government of South Africa?” Debo asked.
“Yes.” The new government brings electricity to her villages. But she enjoyed good relations with the old government of South Africa too. Compromise, appeasement, reconciliation, tolerance, peace. The great ideals of Lovedu culture.
High on her hillside in GaModjadji, what should Modjadji V care who rules the country? She is not an educated woman, she told us. She grew up in one of the small huts of the compound and succeeded her mother Makoma, Modjadji IV, who reigned from 1960 to 1980. All the land of GaModjadji is hers, and so is responsibility for the welfare of the people who live upon it—perhaps 50,000 of them. Her job is to keep the peace and bring the rain. She and her predecessors have done so for 400 years. When you think about it, that’s no small achievement.
“Is there anything the people of the western world need to learn from you, Your Majesty, and the women of your culture?” we asked as our audience drew to a close.
What the Queen said made Nerwick laugh. “Yes,” he said. “Her Majesty says she could teach you to dance.”
Debo and I drove south into Lesotho, hired a couple of Basotho horses, and rode to a village high in the Maluti mountains. Joanne had flown home to her children, but we planned to drive on to the Cape to complete the journey from one end of Africa to the other. Then, to return the Land Cruiser to UTC in Harare, we would drive back through Namibia and Botswana and Zimbabwe.
But that night in the mountain village in Lesotho we sat quietly in the doorway of a stone hut and watched the full moon rise. I was deep in thought about Modjadji and the curious persistence of her “feminine” domain where aggressive individualism is barbarous and harmony is the highest ideal. Soon the moon was covered by fast moving clouds. Then lightning came, stabbing the mountainside across the deep valley. And then rain. It poured on the thatch of our hut. It poured on the cows huddled in the stone kraal just below our doorway. It poured on the horses, tethered out there in the dark. It poured as though it would wash the whole world clean.
“That Modjadji,” Debo said. “Does she never rest?”
Ann Jones is best known for what she calls her “heavy duty feminist books” such as Women Who Kill and Next Time, She’ll Be Dead. She is also the author of Looking for Lovedu: Days and Nights in Africa, a book-length version of this story, and Guide to America’s Outdoors: Middle Atlantic.