Like lots of women, I imagine, I sometimes wish I could just leave all the aggravation of life behind and go start my own village someplace. Of course, American women have been doing that for decades with women’s lands, but we haven’t been the only ones. I recently came across two places in Africa to share with you.
For at least 200 years, the Lovedu tribe living on a verdant land in South Africa has been ruled by a dynasty of Rain Queens who have passed the crown only from mother to daughter. The dynasty was begun, according to tradition, when Dzugundini, daughter of a chief, was forced to flee with her followers and established her own village.
According to Ann Jones, who writes about her visit to this place in the amazing book Looking for Lovedu (Knopf, 2001), the Modjadji Queens are known both for their ability to make rain as well as valuing “cooperation, appeasement, compromise, tolerance, generosity, peace.” For generations, the Modjadji Queens have been deeply respected by other African rulers, including Nelson Mandela, and have good relations with them. To their people, the Queens were known as “She Who Does Not Fight.” This valuing of harmony and cooperation extended also to the Lovedu children, who were raised with love and guidance, rather than punishment, and praised for generosity and peacemaking.
Lovedu is not, however, a simple utopian women’s paradise. Though the Queens had no husbands, they were traditionally served by about 20 “wives” who were not traditional spouses, but really servants who came to the Queens through the custom of “bride-giving” common in that time and place and were part of the diplomacy that was the hallmark of the Queens’ manner of rule. Each Queen had a Council of men who had considerable influence and decision-making authority, though they greatly respected their Queens and their authority. The Queens’ ability to travel outside their village and live life as they wished was strongly restricted by their position, but this the next to the last Queen, whom Jones met, viewed as a necessary sacrifice in order to serve her people. There is, from what I can tell, no current Queen, for whatever reason.
Whatever the eventual fate of the Rain Queen’s dynasty, the story of the Modjadji queens is important. Yes, a people can live in peace and harmony with their neighbors and be ruled over by a matrilineal succession of women for centuries. Yes, the values of the Modjadji queens can work to make lives better in the real world and women rulers who advocate for them can command respect from men and women alike. And I am amazed that in my 30 years of reading about women’s culture, I had never heard of the Modjadji until I read Ann Jones’ account.
Fourteen years ago, another African woman, Rebecca Lolosoli, also struck out and formed her own village. Umoja is a small village in Kenya founded by Lolosoli and women who were homeless as a result of being rejected by their families for being raped. The village has only women and has become a haven for young women being forced into marriage and survivors of domestic violence and rape. They have successfully created a cultural center and camping site for tourists to support themselves and withstood the attempts by a village men set up nearby to make them leave their home. When the men threw stones at Lolosoli, she, according to the article, would simply ignore them or ask “Are you okay? Are your children okay? Are your cows okay?” Not knowing how to respond when hostility is met with kindness, they were, she said, “disarmed.” You can read about them here.
As we all make our way into the uncertain world of the future, may we seek out the wisdom of women like the Modjadji queens and the residents of Umoja. While each is different, and I do not pretend to have expertise in the cultures from which they come, I do recognize the universal lessons in both their stories. Women can hold power and use it peacefully. It is possible to overcome great obstacles and challenges through the use of cooperation and building relationships. Women can join together and further these values while, at the same time, meeting their own material needs and those of their families and people. I celebrate all these women and those like them all over the world whose stories I have not yet heard.