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Makobo Modjadji, 27; was South African rain queen

JOHANNESBURG -- 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 she 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 that magical powers are passed down from queen to queen, allowing her to transform clouds and create rain at a special ceremony held each November.

Queen Modjadji, who was crowned in 2003 at age 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.

In times of drought, caravans of gifts were sent to the tribe's community, more than 150 rural villages set near thick forests full of rare cycads.

While the rain queen is a 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.

She also is served by a number of ''wives," women sent by the tribe's many villages and whose children are considered hers.

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

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

Mandela grew friendly with Mokope Modjadji and once gave her a four-wheel-drive vehicle to help her reach her home up a steep, winding road.

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

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