|Regions with significant populations|
|Zimbabwe, South Africa (esp. Limpopo Province), Malawi, Mozambique|
|Formerly Kalanga; presently Venda and Shona|
|Christianity, Islam, Judaism|
The Lemba, wa-Remba, or Mwenye are a southern African ethnic group found in present-day Zimbabwe and South Africa, with smaller, little-known branches in Mozambique and Malawi. According to Tudor Parfitt, Professor of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, in 2002 they numbered an estimated 50,000. They speak the Bantu languages spoken by their geographic neighbours and resemble them physically, but they have some religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism and Islam, which they claim were transmitted by oral tradition.
The name "Lemba" may originate in chilemba, a Swahili word for turbans worn by some Bantu peoples, or lembi, a Bantu word meaning "non-African" or "respected foreigner". Magdel le Roux says that the name VaRemba may be translated as "the people who refuse" – probably in the context of "not eating with others" (according to one of her interviewees). In Zimbabwe and South Africa, the people prefer the name Mwenye.
Since the late twentieth century, there has been increased media and scholarly attention to the people's claims of partial common descent to the Jewish people. Genetic Y-DNA analyses in the 2000s have established a partially Middle-Eastern origin for a portion of the male Lemba population. Both Arabs and Jews share this DNA, but the Cohen Modal Haplotype, an indicator of Jewish ancestry, has been found among the males of one leadership clan at rates even higher than in the general Jewish population.
In the period in which Jews were settled in southern Arabia, they were proselytising, and attracted converts from around the Mediterranean and North Africa. Many pre-modern Lemba beliefs and practices can be linked to Judaism, and some are also common to Islam. According to Rudo Mathivha, a Lemba of South Africa,[dead link] these include the following:
- They observe Shabbat.
- They praise Nwali (God) for looking after the Lemba, and identify themselves as part of the chosen people.
- They teach their children to honour their mothers and fathers. (This is common to many ethnicities and religions.)
- They refrain from eating pig and other animals forbidden by the Torah, and forbid certain combinations of permitted foods.
- They practice ritual animal slaughter and ritual preparation of meat for consumption, which is a Middle Eastern practice rather than common to African ethnicities.
- They practise male circumcision; according to Junod's work in 1927, surrounding tribes regarded the Lemba as the masters and originators of that art.
- Since the late 20th century and increased attention to possible Jewish ancestry, they have placed a Star of David on their tombstones.
- Lemba are discouraged from marrying non-Lemba, just as Jews are discouraged from marrying non-Jews.
According to Magdel le Roux, the Lemba have a ritual of sacrifice which they call the "Pesah", which seems similar to the Jewish Pesach or Passover. Some of these traditions are not exclusively Jewish; they are common to Muslims in the Middle East and Africa, as well as being common to other African tribes and other peoples. In the late 1930s, W. D. Hammond-Tooke wrote a book identifying Lemba practices that are similar to those of Muslims: for instance, their endogamous marriage practices are also common to Muslims, as are certain dietary restrictions. Together with the similarities between many Lemba clan-names and known Arabic and Semitic words; e.g., Sadiki, Hasane, Hamisi, Haji, Bakeri, Sharifo and Saidi, Hammond-Tooke concluded that the Lemba were descended, at least in part, from Muslim Arabs.
In the late 20th century the British scholar Tudor Parfitt, an expert in marginal Jewish groups, became involved in researching the Lemba's claims. He helped trace ancestors to Senna, what they believe is an ancestral city on the Arabian peninsula, in present-day Yemen. In an interview featured on NOVA in 2000, Parfitt said he was struck by the Lemba's maintenance of rituals that seemed Jewish and/or Semitic:
"The other thing was the extraordinary importance they placed upon ritual slaughter of animals, which is not an African thing at all. Of course, it's Islamic as well as Judaic, but it's certainly from the Middle East, it's not African. And the fact that every lad was given a knife with which he did his ritual throughout his life and took to his grave. That seemed to me to be remarkably, tangibly Semitic Middle Eastern.
Lemba traditions and culture
Their myths of origin generally tell of migrating from the North (which is common to many African ethnicities.) According to Lemba tradition, their male ancestors were Near Eastern Jews who left Judea about 2,500 years ago and settled in a place called Senna in the Arabian peninsula (present-day Yemen). Much later, according to Rudo Mathivha, their oral history relates that they migrated into North East Africa.
According to Parfitt, who published a book in 1993 on his findings, Senna was most likely located in Yemen, specifically, in the village of Sanāw within the easternmost portion of the Wadi Ḥaḍramawt. The city has had a Jewish population since ancient times. Since 1948 and the founding of the State of Israel, as well as later wars, the Jews have dwindled to a few hundred. In Lemba tradition, Sena has the semi-mythical status of a sacred city of origin, and is the object of hopes for eventual return.
According to the Lemba oral tradition, their male ancestors migrated to Southeast Africa to obtain gold. After ancestors intermarried with local women and became established in Africa, at some point, the tribe split into two groups, one staying in Ethiopia and the other travelling farther south, along the east coast.
The Lemba claim that this second group settled in Tanzania and Kenya, building what was referred to as another Sena, or "Sena II". Others supposedly settled in Malawi, where their descendants reside today. Some settled in Mozambique, eventually migrating to Zimbabwe and South Africa. They claim to have constructed Great Zimbabwe, now preserved as a monument. Ken Mufuka, a black Zimbabwean archaeologist, thinks that the Lemba may have contributed to this but would not have been solely responsible. Tudor Parfitt and Magdel le Roux think that they at least helped construct the massive city. (see below). But, most academics of this field agree that the construction of the enclosure at Great Zimbabwe is largely attributable to the ancestors of the Shona, who were first to displace the indigenous San people from the region. Such works were typical of their ancestral civilisations.
The Lemba have endogamous marriage patterns, discouraging marriage to non-Lemba. Endogamy is common to many groups. Normative Orthodox Judaism today recognises only matrilineal descent as determining Judaism from birth. Patrilineal descent was once the norm among the Israelites, with people being identified as descendants of one of the twelve sons of Israel.
The restrictions on intermarriage with non-Lemba make it nearly impossible for a male non-Lemba to become a member. Lemba men who marry non-Lemba women are expelled from the community unless the females agree to live according to Lemba traditions. A woman who marries a Lemba man must learn and practice the Lemba religion, dietary rules, and other customs. The woman may not bring any cooking equipment from her previous home. Initially, the woman may have to shave her head. Their children must be brought up as Lemba.[dead link] If the Lemba had Jewish ancestors, the requirement to shave the head may date to rituals associated with converting the first Lemba women to Judaism, which would have been the way Jewish males acquired women for making families. The genetic MtDNA data of the Lemba (see below) has shown no descent from female Jewish ancestors.
According to Tooke, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the Lemba were highly esteemed by surrounding tribes in the Zoutpansberg region of South Africa for their mining and metalwork skills. He wrote in his 1937 book that the other tribes regarded the Lemba as outsiders. According to articles written during the early 1930s, in the 1920s the Lembas' medical knowledge earned them respect among tribes in South Africa. Parfitt claims that colonial Europeans had their own reasons for distinguishing some tribes instead of others as indigenous to Africa, because it gave the British themselves a right to be in the continent like other migrants. Modern Y-DNA evidence confirms the extra-African origin of some of the Lemba's male ancestors. By contrast, the lead anthropologist in Zimbabwe firmly places them among African peoples, ignoring the DNA evidence.
Lemba tradition tells of a sacred object, the ngoma lungundu or "drum that thunders", that they brought from the place called Sena. Their oral history claims that the ngoma was the Biblical Ark of the Covenant made by Moses. Parfitt]], professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, wrote a book in 2008, The Lost Ark of the Covenant about rediscovery of this work. His book was adapted as a television documentary that aired on the History Channel, tracing the Lemba's claim that the ngoma lungunda was the legendary Ark of the Covenant. Following the lead of eighth-century accounts of the Ark in Arabia, Parfitt found a ghost town by that name, (Sena, Yemen), in an area with people genetically linked to the Lemba.
Parfitt has theorized that the ngoma was related to the Ark of the Covenant, lost from Jerusalem after the city's destruction by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. He says that the ngoma is a descendant of the Biblical Ark, theorizing that the Ark was repaired by adding more material to it as the artifact began to wear out or was destroyed. He says that the ark/ngoma was carried to Africa by its priestly guardians. Lemba oral history claimed that the Ark exploded 700 years ago, and that they rebuilt the Ark on its remains.
Parfitt discovered the ngoma in a Harare, Zimbabwe museum in 2007. It had last been exhibited in 1949 by colonial officials in Bulawayo. They took it to Harare for protection during the drive to independence, and it became misplaced at the museum. Radiocarbon dating of a portion of the artifact showed it to be 700 years old. Parfitt said he believed that the ngoma was the oldest wooden artifact in Zimbabwe. In February 2010, the 'Lemba ngoma lungundu' was put on display in the museum, with a celebration of its history and of the Lemba.
Professor Parfitt says that the ngoma/ark was carried into battles. If it broke apart, it would be rebuilt. The ngoma now on display, he says, was possibly built from the remains of the original. "So it's the closest descendant of the Ark that we know of," Parfitt says. "Many people say that the story is far-fetched, but the oral traditions of the Lemba have been backed up by science", he said.
The Lemba considered the ngoma as intensely sacred and too holy to be touched. It was carried by poles inserted into rings attached to each side of the ngoma. The only members of the tribe permitted to approach it were the hereditary priesthood who guarded it. Others feared that if they were to touch it, they would be "struck down by the fire of God" which would erupt from the object. The Lemba continue to regard the ngoma as the sacred Ark.[page needed]
Genetic testing supports some Lemba oral traditions related to origin of male ancestors in the Middle East. A Y-DNA genetic study in 1996 of 49 Lemba males suggested that more than 50% of the Lemba Y-chromosomes are West Asian in origin, and shared by both Arabs and Jews.
To define the people's origin more specifically, Parfitt and others developed a larger study to compare additional Lemba subjects (for whom clans were recorded) with males from South Arabia and Africa, as well as Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. They found significant similarities between the markers of the Lemba and men of the Ḥaḍramawt in Yemen. They also learned that the population in Yemen was relatively recent, so would not have shared common ancestors with those of the Lemba.
A subsequent study in 2000 found that a substantial number of Lemba men carry a particular haplotype of the Y-chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype (CMH), as well as a haplogroup of Y-DNA Haplogroup J found among some Jews, but also in other populations across the Middle East and Arabia. The genetic studies have found no Semitic female contribution to the Lemba gene pool. This indicates that Israelite men migrated to Africa in ancient times and took wives from among the local people while settling in new communities.
Among Jews the CMH marker is most prevalent among Kohanim, or hereditary priests. As recounted in Lemba oral tradition, the ancestor of the Buba clan "had a leadership role in bringing the Lemba out of Israel" and eventually into Southern Africa. The genetic study found that 50% of the males in the Buba clan had the Cohen marker, a proportion higher than found in the general Jewish population. While not defining the Lemba as Jews, the genetic results confirm the oral accounts of ancestral males originating from outside Africa, and specifically from southern Arabia.
More recently, Mendez et al. (2011) observed that a moderately high frequency of the studied Lemba samples carried Y-DNA Haplogroup T, which is also considered to be of Near Eastern origin. The Lemba T carriers belonged exclusively to T1b, which is rare and was not sampled in indigenous Jews of the Near East or North Africa. T1b has been observed at low frequencies in Ashkenazi Jews as well as in a few Levantine populations.
Research published in 2013 in the South African Medical Journal studied Y-chromosomes variations in two groups of Lemba, one South African and the other Zimbabwean (the Remba). It concluded, "While it was not possible to trace unequivocally the origins of the non-African Y chromosomes in the Lemba and Remba, this study does not support the earlier claims of their Jewish genetic heritage." The researcher suggested "a stronger link with Middle Eastern populations, probably the result of trade activity in the Indian Ocean."
Construction of Great Zimbabwe
- Models of circumcised male organs were found at Great Zimbabwe; (the Lemba appear to have introduced that practice into southern Africa);
- The Lemba bury their dead in an extended rather than a crouched position – i.e., in the same style as in certain Zimbabwean graves, where gold jewellery confirmed an association with the ancient civilisation;
- The old Lemba language was a dialect of Karanga, which is spoken today in the Masvingo area of Zimbabwe; (thus, the Lemba female ancestry was probably derived from the MaKaranga). Gayre asserts that the ancestors of the Lemba were likely responsible for the construction of Great Zimbabwe.
But, the majority of scholars generally agree that Great Zimbabwe was built by the Shona people as part of the 13th-century kingdom of Zimbabwe. It was successor to the earlier Kingdom of Mapungubwe, also known for its complex stone ruins.
Halakhic status as Jews
Halakhic Jewish status in Orthodox Judaism is determined by documenting an unbroken matrilineal line of descent or by conversion to Judaism. Jews who adhere to Orthodox or Conservative rabbinism believe that "Jewish status by birth" is passed only by a Jewish female to her children (if she herself is a Jew by birth or by conversion to Judaism) regardless of the Jewish status of the father. Because of the absence of matrilineal Jewish descent for the Lemba, Orthodox or Conservative Judaism would not recognise them as 'Halakhically Jewish.' Lemba would have to complete a formal conversion process to be accepted as Jews.
The Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Rabbinic Judaism and the Karaites, on the other hand, all recognise patrilineage. As more is learned of widespread people's histories, the Reform branch has acknowledged unusual descent outside the European and indigenous Middle Eastern spheres. Especially since publication of the genetic results of the Lemba, American Jewish communities have reached out to the people, offering assistance, sending books on Judaism and related and study materials, and initiating ties to teach the Lemba about Rabbinic Judaism. So far few Lemba have converted to Rabbinic Judaism.
South African Jews of European descent have long been aware of the Lemba, but have never thought of them as more than an "intriguing curiosity." Generally the Lemba have not been accepted as Jews because of their lack of matrilineal descent. Several rabbis and Jewish associations support their recognition as part of the "Lost Tribes of Israel". In the 2000s, the Lemba Cultural Association approached the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, asking for the Lemba to be recognised as Jews by the Jewish community. The Lemba Association complained that "we like many non-European Jews are simply the victims of racism at the hands of the European Jewish establishment worldwide". They threatened to start a campaign to "protest and ultimately destroy 'Jewish apartheid".
According to Gideon Shimona in his book, Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa (2003): "In terms of halakha the Lemba are not at all comparable with the Falasha [of Ethiopia]. As a group they have no conceivable status in Judaism."
Rabbi Bernhard of South Africa has stated that the only way for a member of the Lemba tribe to be recognised as a Jew is to undergo the formal Halakhic conversion process. After that, the person "would be welcomed with open arms."
As of 2015 the Lemba were building their first synagogue in Mapakomhere, in Masvingo District.
Representation in other media
- Channel Four documentary based on Parfitt's Journey to the Vanished City (1992 first edition).
- PBS Nova documentary: Lost Tribes of Israel, includes content about the Lemba. Website includes transcript of an interview with Tudor Parfitt based on his work with them.
- Beta Israel (Ethiopia)
- Black Hebrew Israelites
- Gathering of Israel
- Jews and Judaism in Africa
- Jews of the Bilad el-Sudan (West Africa)
- Y-chromosomal Aaron
- Yemeni Jews
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- Parfitt (2002), The Lemba, p. 42
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