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Journey To The Lost City

It is a Biblical sight.  A snake of people weaving up through the narrow sand pathway.  In the thousands they trek.  Up, up they climb to the top of an undulating hump of hill ensconced between teetering boulders in the spellbinding Soutpansberg Mountains.   

They come to the Sweetwater district of Makhado (formerly Louis Trichardt), some wrapped in tribal cloth or blanket, some muddy-footed and threadbare.  A few of the older women wearing either traditional apparel or their smartest outfits with heads covered.  

At the bottom of the foothill preparations are underway for the end-of- day feast, as this is the God-chosen spot for the annual Lemba Cultural Festival.  

After scorching heat and a prolonged drought this morning dawned misty and sodden. Soft rain covered the ground, plopping from heavy leaves turning to slush. By day end it was very cold.   

The elders arrived soon after sunrise. They managed to coax their cars up the steep terrain, though how the huge overburdened truckload of hired equipment reached its destination is anyone’s guess. 

The leaders supervise arranging rows of chairs for more than 1 000 people in a bald clearing between the dense trees.  Adjoining the main seating area stands a marquee.  The long rectangular white clothed table with traditional staff, books and magnificent royal blue velvet cape visible from all vantage points is bedecked with cultural heritage.     

The Lemba are a tribe of self-proclaimed Jews, clinging proudly to these certainties of belief. They are Jews of the lost tribes of Israel.   

The late Professor Mathsaya Mathiva, Lemba leader, professor of African languages, literature and culture at the University of the North, and honoured in Cambridge, claimed his family name was “originally Seremane - a derivative of Solomon”. He would repeat, “We came from one of 12 lineages of the Lemba tribes of Israel.”   

The Southern African clan is located mostly in the Northern Province, though small communities live in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Polokwane.  It’s a population comprising tens of thousands.

No self-respecting Lemba would dream of missing the annual festival, more specially this year as Professor Mathiva ‘s tombstone is to be unveiled. The mourning period is to be closed now, a year after death, exactly as practised in Jewish law since the time of Moses. 

My presence at today’s festival stems from a serendipitous chain of events. I am guest of Dr. Rudo Mathiva - head physician of the Intensive Care Unit of Baragwanath Hospital, South Africa’s largest hospital serving three million people – a practising Jew and daughter of Professor Mathiva.  

Over a year back, while on assignment for a run-of-the-mill feature somewhere in   Polokwane’s rural back lands a man walked across a school field.  “Hullo. I believe your name is Jacobson.  Well, you are a Jew.  By the way I too am a Jew. I am a Lemba. We are Israel's lost tribe,” he beamed brazenly. 

“I descend from King Solomon.  After the destruction of the Temple we Lemba Jews ran from Judea to Sena and Yemen.  From Yemen, the tribe scattered and wandered; some to Asia, some to India, China, Japan, even maybe Afghanistan.  More than 60 000 like me came to Zimbabwe.  We used the skills we had been taught in the East to build the Zimbabwe Ruins.  It is we who carried the secrets from the top of the world down to the Bantu in Southern Africa; secrets of mining, healing, pottery, trading, stone building.”   

Breathlessly, he continued, “The Lembas’ lore has been passed orally from generation to generation, through African storytelling, a tradition existing for many centuries. We carry our history with us into daily life and we live by many Jewish rituals.”

Why should people who have already suffered through the cruelty of apartheid want to be Jews?   After all history has shown the world is not particularly partial towards the Jewish community. Why do they practice Old Testament rituals such as not eating pig or intermarriage with non-Lemba, perform circumcision, keep one day a week holy or ritually slaughter their cattle?  Other dietary rules include eating fish with scales and not mixing meat and milk - as Orthodox Jewry practises. Like Jews the Lemba used to hold a fast once a year.

Propelled by curiosity, I pursued the Lemba mystique, getting caught up in the Indiana-Jones-like explorations of Dr. Tudor Parfitt, British adventurer and anthropologist.

Parfitt, Director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African studies in London, lived with the Lemba for a short while before spending ten years exploring and following their ancestry and geographical wanderings.

And, so here I am at this festival about to be approached by Frederick Raulinga, a friendly, moon-faced man, who looks skywards and with palms outstretched smiles, grins revealing two front teeth past sell-by date, “You see whenever we Jews get together drought ends, the rain comes.”    

The historian and linguist is a mine of  information - some of which is currently being documented in a book on biblical history. He is also one of three Lemba leaders revising the current Lemba constitution.

“Our original language was Hebrew. Imagine from when we left Judea till today how things have changed. Culture is not static. It changes with time and place”, Raulinga explains. 

“We are going to reconstruct our past. We want to return to our roots. We do not want to be diluted. We want to be connected, to belong.” 

Raulinga points to the objects on the table.  “That staff represents the staff of Moses that was used for miracles in front of Pharaoh. The robe on the table was worn when Professor Mathiva, officiated at ceremonies. The artefacts standing on the floor are traditional hand-made clay pots and copperware.  Our blue and white emblem with the Star of David and the symbol of an African elephant in the centre depicts the blending of cultures. We are African Jews. We carried the traditional drums when wandering and the local Venda people followed us from Zimbabwe to South Africa.“ 

As if on cue, his voice is drowned by drumming rumbling loud as thunder. Raulinga quickly takes his place alongside the two other most prominent leaders, Reverend William Masala of the Mhani clan, and Sam Moete. 

The festival is opened.  A row of girls and boys march proudly in tune to the drums. Each child is dressed impeccably in red white and blue (despite the poverty of the region with an unemployment rate of almost 80%). 

As if by common code silence ensues. Reverend Masala says Psalms of David, and a commemoration prayer for Professor Mathiva. 

Methodically a space is cleared in front of the main table and props are set out.  Several bare breasted young girls adorned in traditional Venda beads take their places in a corner opposite actors representing a family of mostly male elders (as is customary in patriarchal dominated Jewish and African societies.)   

Old-fashioned storytelling through the medium of theatre holds the attention of even the youngest children. The past has remained with them, passed from generation to generation. 

The play ends; the day draws on with more prayers, speeches and reading of the annual report. Finally plates are piled high with the traditional roast lamb served with rice and accompaniments. Today, just this day, poverty and hunger are forgotten. Bellies are filled to capacity.

Exhausted, I finally reached my hotel, only to receive a call to report to the front. . Sam Moeti has come to visit. 

Confidently Moeti strides into the lounge sporting a cleanly shaved head standing on broad shoulders.  Despite his calm and impassive manner he is the most commanding man I can remember meeting. 

At 70, this elder can look back on an illustrious career, from teacher to headmaster, then public radio broadcaster, thereafter MP and head of various Venda Government departments as well as Mayor of Vhembe District. 

Over hot tea he reflects with palpable intensity the current status of the Lemba. 

“We are now going to start living according to our original culture. We are going back to the past,” he explains.

Moeti’s vision for the future encompasses building a synagogue and a cultural centre in the Northern Province. “But we have to research exactly what our forefathers were doing so we can go back step by step until eventually we are where they wanted us to be.  In the present day there has been assimilation because of cultural exchange.  Luckily before our leader died he left us rules and instructions.” 

Moeti’s ambition now is to retire, tend his cattle farm and be formally tutored in Judaism by an orthodox Rabbi.  “Unfortunately during colonial times, the missionaries in Africa forced many to learn the New Testament and the only way to receive an education was in their schools.  Also Apartheid killed even the notion of any private Jewish education. It was Bantu schooling or no schooling.  The Christians even tried to change the way we bury our dead. But we wouldn’t comply. We follow the burial ways of the Old Testament.” 

He bristles at the disbelief being thrown in the face of the Lemba regarding their Judaic roots. “Whether we are accepted or not, Israel is our ancestral home and the Jewish people are our brothers.  If need be, we will re-convert to Judaism because it would confirm what our forefathers had to say.  Moses was the father of all fathers and we are descended from him.  It has been borne out by genome testing.”

And amazingly he is probably correct. 

“The Lemba are Jews alright, though many South African traditional Jews may not want to recognise it,” claims Professor Trefor Jenkins, former head of department of human genomic diversity and disease research at the Medical Research Council and the University of the Witwatersrand.  

Jenkins and Parfitt are not alone in their scientific belief as a team of geneticists in the United States and the UK confirm their findings: many Lemba men carry in their male chromosome a set of DNA sequences that is distinctive of the ‘Kohanim’ (Jewish priests), believed to be descendants of Aaron. 

With this determined the tireless Parfitt announced he was taking it upon himself to search for Sena near Yemen – Sena in Judea is mentioned in the Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemia. 

“It exists.  I found the lost city,” he triumphed.  “It’s very remote and has never been visited by anyone.  The local tradition is that centuries ago the valley had been very fertile irrigated by a dam, the ruins of which are still there.  The dam bust about 1 000 years ago, and the people fled to the port of Yemen.” 

This coincides precisely with the time span calculated by the Lembas since leaving Yemen. 

“I was strongly criticised by a number of colleagues for listening to this nonsense. As an anthropologist I had a sense one should listen to what people say about themselves - and not be too arrogant.  It turned out what they say about themselves is substantially correct,” boasted Parfitt.   

“They even have clan names like Sadiqui and Hamisis that are clearly Semitic and that are also found in the eastern Hadramaut, a former site of Jewish communities in Yemen. 

The head of the South African Jewish Ecclesiastical Court, Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag, said the local rabbinate could not rule on the status of the Lemba. “It is an international rabbinical problem,” he said. “They have to consult the Chief Rabbis of Israel.”  

Still, I felt needed to pay just one final visit. The reaction by Dr. Himla Soodyall, director of the human diversity unit at University of the Witwatersrand, and leading human geneticist, to the claims of lineage dating back to Judea, was more cautious. She is waiting for one final DNA result to come from the United Kingdom before travelling to report her final conclusion to the elders. 

“Two questions need to be clarified first,” says Soodyall. “Did some Jewish adventurer get to this tribe and live among them and sire sons with the native women? And how prevalent is the Kohen Y Chromosome in the group.  51% of

the people tested positive.  But there was not a huge number of men tested.”  

So, are the Lemba tribe Jewish as Professor Parfitt and his colleagues insist? Or are they rebuffed by the Venda on one side and South African Jewry on the other consigned to living in a void? 


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