The Lost Tribe
We came from Sena, we crossed Pusela, we rebuilt Sena. In Sena they died like flies. We came from Hundje, to Chilimani. From Chilimanin to Wedza. The tribes went to Zimbabwe. They built the walls and lived on the hill. Mwali sent the star. From Zimbabwe to Mberengwe. From Mberengwe to Dumghe. We carried the drum. We came to Venda, Solomon led us. Baramina was our ancestor. —Lemba ceremonial song
The Lemba people in Zimbabwe and South Africa long claimed to be descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel. At first glance, many of their traditions did seem to align with a Semitic origin: keeping kosher-like dietary and slaughter restrictions, requiring male circumcision, strict rules against intermarriage, and even some Semitic-sounding clan names. Even the way the Lemba are referred to other tribes in the area, the “Mwenye Lemba”, means “people from elsewhere.”
The oral tradition of the Lemba, as seen in their ceremonial song, records a long journey before they ended up in Southern Africa. According to their own legends, they brought the Ark of the Covenant to Africa from the destruction of The Temple. If true, this would place their journey as beginning about 2500 years ago. As a part of that story, the Lemba claim that only Jewish men set out on the journey, and their community is a result of the men’s marriage with local wives. This would account for one element of their community that has led others to disavow their claim to Jewishness – that the line of descent in the Lemba community traces through the father and not through the traditional Jewish matrilineal descent.
The Lemba’s journey to Southern Africa took place in several stages. First, they settled in Yemen, in an area called Sena. When an economic downturn struck Yemen, the people moved south again, this time settling in Ethiopia and Tanzania. Later, another group split off from those who had settled in Ethiopia and left for Zimbabwe.
Interestingly enough, the portion of the journey to Ethiopia is not too far removed from the story related in the Kebra Nagast – in which the Solomonic descent of the Ethiopian royal family is related in the Ge’ez language. In the Kebra Nagast, the relationship of Solomon and Makeda – the Queen of Sheba – is recounted. Makeda’s son, Menelik I returns to meet his father and ends up leaving secretly with many young men and the Ark of the Covenant.
Ethiopians believe that the Ark of the Covenant has been, and is, kept in reverence near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum. The Lemba have a different idea.
According to the Lemba, the Ark of the Covenant came with them as they journeyed south, eventually being stored in a cave in Dumghe. The “Ngoma Lungundu”, as the Lemba call it, was photographed in 1949, then put in storage. Later, it was moved during the war for independence and lost.
Recently rediscovered, studies have been done on the Ngoma Lungundu that age it at about 700 years old, possibly the oldest wooden artifact in southern Africa. The Lemba say that the suddenly exploded and was rebuilt from the shattered pieces.
Although many other people groups claim descent from the Lost Tribe of Israel, the Lemba have one piece of evidence on their side: DNA analysis. DNA testing done in the nineties shows that many Lemba carry a haplotype on the Y-chromosome closely associated with the Cohen priestly caste. Not only is this haplotype present in the Lemba, its frequency, over 50% in the males of one clan, is comparable to its appearance in any large Jewish city.
As one Lemba said about the genetic support of the oral history of his people, “The legend was true, my ancestors had come from outside Africa.”
With DNA evidence, more distinguishing characteristics of the Lemba become clear. Divided into twelve clans, the clan with the highest frequency of the Cohen gene is the Buba – which oral tradition holds as having had a leadership role in bringing the Lemba out of Israel and performs the priestly functions. The cultural claim is that Buba = Judah, although linguistically the connection is tenuous at best.
The Lemba’s oral history claims they once had a religious book and a drum, but both were lost on their journey south. The Lemba also claim one further stop on their journey to the areas where they are now settled – Great Zimbabwe.
In their history, the Lemba built Great Zimbabwe, but were scattered to the winds when they went against taboos of food and ate mice. No evidence has been discovered for this particular claim, and the most recent research points in the direction of the Shona and Venda people. But given the Lemba’s previous accuracy in folklore, there may be a lot more left to be discovered.