The Story of the Lemba People
as told by
Dr. Rudo Mathivha

Zionist Lunch Club
15th October 1999

Shalom all - it is always a pleasure to host the Zionist Club Luncheon; especially today as we have a very special guest-speaker. I am honored to introduce Dr Rudo Mathivha, Specialist ICU Pediatrician and Head of the ICU Unit at Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital.

Rudo's resume runs into pages.... please forgive me Rudo, I'm unable to do justice to it, as it will take the rest of the afternoon...... and we would much rather listen to you.!!
Dr Mathivha has spent a number of years studying in the US, presented and published numerous research papers and articles, both locally and internationally. Amongst the many achievements awarded her recently, was the First Prize for "Best Paper by a member of the Medical Profession"

Today, Dr Rudo Mathivha is not here to discuss medicine. She has kindly agreed to share a part of our shared history that is barely known to us.

We, as a people are truly a diverse group: made up of many different threads, colors, textures and cultures; woven together into a rich beautiful tapestry; forming one people. Rudo is here representing one of the many threads.....

She is the daughter of Professor G.E.R. Mathivha, President of the Lemba Cultural Society, Descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Yes, also known as the "Black Jews of Southern Africa"  Please join me in welcoming her .........Dr Rudo Mathivha!!

Rudo gave her talk - and question time I joined in to "help out"
some of the questions asked;
Do you go to synagogue?
Can you speak Hebrew?
Do your people read from the Torah?
How do you teach your children about Judaism and Torah?
Do they have have a form of Barmitzvah.

I wanted to explain why the Lemba are not able to answer yes any of  the above

" I would like to mention that we, the Jewish community are guilty - guilty because we never accepted what the Lemba had always maintained ...... until [the] genetic proof recently; that their story was a part of ours. We are guilty because we rejected them."

Shalom Aleichem!!

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to address you.
Some of you may already be familiar with the subject I am going to discuss, but if you are not, then we will work through this together. As told by my father, and his father's father, and his father's, father's father, and many more before them;

Approximately 2,500 years ago, a group of Jews left Judea and settled in Yemen. The tribe was led by the house of Buba and we are told that this move was to facilitate trade. In Yemen they settled in a place and built a city called Senna 1. They were then known as the BaSenna (the people from Senna)

When conditions became unfavorable, and not being a historian, I can not give you exact details of what went wrong; but lets just say they could no longer call Yemen home.
The House of Hamisi took over the leadership and led the people across into Africa.
Once in Africa, the tribe split into 2 sections: One group settled in Ethiopia and the other group went further south along the East Coast. They settled in what today is known as Tanzania/ Kenya and built Senna 2. Here they prospered and increased in numbers.
I'm afraid the travel bug bit once again and they were on the move. A small group went and settled in Malawi and Kenya. Their descendants are still residing in these countries up to today and are generally known as Ba Mwenye (lords of the land)
The remaining group, under the leadership of the house of Bakali, moved on and settled in Mozambique. Here they built Senna 3. Even today, the BaSenna are found in Mozambique.

After many years, part of the tribe, now under the leadership of Seremane (which is the house I belong to); moved further south to settle in Chiramba in what is known today as Zimbabwe. They were known as the Ba-Lemba. Our people still live there up to today. Some of the tribe moved south again and eventually settled in South Africa ( Venda, Louis Trichadt, Pietersburg and Tzaneen). This story has been told to all Lemba children from the time they are able to comprehend. It is told so that we know where we come from, who we are and how we live. It is told and shall continue to be told/written so that future generations are not lost never to be found again.
Do I believe this: Oh Yeah! My father told me and, now there is scientific proof for the non believers: The lemba males posses the Priestly Cohanim gene on their Y chromosome (from work done by Jenkins and Spurgle -Wits University)

Old maps of the Holy Land have now revealed that there was a place called Lemba way back BCE
Which brings us to my generation! Pretty cool and interesting Huh?!

1)  We believe in only one God Nwali. He is the creator of all things. Over time, due to certain circumstances, a number of Lemba have been baptized as Christians.
2)  One day per week is considered holy: On this day we praise Nwali and thank him for looking after us. We teach our children to honor their mothers and fathers.
3)  Circumcision: We circumcise all our males. It used to be done in the home by chosen elders. The male was circumcised at the age of 8 yrs (did we get that wrong over time?) Nowadays, some do it in hospitals. There is a strong move to bring this back to the home.
4)  Dietary laws: We do not eat pork or any of the creatures prohibited by the Old Testament. We have our animals slaughtered by designated people and bled. We do not mix milk and meat ever in our meal planning. We wash our hands before we handle food or cooking utensils and we thank Nwali before eating.
5)  Calendar:
We used to observe the moon to guide us in observing times. Everyone has a calendar nowadays.
6)  Burial:
We have special burial rituals. Our graves are dug with a shelf on the side where the body is laid. The head must always face north where we have come from. Today, we put tombstones with a Star of David on them.
7) Lembas are encouraged to marry other Lembas. A non Lemba woman can be instructed in the ways of the Lembas if she is to marry one. She has to learn the religious laws, dietary laws, etc. She may not bring any kitchen utensils from her maiden home to her new Lemba home. And she is to bring her children up according to the Lemba tradition. Sometimes she is asked to shave her head before being admitted to the Lemba home.
There are about 70,000 of us in Southern Africa. We know who we are. It would be grand if we returned to the broader global Jewish community. Even though we have safeguarded our traditions for this long, we do not want to risk losing them.

We all meet once a year for a cultural conference up in the Northern province. We are in the process of building a temple and hopefully a conference center. One of us who owns a farm wants to establish a kibbutz on the farm. We plan to get people to come and instruct us in Hebrew, teach us about Torah..... teach us what was lost along the 2500 years of having been separated from the main body of Judaism.
We are receiving help, support and encouragement in our project by a few good people, like Rufina Mausenbaum, Dr Shimon Wapnick, Dr Jack Zeller and Yaacov Levi, who will soon be joining us as our teacher. These people, together with organizations like Kulanu are in the forefront collecting books and siddurim.

Rudo Mathivha MD
copyright 1999/2000

"The Lemba and me"

"Behold, I will save my people from the east country, and from the west country; And I will bring them, and they shall dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.  And they shall be my people, and I will be their G-d, in truth and righteousness."

My interest was first ignited a few years ago, when I read an article of South Africa's "Black Jews". I knew very little except what most others in the Jewish community knew - that there were Black Bantu-speaking people in our country who "claimed" to be descended from Jews, lived as Jews and practised Judaism as remembered and passed down to them -orally through the ages.

Believe my surprise when I received a call from Professor Mathivha, resident of Louis Trichardt,  last year. We have a mutual friend in Washington, Dr Jack Zeller, a pathologist.  He also happens to be President of Kulanu -"all of us" in Hebrew - a charity organization active in 22 countries, headquartered in Wahington, and for whom I had written a story about my personal life as "a child of the Anousim"  ( forced converts )
This charming gentleman, president of the Lemba Cultural Association and former vice-prinicipal of the University of the North, professor Mathivha, told me how he identified with many (of the) things I had written about; the identity problems - the rejection and the pain I had experienced and felt growing up, without "belonging".
This was the beginning.

Things snowballed after that; another mutual friend from New York, an ex-Pretoria medical doctor, Shmuel Wapnick, who had visited professor Mathivha and Mr Ephraim Selamolela last year, started including me in emails; and a network grew and developed. A network of interested Jews, researchers,historians, and anthropologists, including Dr Tudor Parfitt , who was instrumental in the recent news-breaking discovery of the DNA results, proving the relation to Jews of this centuries old oral history.

Yesterday, Dr Shmuel Wapnick, on his way back to New York after spending four days in South Africa to attend his niece's wedding - found the time to host a little get together at a kosher restuarant. A get-together I was honored to be a part of. I feel it is (yet) another beginning. We met with a number of Lemba people, all identifying as Jews, one being Dr Rudo Mathivha, Paediatrian and US trained ICU specialist, daughter of Professor Mathivha, Mr Ephraim Selamolela the (very) successful businessman's two good-looking and successful sons,  a niece, whose name means "great person", her mother, and the gentleman, who is president of the Lemba Burial Society. ( much like our Gevrah Kadisha)

I looked into Rudo's warm smiling eyes, enveloped by her acceptance - and felt humbled that these gracious and successful people were willing to accept me - part of the (white) Jewish community who had ignored their claims for years. They asked for nothing; they are successful, educated, and charming. All they had hoped for was some form of acceptance.

Dr Shmuel Wapnick left, with the go-ahead to arrange for a shaliach, one of our little network of caring Jews from around the world, to come and start the Lemba Educational Center, in Louis Trichadt. Yaacov Levi, who will be arriving in November/December this year, will begin teaching Hebrew and Torah, the next step towards bridging the gap of centuries.

Regarding the results of the newsbreaking genetic testing recently, David B Goldstein, a population geneticist at Oxford University, took the discovery one step further;

Goldstein's research showed that the proportion of Lemba men carrying the genetic signature of the priests were similar to those found among the major Jewish populations, strongly supporting the Lemba tradition of Jewish ancestry, the Times reported.  The DNA sequences were particularly common among Lemba men who belong to the Buba clan, the senior of their 12 groups. The Lemba, from South Africa and Zimbabwe, believe they were led out of Judea by a man named Buba.

In a separate study, Dr. Tudor Parfitt, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said he has discovered the route the Lemba say they used to emigrate, saying he was told they traveled from a place called Senna to Africa.

Parfitt, who has studied the Lemba for 10 years and described his work in a recent book, "Journey to the Vanished City," said he found a village called Senna in Hadramawt, a former site of Jewish communities in Yemen. He believes that is the "Senna" referred to in Lemba oral tradition.

"It turned out what they are saying about themselves is substantially correct," he said.

Which leaves us, the SA Jewish Community with a moral dilemma; what is our responsibility as Jews, our future obligation towards helping those interested back Halachicly to Judaism?. Now that we know, can we continue to pretend they do not exist?

Abraham’s black African Descendants
Nestled in the foothills of the Zoutpansberg Mountains in South Africa’s Northern Province, between Louis Trichardt and the Kruger National Park, we find Thohayandou - Elephant Head - the home of  Professor MER Mathivha, president of the Lemba Cultural Association and former vice-principal of the University of the North. He is easy to find, ask anyone in the area, and the residents will point towards his home. He is regarded with awe and as a prince within this remarkable community.

Professor Mathivha is passionate about the Lemba oral history, passed down through centuries. Stories told by the elders of the Lemba, of how they were led out of the Holy Land by the Bhuba to Senna in Yemen, and then further south, "over vast waters" to the territories of the Northern Province, Mozambique and Southern Zimbabwe; where they live peacefully amongst the "gentiles".

Most Lemba are aware that by tradition they are from Jewish origin. Similar to Jews throughout the diaspora, they have adopted some of  the customs of their neighbours, but have maintained certain characteristics that Jews throughout the world tend to maintain.

The word Lemba has a double meaning: to maintain cleanliness and bring trade to their people. This definition typifies the characteristics of the Lemba. They do not eat pork and meat from animals prohibited in the Bible, and like Jews they do not eat meat from animals who die of natural causes. Animals are killed by exsanguination and the slaughter must be performed by one of their own who has experience. Many of the older members (still) eat from separate dishes for meat and milk. Other compelling customs similar to Jewish custom, include circumcision, avoidance of sexual intercourse during and for 7 days after the menstrual cycle.

Their reverence for the the Jewish cycle of the month is highlighted by their ability to determine its early arrival by observing the reflection of the moon in a specially constructed gray coloured clay bowl. The late Professor Margaret Nunes Nabarro studied the Lemba music and recorded their playing of a deer's horn very reminiscent to the Shofar blowing by Jews at the time of the Jewish New Year.

Many Lemba have been influenced by Christian missionaries and have adopted Christianity, however unlike Christians elsewhere, most of the Christian Lemba avoid eating pork. Professor Mathiva indicated that the widely attended Zion Church in the Northern Province, was established when the Lemba Chief in the territory South of Louis Trichardt agreed to accept the new religion of the missionaries.

One of the leaders of the Lemba community, Mr. Ephraim Selamolela, has bought a farm called Goeie Hoop (Good Hope) and is changing the name to the Hebrew translation "Hatikvah". He has already started to build a place for worship with a mikvah, a school for Jewish education and an agricultural enterprise to make the Lemba farmers more self-sufficient. He himself is of the Buba tribe.

The Lemba’s Jewish Connection
The Lemba came into the public spotlight, when genetic tests were carried out a few years ago by professor Trevor Jenkins of the South African Institute for Medical Research which were said to "prove consistent with Lemba oral history"; which claims Jewish ancestry, according to Professor Jenkins. Jenkins and Spurdle from Witwatersrand University, made the remarkable observation that the Y chromosome found in 50% of Lemba men are identical to the unique genetic changes found only in Jewish communities scattered throughout the world.

More recently, the step towards identifying the kohen gene, started in an orthodox synagogue, when a nephrologist, himself a kohen, Dr Karl Skorecki, wondered if there could be a genetic basis to this tradition that bound them; the kohanim, for centuries.

Skorecki contacted Michael Hammer, a world expert in evolutionary genetics at the university of Arizona, Tucson, and the two decided to collaborate. They teamed up with Neil Bradman, chairman of the Center for Genetic Anthropology at the University College London; and so began the collection of DNA from Jewish males; kohanim, and members of two other ancient classes; Levites and Israelites.

David B. Goldstein, a population geneticist at Oxford University in England, took that discovery one step further. "In studying the priesthood, we happened into this tool for distinguishing Jewish from non-Jewish populations," Goldstein said .

Goldstein found a particular set of genetic mutations that was strongly associated with the priestly caste, not so common among lay Jews and very rare in non-Jewish populations. He then tested DNA samples collected from the Lemba.

Goldstein's research showed that the proportion of Lemba men carrying the genetic signature of the priests were similar to those found among the major Jewish populations, confirming yet again the Lemba tradition of Jewish ancestry.. And the DNA sequences were particularly common among Lemba men who belong to the Buba clan, the senior of their 12 groups.

In a separate study, Dr. Tudor Parfitt, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said he discovered the route the Lemba say they used to emigrate, saying he was told they traveled from a place called Senna in Yemen, to Africa. Parfitt, who has studied the Lemba for 10 years describes his work in a recent book, "Journey to the Vanished City," (Phoenix, London) said he found a village called Senna in Hadramawt, a former site of Jewish communities in Yemen. He believes that is the Senna referred to in Lemba tradition. "It turned out what they are saying about themselves is substantially correct," he said.

The tradition of the Jewish priesthood, or kehunah, has a genetic basis that points to a single ancestor -- (possibly) Aaron, older brother of Moses. What’s more, this priestly genetic marker may also be a signature of the ancient Hebrew population:  you can convert to Judaism, but you can‘t convert into the priesthood. The gene trail, in other words, may lead past Aaron to his great-great-grandfather, Jacob, a.k.a. Israel. Because the kohen genetic signature is rare or absent in all non-Jewish populations tested so far, the findings support the Lemba tradition of Jewish ancestry.

Another fascinating part of the story is that researchers came up with a genetically indicated time line as to when the original kohen forefather (Aaron) lived. Using a method for genetic dating based on the rate at which certain bits of the Y chromosome mutate, they found that the date was about 3,000 years ago; consistent with Jewish tradition.

Who is a Jew?
For their part, the scientists remain cautious when discussing how the kohen chromosome can be used to identify a Jew. They note that apart from the Lemba, no other non-Jewish group has been found with more than a five percent incidence of the chromosome. They say, it can be used to provide clues - alongside anthropological and ethnographic evidence - as to whether there is any basis to claims by groups that they are descendants of the Hebrews or have some form of Jewish ancestry.

The Lemba’s tale is not unusual. There is no shortage of groups around the world -- like some Kashmiris, or the Chiang-Min on the Chinese-Tibetan border -- who claim Jewish heritage, and believe they are descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes, having been exiled from the Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE .

Since the kohen chromosome is to be found among both Sephardi and Ashkenazi kohanim, it appears that the origins of the priesthood at the very least, predate the splitting of the Jewish community centuries ago. It seems as if they could trace it even further back, to the time when Aaron was anointed! Using a method for genetic dating based on the rate at which certain bits of the Y chromosome mutate, Goldstein came up with an estimation consistent with the oral tradition: 3,000 years.

The evidence seem to back up the Lemba’s claim to a Jewish ancestry: Lemba males display an unusually high incidence of the kohen chromosome. What’s more, the Buba -- a senior Lemba clan -- display an even higher incidence of the chromosome. Among Lemba males it’s 8.8 percent -- a similar frequency to the Israelites (Jewish males). Among the Buba, though, it is as high as 53.8 percent.

According to Lemba tradition, the Buba clan is named after someone who led them out of Judea. "Buba means Judah," says Ephraim Selamolela, a successful Buba from the Northern Region who calls himself Sela (Hebrew for rock). "We’re the same as the other Lemba," says Sela. "But the Buba also didn’t intermarry much. We were marrying with cousins. A sort of royal family."

Who is a "kohen"?
The scientists found that 45 percent of Ashkenazi priests and 56 percent of Sephardic priests have the cohen genetic signature, while in Jewish populations in general the frequency is 3 to 5 percent. The Bhuba (priestly) tribe of the Lemba have 53 percent. [!!]

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