Zimbabwe’s “Lost” Jewish Tribe

The all-too-popular myth of “lost” tribes of humans is an enchanting one. When in recent years the chance discovery of one of these mysterious indigenous groups actually becomes a reality, news stories have been keen to capture the anthropological significance and implications of these rare cultural interactions. People, I think, are naturally, genuinely interested in the “Other”, and hence it often through the widespread exposure of these major discoveries that society is made aware of the real and massive ongoing threats to world culture.

In a February post, Culture in Peril highlighted an inspiring Wade Davis lecture titled “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.” Davis, whose Explorer-in-Residence position at National Geographic has allowed him to actually live with these kinds of tribes for years at a time, soundly acknowledges the overwhelming threats to humankind’s Ethnosphere. As the consummate participant-observer, perhaps Davis, who so regularly and intimately witnesses cultural destruction, can best testify to the impermanence of human culture. Still, Davis has an ultra-positive and simply infectious  outlook on the perpetuity–or adaptability?–of humans’ shared heritage. [For shame if you haven’t watched his SALT Lecture, here’s the link.]

Sufficiently inspired by Davis’ hopeful views, Culture in Peril would like to draw attention to the Lemba people of Zimbabwe and South Africa, an indigenous African tribe that practices an ancient form of Judaism.

The Lemba, a Bantu-speaking ethnic group of 70,000, have Jewish ancestry dating back to as old as 3,000 years ago. Geneticists have done Y-chromosomal analyses with Lemba members and found that the priestly Lemba clan, the Buba, have a common ancestor who lived somewhere in north Arabia during the time of Moses, Aaron, and the founding of the Jewish priesthood in the Holy Land. Linguistically, their sacred prayer language is a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic, probably of Israeli and Yemeni descent. Even their most sacred oral traditions and ritual practices are more Semitic than African.     Barring creationist theory and similar conservative, anti-evolutionist views of human origins, it is difficult to deny the definite Jewish roots of the Lemba.

From a material cultural studies perspective, a compelling feature of the Lemba story is how much of their group’s identity is constituted in the communal spirituality around the ngoma lungundu, “the drum that thunders.” This religious artifact is believed to be the Biblical Ark of the Covenant made by Moses. According to one Lemba elder, “[It] came from the temple in Jerusalem. We carried it down here through Africa.” The centrality of the beating drum in traditional African religious rituals is recalled even in the Lemba name for the ngoma: in Lemba tradition, having withstood the the hardships over twenty-five millenia, this thundering drum is the sign of their Jewish ancestry. Indeed tremendous pride is instilled in the prized artifact: the Lemba see it as a tangible, living symbol of their ethnic link to ancient Judaism. It is evidence of their rich cultural pedigree which they share with Jews who had lived in the Holy Land over 2,500 years ago.

Zimbabwe duly acknowledged Lemba heritage as a part of its national cultural landscape when the sacred relic–OK, a replica–recently went on display in Harare, the nation’s capital. The event was well received by the public, with large crowds attending the unveiling and lectures about Lemba culture.

I think this vast outpouring of media attention offers largely a positive turn towards cultural inclusiveness and mutual understanding. Locally, Lemba religious leaders claim that such recognition is “a starting point” for their community, some members of which are just beginning to recognize their own rich cultural history. Furthermore, the Lemba ethnic identity is legitimized by being showcased on a national level in Zimbabwe’s capital, as much a political move act as social gesture. And, further still, the world is certainly enriched by the knowing that a person’s cultural heritage runs deeper than outward appearance alone.

I think Wade Davis would agree that just to publicize the story of a tribe of African Jews is to verify their heritage value. We can all be “facilitators of cultural survival” by sharing this story with someone else, even if we had never even heard of the Lemba, because knowing is to make real and important.

This entry was posted in humankind, indigenous culture, Judaism, Lemba, Wade Davis, Zimbabwe. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Zimbabwe’s “Lost” Jewish Tribe

  1. Derek says:

    This is great! The Ark of the Covenant…Indiana must have found a fake…

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