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Slingshot 2011

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Lemba, Southern Africa


There have long been many sub-Saharan African communities. Some are dispersed and have found it difficult to maintain their connections to their religious pasts. The geographic challenges are often coupled with aggressive missionary pressures from messianic Jews, Christians, and Muslims. For example, the Lemba of South Africa and Zimbabwe have always been aware and are fiercely proud of their Jewish ancestry, but they do not necessarily practice Judaism today. This is changing, as some leaders of the community, including Rabson Wuriga, Ph.D., and members of the Lemba Cultural Association (LCA), are attempting to organize and educate dispersed individuals and reclaim the practice of Judaism among a wider segment of the Lemba population.

There are Lemba who live in urban centers, well-educated professionals and academics. At the same time, they may be the tribal elders who maintain a closely guarded oral Lemba history. Though non-Lemba women are allowed to marry into the tribe, Lemba men face expulsion if they marry gentiles. According to Dr. Rudo Mathivha, daughter of Professor M.E.R. Mathivha, the late president of the LCA, the Lemba are descended from a group of Jews who left Judea in approximately 500 B.C.E. and settled first in Yemen before traveling south through Africa. The story of their long migration through Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa has been retained and passed down through oral tradition.

A 60 Minutes segment, featuring Tudor Parfitt, head of the Judaic Studies department at the University of London, reported the results of DNA testing showing both Semitic origins of the Lemba in general and the now well-known existence of a marker associated with the Kohanim on the Y chromosome of many Lemba males, although DNA cannot necessarily prove or disprove Jewish origins. The testing itself remains controversial among the Lemba, with some feeling vindicated by the results as scientific proof of their Jewish roots, while others are insulted by the very idea of having to prove their identity. In response to those who question his legitimacy as a Jew, Wuriga responds, "My father told me I am a Jew. To whom am I going to listen? I am going to listen to my father."