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The Story of the Lemba People


By Rudo Mathiva, MD

The story of the Lemba people, 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 cannot give you exact details of what went wrong; but let’s 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!

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.

Rudo Mathivha MD Copyright 1999/2000