Living with the Venda, is a rather mysterious group known as the Lemba, descendants of Arab safari traders. These people are expert potters, metal workers and miners. The Lemba are generally called balungu meaning ‘white men’. The Venda and Lemba have lived together for many years without any problems. They speak the same language, yet their customs, especially relating to funerals, are totally different. The Lemba observe the reflection of the New Moon – which must not be seen by the naked eye – in a bowl of water, so they could observe the beginning of the Lunar month. Anthropologists believe there is a link between this custom and ancient Semitic cultures. It is believed that some of the best teachers in the schools are Lemba.
There are an estimated 40 000 Lemba in South Africa, including several clans in Venda and the Zoutpansberg Mountains, with another 15000 spread throughout Southern Africa, mostly in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Although the Lemba in this country are gradually being assimilated into the modern South Africa, they are culturally distinct from their neighbours and practice a religion which includes male circumcision and stringent food laws which appear to be essentially Jewish, or based on the Mosaic or Levitical code. They are historically known as pottery and metal workers, and, together with the Venda, were the only iron workers in the former Transvaal before the arrival of the Boers.
Spokesman for the Lemba, including Professor MER Mathivha, president of the Lemba cultural association and former Vice-Principal of the University of the North, say they originated from a Jewish tribe in Sana’a, Yemen. ‘Our entire outlook on life is Jewish,’ says Mathiva. ‘The few males who reject circumcision by the age of 15 will not be able to marry Lemba women.’ A women who marries into the community undergoes a four-month conversion that includes putting her head through a hole made in the hall of her husband’s home and having her head shaved. This culminates in a jump through a hoop of fire, an African version of Judaism’s dip in a ritual bath. Men cannot convert into the faith.
Mathivha suggests that the Jewish ancestors of the Lemba, as traders in the 7th century BC, migrated ‘from the north’ to Yemen, where they established a community at Sana’a and several trading posts along the African coast. The Jewish community at Sana’a, termed ‘Basena’, was later expanded by exiles escaping the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586BC. At some stage ‘trouble broke out between the Basena and the Arabs resulting in the migration of the Basena to Africa. The group split into two – one moving westward to settle in Ethiopia (the Falashas) and the other moving south, to eventually settle in Southern Africa. Dates for the migration from Yemen appear to be inconsistent and those quoted range from 450BC to 50AD.
According to Lemba oral tradition. Lemba ancestors came to South Africa to trade, especially for gold. Trading posts were established on the coast and inland. One day they received shattering news that their homeland had been taken by the enemy and they could not return. They began taking local wives.
Blood tests prove a Jewish and Arabic ancestry with foreign genes mixed in. This is consistent with Lemba oral tradition. ‘However, certain features of Lemba culture would suggest that Jewish ancestry is more likely than Arabic. These include the practice of separating milk from meat, a dietary law observed in Judaism but not in Islam, and many other food laws that are essentially Jewish. In addition, certain Lemba sacrifices call for the use of liquor, and Muslim law forbids the consumption of alcohol.’ The circumcision rights also concur with the Jewish tradition.
Historical data concurs with much of Lemba oral history. The Jewish people, believed to have entered Yemen before the destruction of Jerusalem in the 5th century, may well have been involved in trade at this stage, and certainly played a role in the caravan routes during the 2nd and 3r century AD. Furthermore Sana’a was a powerful city controlling trade routes of the Sabean (Yemenite) Empire, and the Jewish of Sana’a worked mostly as artisans and craftsmen, specializing in pottery and metal work. Thus it is entirely possible that the ancestors of the Lemba were Jewish craftsmen and traders from Sana’a in Yemen’, according to Jenkins and Spurdle’s report.
Scholars, who have studied the Lemba, such as Benjamin Hendrickx an historian, point out that ‘ethnogenesis is not a simple, short, uncomplicated and unsophisticated process, but on the contrary one where influences – sometimes at random – can come from every possible quarter’. In Hendrickx’s view, ‘the more sophisticated studies also came several times to a point where the Lemba’s origin, when dissected in its ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural elements seemed to find its roots, among others, in Judaic and Muslim phenomena’.
A.A. Jacques, in notes on the Lemba Tribe concedes that Hadji and Sadiki (common Lemba names) are Arab names, but states that the latter is connected with the Hebrew Tzadeq (the name of the planet Jupiter).
Harold von Sicard writes the most scholarly studies on the Lemba. He first believed that the present Lemba are the descendents of two originally different groups: the Zambezi Sena, influenced by Islam, and a much smaller group of Abyssinian black Jews (Falasha), who brought with them the Old Testament traditions and rituals.’ He also admits that the first group has ethnic ties with the Arabs of the East Coast. In his book Ngoma Lengundu, ‘The Drum of the Ancestors’ he adds a third group, coming from the east and arriving at the Sabie River before the end of the 16th century.
Von Sicard examines the parallels between Ngoma Lengundu and the Ethiopian Kebra Negast. The 13th century Kebra Negast (Splendour of Kings) relates how Prince Menelik, son of Solomon and Queen Makeda of Sheba, visited Jerusalem and returned to the south with an escort of Israelite priests, who stole the sacred Ark out of the temple of Jerusalem, leaving a replica in its place. In the same manner, the Lemba, in Ngoma Lengundu carried with them the sacred drum as they made their way down to Southern Africa. In Von Sicard’s chapter on the origins of the Lemba, he puts forward his theory of the Lemba ethnogenesis evolving out of these above-mentioned groups.
He concludes: ‘a very interesting theory is the pointing to a pre Islamic Arab-Judaic origin. One cannot assume that seemingly contradictory theories exclude each other.’ Buijs suggests a postmodern approach to the Lemba ethnogenesis. ‘In terms of Postmodernism we all construct our own identities.’ Postmodernism teaches that no-none can really know the truth about his origins in an absolute sense; multi-culturalism instructs us not to challenge the beliefs of others.
All over the world definitions of what nations are and mean are changing. As Roger Rouse writes in Diaspora, a journal of international studies: ‘We live in a world of crisscrossed economies and fragmented identities’.
‘This Lemba and Venda symbiosis, however, sets an example – it shows that in African countries, different groups can live together in harmony with each other when individual rights are respected.’ Most Lemba people know little of the academic discussion around their people. What they believe (according to oral history) is that many years ago their ancestors came from Sana’a, Yemen, to settle in South Africa. In the foothills of the Zoutpansberg, their people continue to co-exist peacefully with the Venda, both of them embracing a common identity.