By Moira Schneider, April 22, 2010
Members of an African tribe are displaying a sacred object they believe to be the Ark of the Covenant in a Harare museum.
The item is a ngoma, a sacred drum made of wood. According to oral tradition, a ngoma was carried from Israel by the Lemba, a South African tribe who believe they are descendants of Jews from the Middle East. After it burst into flame and was destroyed, another ngoma – the one currently on display – was constructed from the ruins.
DNA research has traced the Lemba’s origins to the Middle East. More remarkably, a genetic marker largely found only in Cohanim, descendants of the ancient Jewish priesthood, is present in the same proportions among the Lemba’s own priests, known as the Buba.
The 80,000 Lemba people, who live in Zimbabwe and northern South Africa, have many customs in common with Jewish tradition, including male circumcision, refraining from eating pork, allowing the blood to drain from an animal before they eat it, wearing skullcaps and prayer shawls during rituals and adorning some tombstones with Stars of David.
But Alex Makotore of Harare, son of a late chief of the Lemba, says that the tribe does not claim to be Jewish. He accuses scholars of trying to impose a foreign identity on them.
“We don’t want to look like people who are looking for an identity,” he said. “We’ve got our own African identity, we are not looking for our roots.
“They call us black Jews, but it is them [the scientists] that call us that. If we are linked to the Jews, then fair and fine, but we cannot rightly say that it is only the Jews that [have those customs].”
He does say he is “excited” about a possible connection to the Old Testament, but says the Lemba are unconcerned that there is little connection with the local Jewish community.
“We don’t look for them. We don’t want to end up with a situation where we feel second-rate to another race.”
By contrast, Perez Hamandishe, member of parliament from the Movement for Democratic Change and a pastor in the Pentecostal church, says that the Lemba believe that they are Jews.
“We are Jews by blood,” he insists, adding that like the majority of the Lemba, he is Christian by religion, but Jewish by culture.
“My lifestyle is Jewish, we observe everything Jewish – we only eat kosher,” he said. “If I go to a Gentile house, I don’t eat their food. When I travel, I carry my own pots and food. I don’t eat prawns, fish without scales or rabbit.”
Sam Benatar, president of the Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies, said that there were “all sorts of claims all over Africa by people purporting to be Jewish”, but the Lemba’s belief “may well be true”.
Peter Sternberg, former president of the Board, said that the Lemba “are virtually all either Christians or Muslims – one should really leave it at that.”
The story of the Lemba Ark was originally revealed by Tudor Parfitt, professor of Hebrew at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, in his book The Lost Ark of the Covenant.