From an article reproduced from the popular South African TV show Carte Blanche Date: 28 November 1999 - Producer: Eugene Botha - Presenter: Ruda Landman
Claims by people living amongst the Venda in the Northern Province (of South Africa) that they are the black Jews - directly related to the Israelites - have for years been treated with a lot of circumspection. These days, however, technology allows us to explore the authenticity of the claims using science. The findings have been astounding - to some.
They may look like ordinary people living ordinary lives, but ever since he was a little boy sitting around his grandfather's fire, Machaia Mathivha knew he was different. The difference can be seen in the many small religious objects and memorabilia scattered about his house. Many of these would seem out of place in an African dwelling. Besides the ornaments, he also wears rather strange clothes with odd symbols for a man of Africa. Even his traditional greeting is out of the ordinary - "Shalom Alachem," says Mathivha.
This strange-sounding African greeting has its roots in an age-old oral tradition that determines Machaia Mathivha's unique sense of identity. "Our forefathers have always claimed that they are the descendants of Abraham and that they are the Jews who came to Africa," says Mathiva.
This unique claim to Jewish ancestry is the cornerstone of the existence and identity of the Lemba people - a distinct group of black people who live among other black groups in the northern parts of South Africa and in Zimbabwe.
Magdel le Roux from Unisa has lived with the Lemba and has just completed a doctorate on them.
"The Lemba say that they originally migrated from Israel - from Judea - because of trade connections in Yemen. They were involved with Arab and Phoenician traders and from there they came to Africa. According to their tradition they came to Africa in a boat; others say it was on a tree trunk. They arrived from a place called Sena," says le Roux.
"From Yemen we went up to Tanzania. At Ethiopia we branched into two groups; some came south others went west," says Mathiva. "We travelled along the East Coast of Africa and eventually built another city called Sena, named after the one we had left. We continued along the east coast to Mozambique and into Zimbabwe. And, since we were copper and iron workers, some spread into Venda where we are today."
Tradition has it that this group of Jewish traders from cities in the Yemen consisted of men only.
"According to the traditions of related groups on the African east coast, a war broke out in their home country. They could not return to their country of origin and they, as they say, were 'forced' to take wives from the local tribes," says le Roux.
Descendants of these people became the Lemba and eventually settled in southern Zimbabwe and the north of South Africa. One of their unique traditions is that they were involved with the mysterious Zimbabwe ruins. The Lemba thus have a very strong and old oral tradition that they are directly descended from ancient Israelites. These traditions are carried over from generation to generation and at cultural festivals youngsters are taught the traditions of the elders.
These claims are also supported by peculiar cultural practices. Many of these cultural practices are quite foreign to African people and closely resemble Jewish practices and tradition. For example: they use unique musical instruments; they celebrate a number of Jewish-like feasts, such as that of the new moon and of the first fruits, and they marry only other Lembas. It is significant that many of these practices seem to pre-date modern Jewish practices.
"They have little in common with modern Jews although they were and are known as the black Jews. It's the term that Paul Kruger gave to them," says le Roux.
Over the years few have believed that the Lemba are really related to the Jews. But the fact remains that they have this extremely old oral tradition of having come from Israel and their customs and way of life also seem to support these claims. All of this could possibly be explained away. It is rather circumstantial.
But - this is only half the story... the other part takes place in London.
In recent years analysis of human DNA has yielded amazing results. It is used in the identification of people, but it is also used to trace bloodlines and relationships between people. To fully understand the significance of the research in London to the Lemba, it is necessary to first look at the pioneering research done in South Africa by Prof. Trevor Jenkins of Wits.
"In the late eighties an ethnomusicologist told me about the Lemba people; a people whose music she'd been studying. I was told about their Jewish affinity and became interested," says Jenkins. Prof. Jenkins then conducted genetic tests on the Lemba. These genetic tests hinge on the Y-chromosome found only in men. This chromosome is passed on from father to son and remains virtually unchanged over thousands of years. In addition, the Y-chromosome of different groups carries markers which make it possible to clearly distinguish one group from another group. This can be used to trace bloodlines and to determine to which specific group an individual is related.
"When we tested the chromosomes of 49 Lemba men we were delighted to find that they had significant differences from the control group - a group that consisted of Venda people. Those differences revealed to us that they did indeed have a Semitic connection. There could be no doubt that more than one thousand years ago males from the Middle East came into the area. What they contributed to the local populace via marriage and procreation was a characteristic Y-chromosome which has remained unaltered in the men in all these intervening years. We have, in a sense, confirmed their oral tradition," says Jenkins.
These findings attracted worldwide attention and Neil Bradman and his team at the University College of London's Centre for Genetic Anthropology delved further into the secrets of the DNA of the Lemba people. They were able to refine the initial research done by Jenkins in South Africa. And, with more sophisticated techniques, they have achieved amazing results.
What Trevor Jenkins in South Africa first determined was that the Lemba's ancestors were Semitic people. That is, they could have come from any group in the Middle East - Jews, Arabs or Egyptians. However, the work in London not only indicated that the Lemba are indeed related to the Jews, but it was even possible to show that they are related to a specific group within the Jewish population.
"Amongst the Jews, there is a hereditary paternal priesthood called the Cohanim. This is a priesthood that you can't get promoted to. You cannot be one unless your father was one," explains Bradman. This means that the Cohanim and all those closely related to them would have the same very distinctive Y-chromosome. "This type of chromosome acts as a signature of that particular population. Greatly to our surprise we have found that this particular chromosome in a very high frequency amongst the Lemba people," says Bradman.
So finally the Western halls of Academia have confirmed that the age-old traditions are indeed true. In the veins of the Lemba flows the blood of the ancient Israelites. One would think they would be overjoyed to have their critics finally silenced.
"Scientists come around and tell us what we already know," says Mathiva.
"Well, I suppose it's important to those who did not know - to those people it's been confirmed. But for us it's not new - it's what we have always known."