Coming Out: A Visit to the Zimbabwe Lemba

March 3, 2010

image: Zimbabwe context map

The last couple of weeks have been one of the most momentous periods in the history of the Lemba people in Zimbabwe in many years. Hitherto if you went anywhere in the country and asked about the tribe, no-one would have a ready answer. Indeed the Lemba were practically unknown except to their immediate neighbors and a handful of experts in the ethnology of the country. However, this has now changed, and only time will tell if this is for the good or for the bad.

The reason for my trip was an invitation from the British Council and the Zimbabwe Department of Museums and Monuments to visit the country. I would give a couple of talks on my book, The Lost Ark of the Covenant, about the Ngoma Lungundu, a wooden object that the Lemba and Venda believe is sacred to their tradition and which has clear parallels with the Ark of the Covenant. In addition, I would speak at the opening of a special exhibition at Harare’s Museum of Human Science that would highlight this object.

I had heard these stories, but I thought they were fanciful.

The object itself was fascinating. Lemba tradition taught that the ngoma had been carried with them on their migration from the Middle East to Africa at some point in the remote past. The central theme of their oral thesis, recounted to me many times, was that the Lemba had come from a place called Sena, that they had crossed Pusela, and had come to Africa, where they rebuilt Sena, one or two times. The oral tradition also maintained that when they got to Africa, the precious object which they brought with them went up in smoke, flames and a dreadful noise. Using a plug from the original object, a new ngoma was built by the priests.

Years ago when I lived with the Lemba in a small, remote village, with no running water, electricity, or paved roads, in Mposi near Mberengwe, I heard this story and many others like it. The elders explained that this object was like the Ark of the Covenant — they knew their Bible — and that it too was taken into battle, that it was the dwelling place of God, that it was carried on two poles by the priests, that it was never allowed to touch the ground, and that it would strike dead anyone who touched it, other than the High Priest. I used to scribble away in my notebook around the embers of the fire, listening to the women sing and to the traditional drums, and I would dream of their long-lost ngoma. But I thought the idea of connecting it directly with the Ark was fanciful.

image: Tudor Parfitt viewing <em>ngoma</em> in Zimbabwe’s Harare Museum

Tudor Parfitt viewing ngoma in Zimbabwe’s Harare Museum

Over the years a few things happened which made me take their tradition more seriously. In the first place, my own travels and research, as related in Journey to the Vanished City, put some bones on the oral tradition and seemed to confirm it. Then DNA research carried out in the labs of University College, London University, confirmed that Lemba ancestors were from the Middle East and likely to be Jewish. And most intriguingly, the Buba priestly clan, the first ones to leave Israel according to the traditions I had heard, had a particular genetic signature which was characteristic of the Jewish priesthood. Indeed, the Buba and the Cohanim shared a distant ancestor who lived somewhere in the Levant about 3000 years ago, about the time of Moses and his brother Aaron, the founder of the priesthood.

At this point I began to take the oral traditions of the Lemba with respect to the ngoma more seriously, and over the years, I came across a lot of unknown material which appeared to suggest that the Ark of War, the Ark made by Moses as detailed in the Book of Deuteronomy, and subsequently mentioned by Rabbinic authorities, had made its way into Arabia. It’s worth just pausing here over Rashi’s commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy:

At the end of forty days the Lord granted me, Moses, a favor, and said,“Carve for yourself,” and, afterward, “make for yourself an Ark.” I made the Ark first (before I took the Tablets of the Law) for, where would I have placed the Tablets when I arrived with them in my hands? Now this was not the Ark which Bezalel made. This was a different Ark. This one went with them when they waged war, while the one Bezalel made did not go to war, except in Eli’s time (Samuel 1, 4.), when they were punished over it, and it was captured.

I rediscovered the ngoma in a dusty, rat-infested storeroom.

And so my quest for the sacred object described in my last book, The Lost Ark of the Covenant, began. I knew that the ngoma had been found first in the 1940s by Harald von Sicard, a German-Swedish missionary. He had photographed it and placed it in the Bulawayo Museum, Bulawayo being the second city of Zimbabwe. However, when I went to look for it, it had disappeared. The Lemba told me that it had not been possible to leave the sacred relic in a museum and that it had been removed and hidden in a cave in the mountains of central Zimbabwe. My efforts to find it proved fruitless. But one evening by chance someone told me that during the civil war some ethnographic objects had been removed from Bulawayo and taken to the capital. There, 65 years after it had first been discovered by von Sicard, I rediscovered it in a dusty, rat-infested storeroom along with other old drums and artefacts, none of which had ever been exhibited.

The Museum authorities had now agreed to display the object. It was unveiled with great pomp by the Ministers for Home Affairs in the presence of other ministers, church leaders and members of the diplomatic corps. There was even a prophetess who claimed to have had visions that the Ark was soon to be revealed.

image: Cover of the book <em>The Lost Ark of the Covenant

Apart from any religious connotations, it was intrinsically worthwhile. It had been radio-carbon dated by archeologists at Oxford University to 1300 or thereabouts and was said to be the oldest wooden object ever found in sub-Saharan Africa. But the Lemba tradition had maintained that the original had destroyed itself — according to them this was a replica of the original object, the son or daughter of some earlier Ark.

Having arrived in Harare, I was surprised to discover that the symposium on my book at the University of Zimbabwe was to be opened by one of the two Vice-Presidents of Zimbabwe, John Nkomo. What is more, half the cabinet was expected to turn up. And they did.

What was for me even more surprising was that the secretive Lemba were in fact in positions of great power in the country. I had been in correspondence with the Hon. Hamandishe, an Opposition Member of Parliament and a proud Lemba. So I knew about him. But it turned out that there were other Lemba MPs too. And there were even Lemba members in the cabinet, including the Minister for the Constitution, the remarkable, courageous and charismatic Eric Matingenga. As the day of the opening of the exhibition and symposium approached, it was clear that the Lemba had decided to come out of the closet!

When Vice President John Nkomo opened the symposium, he said the discovery of the Ngoma Lungundu had resulted in a lot of excitement and was testimony to Zimbabwe’s rich spiritual heritage. He added that the symposium would enable the people of Zimbabwe to understand the nature of the sacred drum as well as to explore its links with the biblical Ark of the Covenant. “The sacred object has now been linked to the biblical Ark of the Covenant,” he said. “This discussion will not only allow us to learn more about our ancient communities, in particular the Lemba community, but it should give us insight into the origins of the Ngoma Lungundu and its links to the Ark of the Covenant, the repository for the tablets engraved with the 10 commandments given to Moses at Mount Sinai.”

Many Lemba were wearing resplendent kippot.

MP Hamandishe had asked me to bring some tallitot and kippot for the Lemba of Zimbabwe. Thanks to the kindness of some London rabbis, generous members of Kulanu, and some academic colleagues in Israel, I was able to bring a good supply of these items. At my first lecture, which was held in a packed hall in the Jameson Hotel in Harare, I was delighted to see dozens of Lemba. Many of them were wearing resplendant kippot, and had come from distant villages. At the symposium many more came, as well as a distinguished delegation from the South African Lemba. And among the many cabinet members present was Eric Matenga, who clearly and fully identified with his Lemba kinsmen.

Matenga a Lemba? Lemba MPs?!!” people whispered in astonishment. The following day it was as if Zimbabwe had discovered a lost tribe. The story of the Lemba and the Ark were headlines in the national newspaper and the top slot in the TV news.

MP Hamandishe was delighted, but worried that the new visibility could lead to trouble. “We’ve been unknown until now,” he said, “but now we’re part of the political landscape in this country. I have one question as far as the outside world is concerned. Where are the Jews? What do they think of us?”

Reports in the Zimbabwe press were soon quoting Lemba lamenting that the Lemba religious and cultural practices were dying out. “It is unfortunate that some of us do not know much about our rich history,”said Mr. Nikisi, who was initiated in 1987. “But I am happy that despite pressure on our culture, the VaRemba (Lemba) culture has stood the test of time. It is one of the few in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole that is almost original.”

Another Lemba traditional leader, the venerable Mr. Zvinowanda, the tribe’s most revered circumcisor, who is proud of what he sees as his Jewish roots, observed that “some of us are marrying strangers. Some have converted to Christianity. It makes me sad.”

While I was there, I broached the idea of creating a Lemba Museum somewhere in Zimbabwe. The Brits were quite keen on the idea. The Swedish Ambassador too was helpful. There was one ambassador, however, who was conspicuous by his absence throughout the days of celebration of the Ark/ngoma. The Israeli ambassador was nowhere to be seen, either at the symposium or at the opening of the exhibition. This makes me sad. There is a community of very fine people in Zimbabwe who have every reason to believe that they have a special relationship with Israel. It can only be to Israel’s advantage to acknowledge them.

© Tudor Parfitt 2010