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The Lemba tribes in Zimbabwe have an oral tradition that their ancestors were “Jews” who left Judea about 2,500 years ago and settled in a place called Senna, later migrating into East Africa. After 2,500 years of exile, British DNA tests have proven that the Lemba traces its linage to the Kohanim (Priests) of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem,

After entering Africa, the tribe is said to have split off into two groups, with one staying in Ethiopia, and the other traveling farther south, along the east coast.  Some settled in Mozambique, and eventually migrated to South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Most Lembas are are either Christian or Muslim in faith but they follow many Jewish customs. Marriage to other Lembas is preferred, with marriage to non-Lembas being discouraged. The restrictions on intermarriage with non-Lemba make it particularly difficult for a male non-Lemba to become a member. A woman who marries a Lemba male must learn the Lemba religion, dietary rules and other customs. She may not bring any cooking equipment from her previous home, as it may have been tainted by inappropriate use (not-Kosher). Initially, she may have to shave her head, (which is a requirement in the  Torah for soldiers to marry captured women)  Her children must also be brought up as Lembas. Lemba men who marry non-Lemba women are expelled from the community, if the women refuse to live according to Lemba traditions.
Other traditions followed by the group are:

  • They are monotheists and call  God “Nwali”.
  • Like the Jewish Shabbat, they hold a day of the week to be holy and praise Nwali.
  • They praise Nwali for looking after the Lemba, considering themselves a chosen people.
  • They teach their children to honor their mothers and fathers.
  • They refrain from eating pork or other foods forbidden by the Torah, or forbidden combinations of permitted foods.
  • Their form of animal slaughter, which makes meats fit for their consumption, resembles Jewish Shechita.
  • They practice male circumcision.
  • They place a Star of David on their tombstones.

British scientists have confirmed with DNA testing that an African tribe is actually of “Jewish” decent. Note: The term Jewish is being used out of convenience. The name given to the modern “children of Israel”  really refers to the tribe of Judah. As the Lemba is descended from the Kohanim and the the Levi’im, they are neither from Judah or any other tribe, as the priestly class and the Levi’im (who served in the Holy Temple) were considered  separate entities. Also they were separated from their people after the destruction of the First Temple, long before the Children of Israel were called Jews. 

The Lemba are also divided into 12 tribes, and among the Buba, the priestly class, was found the exact same DNA element as among those Jews of the priestly class elsewhere around the world.

A number of genetic studies have confirmed the findings. Initial research in 1996 indicated that more than half of the Lemba Y chromosomes (the male chromosome) are Semitic in origin. That study was followed by another in 2000, that reported more specifically that a significant group of Lemba males carry the “Cohen [Kohen] modal haplotype” (CHM) on the Y chromosome, which indicates the Y-DNA Haplogroup J found among Jews and some other populations across the Middle East.

The Buba clan carried most of the CMH markers among the Lemba, similar to other Jewish groups around the world where the males of the priestly class, the Kohenim, carry the CHM marker. Lemba tradition states that it was the Buba clan that had a “leadership role in bringing the Lemba out of Israel” and into southern Africa.

The oral tradition handed down among the Yemenite Jews is similar, stating that after the expulsion following the destruction of the First Temple, the Levi’im (assistant priests) and Kohenim fled towards Yemen; the group then split, with some continuing on towards the south, in the direction of Africa.

The University of London’s Professor Tudor Parfitt , who spent six months living with the tribe, and 20 years researching their people, expressed his amazement in an interview this week with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

“This was amazing,” Parfitt said. “It looks as if the Jewish priesthood continued in the West by people called Cohen, and in the same way it was continued by the priestly clan of the Lemba. They have a common ancestor who geneticists say lived about 3,000 years ago somewhere in north Arabia, which is the time of Moses and Aaron, when the Jewish priesthood started.”

The tribe, approximately 80,000 strong, lives in central Zimbabwe and the northern part of South Africa, and prizes above all its holiest object: the ngoma lungundu, “the drum that thunders.” According to tribal leaders, it is this, a wooden replica of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, that connects the Lemba to their Jewish ancestry.

The oral traditions regarding the ngoma lungundu said it had been used in battles, and thus was rebuilt several times, possibly from original remnants, Parfitt explained. He added that the replica that recently went on display at the Harare museum, about 700 years old, is “the closest descendant of the Ark that we know of.”

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