The Lemba of South Africa:
A First Look
By Rabbi Capers Funnye, Associate Director of Be'chol Lashon, October 2011
On September 6, 2011, Rabbi Yeshurun Levi, Rabbi Baruch Yehudah, Rabbi Joshua Salter and I, departed Atlanta’s Harts Field International airport for the fifteen and one half hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. Although I had traveled to West Africa and East Africa, this was my first trip to South Africa. Our group of African American rabbis from New York and Chicago were making our way to South Africa for the annual conference of The Lemba Cultural Association.
The Lemba Cultural Association (LCA) is an organization dedicated to helping the Lemba community of South Africa maintain a sense of their cultural identity as Jews. The history of the Lemba community has been documented by several writers, however, my introduction to the Lemba community came first hand when I met Professor M.E. Mathivah, the president of the LCA, in 1997 at a conference sponsored by an African American Israelite organization, The Yisraelite Organization of Unity, (YOU) in Chicago, Illinois. Rudo Mathivah, M.D., the daughter of Professor Mathivah and the Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Lemba Cultural Association, serve as our host during our visit to South Africa.
I must say, after traveling to Eastern and Western Africa, South Africa is very different. I was truly impressed by every aspect of the South African culture. This impression came from the warmth of the people: African, European, and Asian. They were all friendly and welcoming.
Our entourage was transported to Polokwane, the capital city of Limpopo State. Limpopo is the most northern state in South Africa. It shares borders with Mozambique on the east, Botswana on the west, and Zimbabwe on the north. Our driver was a wonderful man by the name of Pat Amese. Pat was well informed on the history of South Africa, and he is a knowledgeable executive. As we traveled he answered all of our questions and informed us of points of interest as we traveled.
On Friday evening, we were honored to conduct Erev Shabbat services at the home of Professor Mathivah. Several members of the Mathivah family and other members of the Lemba executive committee attended our service. During Shabbat dinner, we discussed many issues with the Lemba executive committee.
On Saturday morning, we headed for a locale named “Sweet waters” near the town of Elim. I found it profound that Elim, which means (place of God), was the place that the Lemba elders had chosen many years ago as a sacred space for their community. I spoke on behalf of the several organizations that I represent: Be’chol Lashon, Israelite Board of Rabbis, and the Pan-African Jewish Alliance. The keynote speaker was the governor of Limpopo State, who is a member of the Lemba community. We also assisted with the induction of new elders into the Lemba community, from Zimbabwe and South Africa.
This was my first look at South Africa, but I promise it will not be my last…