In Search of the Origin of the Merchants of Sena

In: Religion and Theology
Magdel Le Roux Department of Old Testament University of South Africa PO Box 392, Pretoria, 0003 Republic of South Africa

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The oldest, recorded oral tradition ofthe Lemba of southern Africa, individually also known as mušavi (buyer/trader), nyakuwana (the man who finds the things which are bought), or mulungu ('white man' or 'the man from the North'), is that their Israelite ancestors came to Africa by boat as traders from a remote place called Sena on the 'other side' of the 'Phusela'. Some say they came through Egypt. From anthropological and archaeological evidence it has become clear that at a very early stage continuing influences between the Semitic world (Phoenician, Hebrew and Sabaean) and the eastern parts of Africa had a reciprocal impact. The Sabaean (Yemenite) colonies were established in Ethiopia very early. There seems to be a historical link between the Lemba and Yemen. Later documents (684-900 CE) (for example Arab and Portuguese) refer to 'Moorish' traders along the east coast of Africa who possessed notably Semitic characteristics without being clearly Muslim. It is not certain who those 'Moorish' people were, but their traditions and customs were reminiscent of those that we know today as Lemba. Numerous Lemba songs, recitations, prayers, praises, proverbs and customs bear witness to their traditions of origin and their trading skills. One advantage of dealing with a 'living source' is that the researcher can sometimes verify some of the information on traditions. A qualitative study of Lemba 'Israelite' culture underlies this article. Oral traditions do not provide us with chronology, and some cannot be verified. The oral traditions of the Lemba and historical, archaeological and genetic data suggest that the immigration of the Lemba to Africa as traders could have taken place before the Christian era, but probably before the 6th century CE. An oral tradition can survive many generations.

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