A new photographic project about the ‘lost Jewish tribe’ aims to open up awareness about Lemba ritual, custom and ethnicity.

In conjunction with Manchester University in the United Kingdom, and funded by the Efroymson family fund, the JAD (Jews of the African Diaspora)   project documents and profiles the contemporary daily lives of the descendants of the Jewish tribes that migrated into the African continent in biblical times.

Lemba people often claim they can recognise a fellow Lemba by sight. To an untrained eye, they are physically indistinguishable from people of the other communities they live with. From as far back as the mid-1800s, academics and travellers wrote about how the Lemba, although physically indistinguishable from their neighbours, lived markedly different lives and practised customs unique to southern Africa.

In studying the particularities of the Lemba, many academics have drawn similarities between Lemba and South Arabian customs. However, the Lemba long maintained that they are from a lineage of male Jews from Sena (often referred to as Sena One) who emigrated to the eastern regions of southern Africa.

The first significant attempt to prove the Lemba’s claims was by geneticist Professor Trefor Jenkins of the South African Institute for Medical Research. Jenkins and his colleague Professor Amanda Spurdle concluded after testing 49 blood samples from Lemba men that 50% of the Y chromosomes (in males only) were Semitic, 40% Negroid, and the other 10% untraceable. This proved that the Lemba were from an area stretching between what is Morocco today on the north African west coast to Iran in the Middle East.

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