MBERENGWA // According to an oral tradition of the Remba ethnic group in Zimbabwe, hundreds of years ago a brightly shining star, kept safely in their village, protected the people. "We called it nyeredzi [the Shona-language word for a star]," said Chigaga Fundisai, 88, slouching in a low wooden chair in the yard of his rural home 400km south of Harare, the capital. "It shone at night and provided light in our lives. It also led us in war. We brought it down here from the Middle East."
At a recent symposium in Harare, a British archaeological expert claimed that the mystical "star" Mr Fundisai referred to is an ancient replica of the biblical Ark of the Covenant, the drum-like vessel that contained the tablets of stone on which Moses inscribed the 10 Commandments. Late last month, the department of National Museums and Monuments held a scientific symposium and exhibition at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare on the historical object, amid international attention.
The Remba, of which Mr Fundisai is an elder, claim ownership of the object, which they also call ngoma lungundu [the drum that thunders or the voice of God]. Made of acacia wood and apparently coated with gold, it is said the historical object was picked up in the 1940s from a cave in Dumbwi Mountain in Mberengwa. It was kept in a museum in Harare, where officials knew little about its origins, except that the Remba people revered it.
It is believed the Remba are of Jewish ancestry and in Zimbabwe their population is concentrated in Mberengwa district in central Midlands province. Tudor Parfitt, 63, a British professor of modern Jewish studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, was in Harare recently, where he unveiled a relic of the Remba people's ngoma lungundu. He has been studying the archaeological find for the past three years, and radio carbon-dated it to be 600 years old.
Mr Parfitt told the symposium that there is a link between the sacred drum and the biblical Ark of the Covenant. He said there were also closer ties between the culture and genetic make-up of the Remba of Southern Africa and Jews. "The DNA of the Remba consists of a white Arabic gene that has links with the family of the priesthood of Jerusalem," he said. "The design and weave that is found on the ngoma lungundu of the Remba resembles that which is described in detail in the Book of Deuteronomy. Although history has it that the original Ark blew itself up, the priest had reconstructed another one to replace it."
Mr Parfitt recently published a book on the piece, The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark. In addition to the link through their DNA, the Remba and Jews have many cultural similarities. Like Jews, the Remba practise male circumcision, discourage marrying non-Rembas, do not eat pork, have their own special way of animal slaughter and place the Star of David on the tombstones of their dead.
According to the oral history of the Remba, their ancestors were Jews who left Judea 2,500 years ago and settled in a place called Senna in Yemen. They later migrated southward along the east coast of Africa. As they travelled, some of them settled in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique, while others ended up in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Today, there are significant African Jewish populations in these countries, which have similar cultures and are believed to have their own versions of the revered ark. Ethiopian Jews recovered their own replica of the biblical Ark of the Covenant in 2002 from the UK after British soldiers looted it, among other treasures, in 1868 from northern Ethiopia.
Edmore Maramwidze, a Zimbabwean legislator who is also Remba, claimed that they are descendants of non-Jewish mothers who were disowned by their fathers. "The group was sent away from Jerusalem because they were descendants of Levites with their Gentile wives," he said at the Harare symposium. "Because the priests were more concerned with sending the group away, they did not care about the Ark. So they left with the Ark of the Covenant, which we called ngoma lungundu."
Back in the village, Mufandarahwa Musingafi, a resident, hopes the Remba will have a financial windfall from tourists wishing to view the remnant. "We believe it can be a viable tourist attraction," said Mr Musingafi, a 64-year-old father of six. "People will have to pay to view it and the money would be used for our programmes like when we have our annual circumcision ceremonies."
But not everyone believes Mr Parfitt's hypothesis. "It seems highly unlikely to me," Shimon Gibson, a British biblical archaeologist, told Time, a US magazine, recently. "You have to make tremendous leaps." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org