Tudor Parfitt, an English academic, schlepped all over southern Africa trying to figure out whether or not the Lemba people were, as some of them claimed, in fact Jews. He wrote up his travels, circa 1990, in Journey to the Vanished City. This was no easy task due to the fact that the Lemba have been illiterate for many centuries (if not forever) and therefore all of their history had to be obtained in person-to-person interviews. There are some parallels between the situation with the Lemba in Africa and the Indians and Mormons in the U.S. According to the book, southern Africa was never inhabited by literate people and for the most part never inhabited by people who built any buildings more substantial than a grass hut. When whites came to southern Africa they encountered tribes living in grass huts but also an extensive ruined stone city called “Great Zimbabwe”. They didn’t want to believe that ancestors of the blacks whom they were oppressing had been capable of advanced civilization and therefore a popular explanation was that people from the Middle East had come down to southern Africa at some point, built Great Zimbabwe, and left. The theory made some sense in that Arab slave traders had been operating up and down Africa’s east coast for many centuries and had colonized substantial parts of the Horn of Africa.
Where’s the parallel with the U.S.? There are massive ceremonial centers built of earth in the Ohio River Valley and up and down the Mississippi (Cahokia, Illinois being the largest). Europeans displacing American Indians did not want to believe that the people whom they were pushing aside had ever been capable of much. Various theories were promulgated in the early 1800s as to who might have built these impressive structures. The Book of Mormon is an explanation that posits immigrants from the Middle East (tribes of Israel in fact).
The book is interesting as a travel adventure and it is also interesting as a reflection of attitudes about the country of Zimbabwe circa 1990. A black South African university professor is quoted:
“I don’t think the Africans are a vengeful people. Look what happened in Zimbabwe. The whites always said there would be a blood-bath if the blacks won the war, but not so. … If redemption and peace can come to Rhodesia after years of one of the bloodiest wars, it can come here.”
[Oh yes... the Lemba. If you don't want to read the book it turns out that DNA studies carried out in the late 1990s indicate that they have some Middle Eastern blood. Their oral history points to an origin in present-day Yemen. There were Jews in Yemen until they were pushed out by Arab riots in 1948 (they took refuge in Israel, some of them men with two wives, thus becoming some of Israel's only legal polygamists). Of course there were Arabs in Yemen. The handful of Lemba traditions that are Middle Eastern could be either Muslim or Jewish. So the question remains open...]