My Genetic Cousin, I Presume?

articles
April 13 2000 3:00 AM

My Genetic Cousin, I Presume?

In which a Cohen of the American variety meets his Bantu kinsman. 

80000_80197_000410_family3
(Continued from Page 1)

But Mathiva declined my self-invitation.

Advertisement

"The Lemba don't need attention anymore," said Mathiva, adding that three Yemenite Cohens had visited the previous Friday on a similar mission. Instead, he referred me to a Buba Lemba in Johannesburg, and after a few more phone calls, I had secured an invitation from Peter Mbelangwa to visit him at home.

Mbelangwa, who works as a manager at IBM, welcomed me warmly, if a bit cautiously, to his home in Bramley Gardens, a tony suburb of Johannesburg. He introduced me to his wife and three sons, and we sat in his living room, which was free of the religious artifacts of most American Jewish homes—photos of brides and grooms standing under chuppahs, needlepoints of yarmulke-clad men snapping their fingers in dance, artsy menorahs, and gilded sedar plates.

Probing the Jewish-like "dos and don'ts" of the Lemba, I found as many differences as similarities. Mbelangwa had never heard of the kosher practice of separating milk from meat. Lemba don't celebrate Passover, which is as important a religious gathering to most Jews as Easter is to Christians. He didn't know whether it was forbidden to name a child after a living relative, which Jews aren't supposed to do.

80000_80153_000410_family2

Thinking that some less obvious ancient bonds might exist, I sang a whiny, distinctive Yemenite song. Mbelangwa then sang a Lemba funeral dirge, which couldn't have been more different. He also played a Lemba instrument for me, a sambira, a gourd that has thin metal reeds sprouting out of it like the fingers of a rake. When he plucked it, it didn't sound Yemenite to my ear. Mbelangwa's wife also donned a Lemba dress for me, and some Lemba jewelry. They were beautiful but did not rock my vestigial soul. I asked Mbelangwa's sons whether I looked like any of their relatives. The boys politely shook their heads no, and I could tell from the slight smiles they thought me a fool.

Mbelangwa and I then discussed his views of South African Jews. "There are Jews who benefited from apartheid," he said. "And there are those Jews who opened the doors for us during the days of oppression." Yes, some of his good friends were South African Jews, but he confided that "you don't close your eyes in front of a Jew."

That wasn't exactly the call to brotherhood that I had traveled 7,000 miles to hear, least of all from a Cohen. I understand about having misgivings about your own: I purposefully keep my distance from a few relatives who are only a twig away on the family tree. Still, as my whole Cohen modal haplotype quest began to collapse under its own weight, I had to accept the fact that my DNA wasn't going to shake hands with Mbelangwa's over the millenniums. The romance of kinship can mislead, whether it is with a first cousin or, as in the case of Peter Mbelangwa, someone who is an unfathomably distant cousin, 130 generations removed. 

Jon Cohen writes for Science magazine. Follow him on Twitter.