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  • Max Stearns

Reflections on Travels in South Africa and Beyond: Befriending a (Hebrew-Descended) Village Chief (P

During our trip to Victoria Falls, my family took the wonderful opportunity to visit and tour a local village in Zimbabwe. The tour was led by a forty-five-year-old man who explained that his seventy-four-year-old grandfather was the Village Chief. (I did not question the math.) We learned that the larger village community was coming off a particularly challenging period, with two funerals in a single week, juxtaposed to a wedding that had taken place two weeks prior.

The larger community is separated into smaller family villages, each of which is mostly self-contained. The village we visited was home to the Chief and his immediate family, including his children and grandchildren. During the tour, we saw fenced-in goats, cows, and chickens, and some farmed vegetation. The eight or so buildings on site included small rectangular homes, with painted cement walls, housing married couples, and small round buildings, housing children, who after age three no longer reside with their parents. The largest building belonged to the Chief. Each building has a thatched roof. The plumbing is housed separately, with flush toilets available when there is sufficient water for them to operate. During the dry season, when we visited, the community instead used long-drop toilets.

The children are able to build these concrete homes by the age of thirteen, and they are able to perform most tasks required in the village by the age of sixteen. When couples marry, the wife moves to the home of the husband’s family, where they remain for at least ten years. After that, the husband may elect to stay or to create his own similar village home. We met some of the older children, including a twenty-one-year old woman, although she looked much younger, making buns in a frypan, within a round building that served as the kitchen, while her younger siblings and cousins dutifully watched and waited inside.

After the formal tour, we met the Village Chief, a charismatic man who asked the names of each member of my family. The Chief inquired as to the origin of my wife’s name, which is Hebrew. When she explained that, the Chief’s face immediately brightened, as he asked: “Are you Hebrews?” We explained that we are Jewish, and the Chief excitedly asked us to come over and have a seat, as he pulled up his own chair. He explained that his grandfather was also Hebrew, descended from the Simeon tribe, one of Israel’s ten lost tribes. The Chief also explained that he was in the process of constructing a Hebrew temple, which he described as “Seventh Day Kippah,” signaling with a motioned pat to the top of his head. He said that he was doing this on his own.

The Chief spent nearly half an hour chatting with us about our family and his life in the village, where he has long been a respected elder despite the absence of any formal education. We would not otherwise have known. He was well spoken, and he exuded a rare wisdom and insight consistent with leading a tribe of over five thousand members. Despite their “simple life,” as he described it, he and other villagers were extremely happy. He was well aware of his remarkably youthful appearance, looking decades younger than his chronological age, and perhaps even mine.

The Chief briefly explained the intricacies of his leadership style. He never forces his will upon the tribal council. Instead, he lets the council members, comprising only men, deliberate and vote, and he leads in implementing council decisions. He explained that although this is not dictated by any formal rule, he abstains from voting on council matters unless needed to break a tie. This democratic approach operates within the context of a sharply patriarchal society, one that reveals clear divisions of responsibility based on gender, some of which we observed even during our very brief visit. The village is hosting a woman from New Zealand as part of a program in which volunteers live with and assist such village communities. She explained to us that she lives among the unmarried women, and helps only with women’s tasks, including painting and decorating the homes, and cooking and cleaning.

Although the village is remote and generally lacks modern technology the most notable exception was the Chief’s solar powered cell phone, which gives him access to WhatsApp. (The only other sign of modern technology is a complex cow-dung-powered gas stove, with the gas routed from an outdoor furnace into a separate kitchen that is used only for special events, such as weddings.) The Chief asked for my contact, which I provided, and we have since corresponded. As we were leaving the village, I handed the Chief $50 (US) for use in building the Temple, and the Chief told me, most appreciatively, that this would allow the purchase of five large bags of cement to begin construction of the walls. I have since sent him a contact greeting, and he soon responded with an image of the framed structure.

The image initially confused me and members of my family as it contained a sign at the apex above the frame bearing the name: “Seventh Day Adventist.” I wasn’t sure if I had misunderstood him, and so I asked. The Chief acknowledged that the named denomination was indeed protestant, and that it was true that the Hebrew faith did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. But he further explained that the Temple was so named, as a church, “for protection.” He elaborated that he was building, or commissioning, the Temple by himself, not in the village’s name, for that very reason.

My family had been told at various points in our tour that following early missionaries, the newly converted tribal Christians blended the trinitarian religion with traditional African pagan customs, producing a curious mix that persists into the modern era. While this unusual infusion of pagan customs into Christianity is widely understood and accepted within the larger African village community, apparently abandoning both Christianity and such local customs in favor of the more foreign and unfamiliar Hebrew religious practices risks endangering members of the Chief’s own tribal community.

As I left the village, the Chief gave me a hug. Along with the Chief, I found this a truly moving experience. In our WhatsApp correspondence, the Chief refers to me as his brother. I have told him I am proud to call him the same. Before posting this, I inquired with the Chief if he would allow me to do so. I was especially concerned about the dangers he described, personally and for his tribe, although I also mentioned that it seems unlikely that my readers would encounter or identify him, or place him or his community in harm’s way. The Chief, my brother and friend, immediately granted me permission for this post.

I welcome your comments.

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