Re-kindling the Flame of New Year: Recounting a Lemba Tradition

The coming of the New Year remains an important event in the Lemba community. One cannot ignore the influence of the advent and imposition of the Gregorian calendar new year. It is common knowledge that like many other sacred times, new year also suffered usurpation with the coming of the hegemony of Christianity as a state religion in central and southern Africa. With the Gregorian calendar introduced, many Lemba people abandoned observing the details of their new year and succumbed to “the official” demands of the new civilization. The new civilization took control of various aspects of indigenous populations including that of the Lemba people. Both active and passive participators in the colonial cultural civilization were indiscriminately affected. But there are still some pockets of traditional practices that give hope to the Lemba people. The traditional Lemba calendar is based on the solar-lunar system. The rising and setting of the sun set the length of the day. The phases of the moon set the number of days in a month. The number of the coming and going of the new moon leads to a new year – that used to be celebrated in the month of Aviv (now Nissan (March-April).

In some quarters of the diversified Jewish community, there is a view that the Jewish calendar comprises of two beginnings, namely, the one that begins in Nissan (traditionally, Aviv) (March-April), and the other that begins in Tishrei (September-October). Rabbi Meryam Hodayah points out that if one counts the months of the Jewish calendar following the infinity symbol ?, starting at the centre counting from Nissan onwards, the two months Nissan and Tishri will cross each other. For Hodayah this helps us to understand the Jewish concept of two beginnings in the calendar. Thus although a year begins in Nissan (Aviv), it is celebrated in Tishri (September or October) – depending with the phases of the moon.

The first beginning is announced in Exodus 12:2 where Moses and Aaron were told, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months for you”. The month of the exodus became the first month of the year. Leviticus 23:23ff points the beginning of the year in the month of Abib (March-April) now called Nissan. The second beginning is in the month of Tishri (September-October period). The traditional Lemba community understood the September-October period as another moment in time which was very important because it was a time for seed-ingathering in preparation for the ploughing season with anticipation for the rains. However, later in the history of Judaism, the period became the New Year celebration time.

In the traditional Lemba practice, during the March-April period of the year, people used to collect the first fruits of their farming produce and give them to their respective leaders of the area. The leaders in turn took them to the chief’s courtyard. While the first fruits were being brought to the chief, at the same time the council of elders would also gather at the chief’s place to prepare for the celebrations of the New Year. Their assembly would be followed by all heads of families – thus men of the community.
After receiving the first fruits, the chief would invite the elders of the Bakari clan to bless the first fruits. After the blessings, then the men from this clan would blow the horn or shofar to announce the end of the year and beginning of another new year. This horn was supposed to be that of an eland or antelope. The blowing of the shofar would also be an announcement to the people that they were free to eat the produce of their fields. After the blowing of the shofar, the men at the chief’s place would break into song and dance. There would be a great feast of eating and drinking.

Towards the end of the celebrations, a ceremonial fire would be made. All participants would be given a piece of firewood from the ceremonial fireplace to go and kindle at their own places. Members of the community who did not attend the New Year’s celebrations are required to go to their neighbours who attended the men’s celebrations and get a piece of firewood from the neighbour’s fireplace.

At the end of presenting of the first fruits to the royal courtyard, after all is said and done, and the men’s meeting is over, the horn was blown to tell the people enjoy the new year’s harvest. Then children were brought together and they were told, “These are the fruits of the New Year, enjoy”. This is because people were not allowed to eat the first fruits of their crops before they were presented to the community’s leadership. Some people would feel that they were being delayed to enjoy fruits of the new year then they would break the law and start eating secretly before time. Such an act was punishable by paying a beast to the community leadership who would ask the priest to help the offender by cleansing him/her.

The new year in traditional Lemba community had a lot meaning to their daily lives. Firstly it had a religious meaning in that it was a beginning of newness in general. It was a time those who have committed crimes and other forms of wrongs were declared forgiven after the cleansing during the fasting period. Repayment of debts or relieving of debts was also considered during this time after the encouragement by the chief to do so. It was a time of efforts to bring about peace and harmony in the community. Each year as they rekindled the big flame, share the fire at the end of the meeting, sang and danced in unison, they grew from strength to strength in unity as a nation.

Rabson Wuriga is a Be’chol Lashon Research Fellow of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research.

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