The Zimbabwean People of the Book

Relly Coleman grew up in Tel Aviv, met her Zimbabwean husband in London, married in Holland, and came to the U.S. 26 years ago. Her daughter was born in England, her son in the U.S. It’s no wonder that Coleman pursued cross-cultural studies at UConn, and tracked down the Jewish Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe last year. But for Coleman the philanthropist, it wasn’t enough to meet the mysterious “Black Jews of Southern Africa.” Since last June, Coleman has succeeded in collecting and shipping 1,000 pounds of textbooks to the village schools.

The Lemba claim to descend from Jewish traders who came to Africa many generations ago and married local women. A 1999 DNA study confirmed a Jewish genetic marker, and the Lemba’s Judaic-like customs set them apart from neighboring tribes: kashrut, male circumcision, a weekly holy day, belief in one G-d, and marrying within the tribe.

So Coleman’s act is beyond ordinary tzedakah: The more textbooks the tribe acquires, the longer the Lemba can keep their children in the village schools, and the more likely they are to maintain their Jewish customs. Because the village schools end at 10th grade, a child must complete his secondary education at a boarding school, and then only if the family can afford the cost. While away from home, many Lemba children find it difficult or impossible to preserve their tribal culture.

Coleman discovered the Lemba through the writings of Tudor Parfitt and a NOVA documentary which aired in 2000. “My interest in anthropology, Jewish history, and people all came together with the story of the Lemba,” she says. Before the family’s Zimbabwe trip, Coleman tried to arrange a visit with the tribe. One hour before the Colemans left for the airport, an email invitation arrived from a Lemba contact in Harare.

With his help, the family traveled to Mapakomhere, a rural Lemba village in southern Zimbabwe. While touring an elementary school, Coleman was struck by the dedication of the students, 30 to a room and three to a desk sharing one old and worn book. The headmaster asked the Colemans to help obtain up-to-date textbooks.

Back in Westport, Coleman contacted Darien Book Aid, who immediately shipped 50 reference books to the village. Grateful letters from the headmaster and village elder announced the establishment of a teachers’ reference library. A wish list requested high school-level textbooks. Coleman contacted Joyce Losen of the Westport Public School District, who asked department heads for phased-out textbooks. Two months later, teachers had filled a room at Staples High School.

It’s one thing to find enthusiastic donors and to box the books. It’s quite another to get the heavy packages from a garage in Westport to a remote village in Zimbabwe. While DHL and British Airways generously coordinated shipment from JFK to Harare, Coleman cannot use those carriers at present, and is seeking an alternate solution.

Books-for-Zim has grown into a fulltime, international endeavor. Used books are donated by Darien Book Aid and six Fairfield County school districts n Westport, Weston, Wilton, Norwalk, Greenwich, and Fairfield. McGraw-Hill and Scholastic provide new textbooks. Grants from the Westport Rotary Club help cover packing and freight costs.

But now, Coleman says, “it’s like saying I want to send something to the moon.” Once the books arrive in Harare, she must rely on charitable individuals to drive the packages the last 180 miles to Mapakomhere. While she awaits a letter from the village, Coleman is readying a fifth shipment to Harare and is planning phase two of Books-for-Zim: raising money for the Lemba to purchase textbooks in Zimbabwe on local studies.

The Lemba plan to expand their high school to grade 12, and to offer boarding for non-local students. Through the tribe’s commitment to modern education, the Lemba children will remain connected to their Jewish heritage.

Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Fairfield County accepts tax-deductible donations for Books-for-Zim.

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