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Yemenis in Southern Africa: How Nguni South African and Yemeni Arab Streams Combined in Central Africa
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

A reader from the Democratic Republic of Congo wrote from his current European residence.  He cited the following quote from one of my articles, Genetics Out of Africa as the basis for a question:

In later centuries specifically Yemeni individuals in small groups moved among the populations from eastern to western Africa, some settling and becoming part of local peoples.  These are all in historical times. In the 19th and 20th century, small groups of Europeans also contributed to the gene pool as many married Africans in various parts of the continent.

Then he posed question about a DNA test that had revealed ancestry from Yemen and from South Africa Nguni.  He asked about details about ancient Yemeni migraton into Southern Africa that might explain this combination.

So what do we know about the movement, migration and interaction of various peoples in Africa and southern Arabia, that might account for that combination?

Southern Africa
On the matter of a Yemeni connection to Southern Africa, I was not aware of any specific presence of Yemenis in Southern Africa, but it would not surprise me to learn there were at least trading contacts and coastal settlements.  But I expect there were some in areas of what is now Mozambique, since varieties of the Swahili language were spoken on the Mozambique coast.  These forms of Swahili are similar to those we knew and spoke in Kenya.

Some of the Nguni people live in southern Mozambique.  The Swazis are Nguni (Swaziland, South Africa and Mozambique).  The Nguni group of clans and tribes is very large and includes the Ndebele (Matabele) in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and several smaller tribes in Mozambique and South Africa.  There is a cluster of peoples called Tsonga or Shangaan, sometimes spelled Thonga or Tonga.  (There is also a different Tonga people in northern Malawi, and a related Tonga group in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique, who are not Nguni.)

But other Nguni groups are found all the way through Zambia and up to southern Tanzania, with tribal names like Ngoni or similar.  Many of these speak non-Nguni languages of the other Bantu tribes they have conquered or settled among in their flight from the south.

Like the Ndebele in Zimbabwe, these northern and central groups are the result of secondary dispersions in the 1800s in the wake of the Nguni wars and the Zulu imperialism under Shaka.

Southern Yemeni (Hadrami) sources are strong among the Swahili tribes of the Somali and Kenya coast, as the Swahili are a mixed group of people with various mixes of Arab and African genetic heritage.  But I am not aware of any Yemeni component in the southern Africa peoples.

I spent over three years in South Africa studying peoples there, and did not run into any communities or indications of populations of Yemenis there.  I was resident in Kenya for 25 years before that and knew several Yemenis.

Some were from longtime settler families, and two men of Yemeni extraction were Members of parliament and government ministers at one time while I was there.  Non-citizen Yemenis were there also as imams and mosque leaders or teachers.  I met one or two in Nairobi.

My initial response elicited more specific details from the correspondent that shed further light on this probe into ethnic heritage.  He indicated that after considering the factors we had contributed as possibilities in his scenario, he had formulated two possibilities.

Yemen to Nguni
First, he suggested the connection could have begun in Southern Africa, since there are known connections between the peoples of Southern Africa and Central Africa.  Referring to an analysis by DNA Tribes, our correspondent comments that the DNA analysis indicates Nguni and San components.  His father's lineage belongs to the well-known Yembe ethnic group, which is related to the Songye ethnic group.

These are well-documented cultures, part of the broad family of peoples speaking Bantu languages, as are the Nguni.  He comments that the Yembe/Songye complex is in turn related to the Balubas (Luba) group. These are again well-documented relationships, culturally hand linguistically, supporting genetic findings in recent decades.  We are fortunate that early comparative work in African languages was begun from the southern African point of view on southern and central African peoples.

Though mixing and mingling has continued over centuries of migration, the connection of the current Yembe/Songye/Luba groups are again related to the Kalanga of Southern Africa.  Our reader suggests that some of these people "might have been living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since before the 18th or the 19th century."  This is also consistent with what we know about the movements.  Much rapid movement and resettlement occurred in the 1800s, much of it fomented by the Nguni wars fomented by Shaka.

Central Africa (Luba-Songye) Connections
The connection to Nguni would definitely be accounted for by the Central African series of peoples our correspondent detailed.  Recall also I commented that there were northward and westward spinoffs of the Nguni migrating back to the north and west, in the wake of Shaka's disruptions, also perhaps related to the simultaneous incursions of the British in the early 1800s, and the earlier presence of the Dutch through the early Cape Colony.

The Kalanga, Luba and related would certainly have been affected by the Nguni flight, and would have most certainly absorbed some genetic sources from them.  These are current names in the southern African panoply of peoples.

Lemba African Jews
My correspondent continued with possible implications of the Nguni sources, possibly related to a unique group in the midst of the other Bantu-speaking peoples.  He suggests that the Nguni component could be related to the Lemba (Zimbabwe, South Africa) who have ancestors from Yemen (being all or, probably, only some of those Lemba ancestors Jews).  He reflects rightly on the logistics of confirming this possibility:"
        But this is a complex hypothesis whose most accurate evidence could be discovered only through a comparison of the Lemba genome to this of people who are genetically related to Nguni and Yemenis.

He comments on a recent internet publication that might support this Nguni-Yembe connection as a bridge to his central African tribal associations:
        What I read was a message written by a Lemba who said:  "I am a Lemba and have been taught that other black Jews are amongst Ngunis known as amalala/amanhlenga/amadebe/amathonga.  How far is that true?"

Lemba Jewish Sources
The Jewish influence among the Lemba may be accounted for by a Yemeni connection postulated here.  I don't recall any source with a firm theory of why the Lemba would have this unique Jewish identity, in the middle of a traditional African setting.

I am not aware of any traits among any of the Nguni people that might be considered Jewish as with the Lemba.  Perhaps there are sources with more info on possible Jewish characteristics among them.  In regard to the Tsongo or Thonga group, I have my doubts.  I have read a good bit and had some minimal contact, and have not heard or read of anything like that.

Also see my notes below about Arabic-speaking Jews who were prominent in the commerce of the southern Arabian peninsula from ancient times ("Coastal Yemeni Presence").

The Lemba people by language belong to a different affinity group in the broader Bantu family of which the Nguni are also one branch.  They are part of the Shona group, their language being consider a form of Kalanga.  But consider that the Lemba and related groups live comparatively close to the Nguni. In fact the Ndebele are their neighbors in southern Zimbabwe and the adjoining area of South Africa.

East Africa Connections
Our reader proposed a second possible way to account for a Yemeni connection in his genetic heritage.  He suggested connections from his central African ancestors with Yemeni sources from the east through East Africa, related to the trading patterns we mentioned.  He states that his father's line comes from "Western Africa and the Sahel, with roots also in Eastern Africa, particularly in Kenya, Ethiopia and, according to some oral traditions, Tanzania."

This is a very likely possiblity for Yemeni connections.

Nguni-Yemeni Connection?
From what our correspondent has told us, there seems no necessity for a direct link between the Nguni heritage and the Yemeni heritage.  These could have come together early in Central or West Africa, from separate original movements.  From the details and connections mentioned, it does not appear that it would be necessary for any Yemini genes to have connected with the other lines via southern Africa.

Nguni and Yemeni sources could very easily have converged in central Africa or farther west.  Africa is a big place and there has been a lot of criss-cross and back and forth in all directions.  I have not seen much in depth among scholars on this central area or these specific peoples.  This may be a fertile area for further investigation by specialists currently looking into these topics.

Coastal Arabs
Our reader comments that our suggestions stimulated the idea of a third possibility to explain the merging of the streams in his heritage.  Based on our information about Yemeni persence in travel and settlement along the Indian Ocean coast of Africa, he suggests that before the 18th to 19th century, his Nguni ancestors might have had contact with Yemenis or other African Yemeni descendants, who had come into the area through southern Mozambique or Eastern Africa.

Coastal Yemeni Presence
As Yemenis (south Arabians) traded and settled along the East African coast and inland, they may have penetrated to the more southern reaches.

There are Swahili-speaking peoples as far south as central Mozambique.  The Swahili are a group of tribes of mixed Arab and African genetic origins that arose along the east coast of Africa out of this Arab trading and settling.

The Indian Ocean trade involved Arabs from Yemen (Hadramaut), as well as Oman and Muscat.  Zanzibar became a major center of the Oman Empire.  It is to be expected that Yemeni would move actively within the trade connections of East Africa and the Swahili cluster as far south as they traded and lived, namely Sofala, south central Mozambique.

The Swahili languages reflect strong Arabic language influence, especially in vocabulary.

Arabic-speaking Jewish traders may have been among those in this traveling Arabian trading group that was so influential in Eastern Africa.  For a long time, the southern Arabian peninsula was a strong area of Jewish tribes.

The San-Nguni mix is no problem, as the Nguni in general have a high percentage of San genetic and cultural heritage, not least testified to by the borrowed sound set from San into the Nguni.  These are commonly referred to as the "click" sounds.  This happened at quite a depth in history, since all the Nguni languages have this characteristic.

This means the mix of peoples and their languages, and the borrowing of sound patterns and the settling of those borrowed phonetic patterns occurred when the “Proto-Nguni” were still one small clan or close-knit group of families/clans.  Specific dates are not determined, only relative depth back into history.

A small coherent group of proto-Nguni experienced interaction with San people over an extended period of time, for such language changes to take place.  Then the current derivative groups, we know that history of origin and movement back toward central Africa in the mid 1800s.

Many now speak the languages of other peoples they moved in upon as they fled the predation of Shaka.

Related on this site:
Related Profiles of Nguni and San Peoples:

The !Kung Bushmen
The Gwikwe Bushmen
The Mbarakwengo Bushmen of the Kalahari
The Shangaan (Tsonga) People of Southeastern Africa
The Swazi (Swati) People of Southeastern Africa
The Xhosa of South Africa


Other Related on this Site:
Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
Genetics Out of Africa
Our Genetic Journey
Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa

Profiles of other Southern Africa Peoples:
The Afrikaners of Southern Africa
Botswana: Country Profile
The Luchazi of Southern Africa
The Maravi (Nyanja) of Malawi
The Ngando People of the Democratic Republic of Congo
The Ngongo People of the Democratic Republic of Congo
The Lomwe of Mozambique and Malawi
The Seba (Kunda) People of the Democratic Republic of Congo
The Swahili Peoples
The Taabwa People of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo
The Tonga of Mozambique
The Tswa People of Mozambique
The Tswana Cluster

Related on the Internet:
African Human Genetic History - Lonely Planet
Arab Influence in Southern Africa
Arabic-speaking Yemeni Jews
Cape Colony – The Dutch in South Africa
Kalanga language – Lemba and other dialects
Lemba – Black Jews of Southern Africa
Lemba – Jewish Genetic Roots
Mozambique – Muhimbi
Nguni – South Africa History Online
Nguni-Zulu Origins
Sofala – Southern Swahili Trade Center
Sofala – Arabs Visited from 915 CE – Encyclopædia Britannica
Southern Yemenis in Africa
Swahili People – Wikipedia
Tonga People
Yemeni Families in early 20th-century Addis Abeba


Originally addressed in an email exchange 17-18 March 2014.  Developed 2014-2015
Initial article posted on Thoughts and Resources 14 March 2015
Further developed 10 April 2015
Last edited 5 June 2017

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2015 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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