The Daswas are members of the Lemba tribe often referred to as the Vhashavhi or the Black Jews. They live mainly among the Vendas and speak the Venda language. They are a very small tribe in this country, probably between fifty and a hundred thousand. They are also found in the neighbouring countries of Zimbabwe and Mozambique and in other African countries such as Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and among the Igbo people of Nigeria.
The Lembas claim Jewish ancestry and are very proud of this. They see themselves as part of the Jewish global community. According to their traditions they originally came as traders from South Arabia to South Eastern Africa over a thousand years ago. Like the Jews they have male circumcision along with certain rituals through which they pass on their Lemba beliefs and customs. They generally marry only members of their own tribe and observe kosher dietary practices.
The Daswa family followed the traditional religion of the Lembas, honouring the ancestors and speaking with them, living in harmony with the spirit world and also living at peace with the people around them. They were well respected with a good standing in society.
Benedict was raised in a loving hard-working family. According to his sister, Thinavhuyo, their father, “showed us that we must work at home and work for ourselves. At the same time he showed us that we must love one another and even love children that did not belong to our family”. He also disciplined his children when they misbehaved. The father had a special love for his eldest son, while Benedict in turn was always respectful and obedient to his father. According to his mother, “his father loved him because of his good manners”. The father worked in the fields and kept some cattle. He also had skills in building and wood-carving which he used to supplement his meagre income from farming.
Benedict’s mother was kind and loving and was the heart of the home. She too helped in the fields and also brewed traditional beer and sold second-hand clothes to earn some money for the education of their children. After becoming a Catholic under the influence of her son, she joined the Women of St. Anne Sodality and gave advice and guidance to young Catholic women. Even though she is over 90 years of age, she is still in good health and able to walk by herself. Mrs Daswa is a woman of really strong faith. In the past she often walked up to 5 kms to attend Sunday Mass. People speak of her as a simple, humble woman, friendly and kind to everyone, a hard worker and very committed to her faith. In the words of a person who knows her well, “she is very generous, always wanting to help needy people”.
The Daswa family were not closed in on themselves but reached out to help others. They did so even at times when the children complained that they did not have enough food for themselves. According to his sister, Thinavhuyo, “my mother said that the little we have, we should share with others who were in need. She had a love for other people, she felt for other people”. Thanyani is even more explicit about the family’s openness to the needs of others. He said the motto of his parents was, “Welcome everybody, and if we did not have enough beds, we got out of our beds to sleep on the floor and give our beds to guests; that was a sign of our culture. If we did not have enough food, the food would go to the guests and we would eat the remains. The guests eat first in our culture”.
This is the home environment with its spirit of love, hard work, welcome and hospitality in which Benedict Daswa grew up. Before starting school he became a herd boy looking after his father’s cattle. At this tender age he also developed his life-long passionate love for gardening as he began to cultivate a small plot allotted to him by his father.
Benedict started his education at Vondwe Primary School in 1957 at the age of 11. He soon moved to the Primary School at Mbahe. From 1962 to 1965 he studied at William Eddie School at Tshidimbini which was run by the Salvation Army. He then attended Mphaphuli High School near Sibasa. Having passed Standard 8 in 1968 he was able to go to Tshisimani Teacher Training College the following year. He qualified as a primary school teacher in 1970 and began teaching at Tshilivo Primary School. He later transferred to Nweli Primary School and became its principal in 1977.
Because of the lack of money Benedict had to struggle to complete his education at the teacher training college. His uncle, Frank Gundula, who worked in Johannesburg, was good to him and helped him financially throughout his education, but that was not enough. He had to find more money somehow. Here he showed his true character and mature sense of responsibility. For him there was no question of entitlement or depending on handouts. By this time he was a Catholic and he approached the local priest, Fr. Paddy O’ Connor MSC, who was to play an important role as Benedict’s spiritual guide. Fr. Paddy describes what happened when Benedict came with his problem, “he called to the mission for a job but I did not have any, but I offered him the money to complete (his studies). He refused and said he would try Sibasa for a job”.
He was fortunate to get a job there and things seemed to be going well for him but it was not for long. His employer asked him which Church he belonged to and Benedict told him he was a Catholic. Then his employer said to him that he would have to leave the Catholic Church and join the employer’s Church if he wanted to keep his job. Fr. Paddy tells us what happened next, “He refused and I took him to the mission, gave him money and told him he could return it if he wished when he was working. He returned it and much more”.