Harare, Zimbabwe - A British Professor who claims a 700-year-old wooden object found in a rat-infested museum in Harare is a replica of the lost Ark of the Covenant is set to leave Harare disappointed after failing to secure a meeting with President Robert Mugabe.
Professor Tudor Parfitt says the drum-like instrument, revered by the Remba people, is a replica of a missing biblical container of the 10 commandments given to Moses on Mt Sinai.
President Mugabe, however, did not attend a ceremony in Harare where the Ngoma Lungundu was unveiled. Vice-President John Nkomo attended the symposium where Parfitt was given an opportunity to explain the link between the Ngoma Lungundu and the biblical ark.
Mugabe has in the past seized on such opportunities to remind the world that Zimbabwe has a rich cultural heritage and resources. However his absence did not raise any eyebrows especially among those who have been following Parfitt's work.
The professor at the University of London's prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies may have raised Mugabe's ire after accusing him of looting the Ngoma Lungundu from the Museum of Human Sciences two years ago.
Explaining to The Standard circumstances that led him to link Mugabe to the looting of the object, Parfitt said several people, including Jews, who travelled to Zimbabwe hoping to see the object left disillusioned after failing to see it.
He said the visitors were responding to the publicity he raised over his discovery in the Western media.
Parfitt published a book, The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2 500 Year Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark which was followed by television and magazine interviews. Such publicity saw ark enthusiasts, who included Jews, trekking to Zimbabwe to see for themselves the Ngoma Lungundu. But they were told they could not see it for security reasons.
"They were only shown its picture on a computer," Parfitt said.
When he made his own inquiries, Parfitt's sources told him the vessel was no longer in the museum but in the President's personal treasure chest.
Parfitt said he later learnt that the Mugabes had not taken the object, but for security reasons, it had been placed in a government vault. This was after he had put the allegations in black and white.
"I am sorry for that. I asked the Vice-President (John Nkomo) to facilitate a meeting with the President. I really wanted to say sorry.
"It would also have been good for me to meet him because he is a historian."
Even though Parfitt failed to meet Mugabe, he is leaving Zimbabwe pleased with the reception he got. He said a Vice-President and six ministers attended the function where the Ngoma Lungundu was unveiled.
While officials marvelled at the drum carbon-dated to be 700 years old, in bars, workplaces and kombis, people failed to appreciate Parfitt's theory.
Many thought Parfitt's discovery was yet another "cock and bull" story, similar to claims made by a discredited self-styled spirit medium that diesel was flowing in Maningwa Hills a few years ago.
Ordinary people wondered why the discovery, announced two years ago to the West by Parfitt was only announced to the Zimbabwe public last week.
Did it mean that officials doubted his findings and only embraced his story after realising that the Ark of the Covenant could be a draw card for tourists, ahead of the World Cup, they wondered.
Historians Stan Mudenge and Aeneas Chigwedere were quick to urge Parfitt to show the clear connection between the Remba people and the people of Israel.
Parfitt, however, maintains that the Remba people are a lost tribe of Israel, though they are black.
He said genetic studies showed that the Jewish priests and the Remba priests shared a common ancestor.
"There is historical, anthropological and genetical evidence that show that the Lemba (Remba) people came from the Middle East. The problem is people are obsessed with race. There is no such thing as white or black in genetics, all people are 99.9% identical," he said, challenging his critics to write a book that proved his evidence was wrong.
In 1986 Parfitt, who had already started his remarkable journey to find the lost ark stayed for six months in Mberengwa with a family of Remba people in the Mposi area. He had an opportunity to meet many people who said they were descendants of the Jews who came from Senna. Here he was also told stories about the missing Ngoma Lungundu.
Unknown to many, the instrument had been found by a missionary in 1940 in a cave in Limpopo and stored in a Bulawayo museum.
Parfitt says he ended up discovering Senna in Yemen. There he says he found tribal names which were similar to those used by Remba people in Zimbabwe.
Asked to explain why the Remba people left Yemen, Parfitt said he could only speculate.
"It may have to do with persecution. It may also be that a mighty dam cracked and it was not possible for irrigation to take place. They then went to sea, ultimately ending up in Sofala, on the coast of East Africa."
His explanation may not have been convincing, but the professor bid me farewell with some words that may make sense for Zimbabweans hoping for a better future.
"Now that the ark which carried the 10 commandments has been found, every society should be reminded to observe the commandments. Thou shall not take a neighbour's wife, cattle, farm...," he said.
Those doubting Parfitt's work may need to look at the organisations that have facilitated his research work; the British Council, the Culture Fund, the University of Zimbabwe, National Museums and Monuments.
Rajiv Bendre, the Director of the British Council said his organisation would not have risked its name and funds if Parfitt was not a solid academic.
"His work is exciting. The Ngoma Lungundu was carbon-dated to 1300AD. This is a fool- proof scientific method. We are talking of the oldest wooden object found in Sub-Saharan African," he said.
"The professor is not saying it's the original that was used by Moses, but could be the most recent of the arks that replaced the original. We are fully behind this venture."