Sri Lankan–Africans from Puttalam: visiting my “long-lost relatives”!


[Maryanne wrote this in her inimitable style many years ago. But the comments kept rolling in and I am thankful for saving this piece for anyone who is interested in the hidden histories of our people and their ways]

Along a narrow trail that wound a short distance from the Puttalam /Anuradhapura road, lay the quiet village we were searching for.  We reach Sirambiandiya after a four hour trip by bus from Colombo.  We are unsure of what type of reception we will get, as the research we had done on them, told of a people who were fed up of being treated like a circus freak show!

The knowledge of their existence has since been publicised by musical performances at the Barefoot Café,  so the novelty had worn off. Yet we were still interested in meeting them, despite the possibility that they may be wary of visitors. We took the chance and were delighted to find them open and friendly.

Puttalam1I have wanted to visit them for a long time, but till a restlessness born of inchoate melancholy drove me into taking the trip, I had been postponing it.  I am curious to find out how much they have integrated into the Sri Lankan culture, perhaps due to my own feelings of displacement; I am grasping at straws, in desperate search for a source of attachment to Sri Lanka. I am hoping that they might have it, and I could learn from them.

On reaching Puttalam, a fateful encounter, with Ignatius a “Kaffir”, who gets into the bus that we are traveling in, makes it possible for us to go visit his family. He tells us his mother’s name, and so on reaching the village, we trace her and have a chat with her and the rest of the family.  Their home is sparse and small, but they seem content as they speak about life and share their opinion on different issues. Sherine, the most outspoken of the group, speaks on behalf of the family. Ignatius’ mother and two other women are sitting quietly and chirping in every now and then, while children linger in the corners of the room.

They do not look radically different from Sri Lankans, so my first question is; what is the major difference between them and the Singhalese majority?  “Our music and dance, which has been passed down from generations is what makes us different”, they explained, “We use the rabbana and a drum we call the dolki”

I had seen videos of their dance performance on utube, and could tell from the shuffling feet and bent back as they moved fast pace they definitely had rhythm. I see similarities in their dance in the traditional dance moves in some parts of Northern Nigeria. As a lover of dance myself, I could definitely perceive the African vibes in their movement, it is less restricted and void of choreographic synchrony.

I am curious to find out what they feel about their hair, I have grown up brainwashed in to believing curly hair is unruly and ugly and needs to be straightened or braided.  I wondered what they felt about their own hair since they are surrounded by Sinhala women, most  of whom have  long silky hair,  much like what can be found, sold in shops in African markets to be used as hair extensions. I am delighted to hear Sherine say that, “our hair is an important part of our identity so we like it the way it is.”

Sherine talks of a visit to South Africa, I want to hear more. How did she feel when she went to Africa for the first time?

“When we landed in the airport, we went on our knees and kissed the ground”.

My heart fluttered hearing her say that, I know the feeling of missing home and the relief of returning.

“It was nice to see so many familiar faces, it felt like coming home” she continued.

I wanted to know why they were called Kaffirs. “It’s the name our ancestors used to call themselves, it is written on our birth certificates”. Sherine told of the experience in South Africa where they where not allowed to call themselves Kaffir, but where told to introduce themselves as “Ceylon-Africans”. Do they prefer being called Kaffirs or the South African Inspired term “Ceylon-African”? “We prefer Ceylon-African because we now know Kaffir is a bad word” Sherine says.

She is a lone voice in a dwindling population; will this be the beginning of a new name that will reshape their identity? That remains to be seen.  By the time this name change occurs, the transition from Kaffirs to “Sri Lankan Africans”, as they intermarry the Singhalese majority population, it is likely they would be even less of them around.

Even now, the children peeping out from behind worn curtains already show no signs of their African ancestry, in a few generations,  only the conscious effort to preserve the culture through music will remain, as the physical manifestations of race will be much less obvious. I spot a teenage boy peeking from behind the curtain who looks a lot like my own half African, half Sri Lankan son. Interestingly, his twin sister has even less African features; her hair is straight and her complexion much lighter than her brother’s, she looks more Asian.

Most of the population doesn’t consider the term Kaffir as derogatory if reports on the Kaffir culture in Sri Lanka is to be believed. But Sherine has been to South Africa, as close to her ancestral home land as she could get. She has learnt first hand that Kaffir is a “bad word”. Mozambique, the roots of her ancestors is a southeastern African country which was colonized by the Portuguese in 1505; they ruled the country for four centuries.  The Portuguese displaced the Arab traders in the region, taking the name the Arab called the people of the region.

Her ancestors, originally brought in as slaves by the Portuguese into Sri Lanka in 1600, were brought in as soldiers and laborers. As slaves, they had built the Colombo fort and at night were kept in the place still called “Slave Island” today. They originally spoke a Portuguese Creole, but now they mostly speak Sinhalese. With the loss of language and the growing inter marriage, most have completely integrated into the system.

puttalam2I had read quite a few articles about the Kaffirs, but found it troubling the term was still used despite the widespread knowledge that it was derogatory.  Even now, Sherine in her soft spoken voice revealed that that till the trip to South Africa, they had not considered the term derogatory, it was simply what their ancestors called themselves.

For me, growing up in Western Africa in the 20th Century, with a mix of Christian and Muslim influences, the term Kaffir is known to mean “Infidel”, a term used by Muslims to describe non Muslims. With the rising tension that often lead to violence between both religions, the term Kaffir has very negative connotation even in Western Africa. Calling someone an infidel is not a harmless description of their religious inclination anymore. I found my self cringing at the idea that they didn’t mind being called “Kaffir”.

Yet, the reality is that the 16th century Portuguese explorers that colonized Sri Lanka brought the “Kaffirs” from  Mozambique to be slaves in Sri Lanka.  They used the term the Muslim traders had used to describe the people of Southeastern Africa. Kaffir is a term that was not considered derogatory till the 20th century, when it became actionable in court and could lead to violence or death.  As in the case of Almond Nofomela an undercover police man who stabbed and killed a farmer for calling him a Kaffir.

In Southeastern Africa today, it is illegal to call anyone Kaffir.  The Sri Lankan Kaffirs, lost in the sands of time have finally caught up with this reality too. Though it may take a long time for the majority population of Sri Lanka to change their name to “Sri Lankan African”, much like the transition the former slaves in America made from Negroes to “African American”.

I am from Western Africa, so did not experience apartheid first hand, but I will not want anyone to call me a Kaffir. Regardless of if it is the derogatory version or not. It’s the 21st century, one ought to be politically correct!  perhaps it is time the  Sri Lankan “Kaffirs”  to become Sri Lankan Africans!

300 profile Maryanne

“We are the branches our roots are in Africa” Sherine had answered when I asked her where she considered home. I was surprised that after 7 generations, Africa was still home to them. At last I had got the answer I was looking for, try as I may; I will never shed Nigeria from my consciousness.   Threads of nostalgia will continue to tug at my heart. Sri Lanka will always be a foreign land. Sometimes I will love this otherness that I am, but at other times I will crave a familiar face.  Perhaps I knew this answer all along, and I did not need the trip to Puttalam to find it.  

Now I am left with more questions than answers. What defines us? The physical features of hair and color? The customs and traditions we choose to perpetuate?  Or the name we call ourselves?

The Sri Lankan Africans stand out because of their hair, music and the name “Kaffir”. An identity they are very proud of.  They enjoy the uniqueness that their small population has, some of them seem to revel in the attention they get, which would not have been given to typical poor rural folk that they truly are. Only time will tell, what will die out first, the name “kaffir”, or the dwindling population which might soon disappear as they further integrate with the majority population. For now, my restlessness has been quenched, and I am happy to have visited my long lost relatives! For that, I say muthu grande merece to Sherine and her family, for their genuinely African hospitality.

Photos by Tharindu Amunugama


Maryanne Kooda was born and raised in Nigeria and did her graduate studies at the University of Abuja. She taught Business Communication to undergrads in Sri Lanka and holds a post-grad qualification in special needs education from the Open University Sri Lanka and is a teacher.  She writes when her rushed mum-teacher schedule allows her to clutch at and pin down the many creative threads that spin around in her mind. She is a mother of two lively sons and lives in Sri Lanka.


13 thoughts on “Sri Lankan–Africans from Puttalam: visiting my “long-lost relatives”!”

  1. I think intent to degrade matters and the use of “Capiri” the Sinhalacized Kaffir may be an gray area. Then there is also the dance/song style called baila (the Spanish word for dance) but also called and>advertised as Kaffiringna. Also Some times Political Correctness can end on itself where even “white boys” start calling themselves by the “N” word.

    There are ,many Sri Lankans who are shades darker than many Africans, or to be more accurate in color resemble North Africans (Mali to Sudan). These Sri Lankans are at times referred to as “Capiri”. The extremely dark color of some Sri Lankans probably reflect a significant admixture of the first wave out of Africa referred to as Ancestral South Indian, The most representative of the ASI are considered to be the Onge from Anadaman Islands.
    See also
    Sri Lankan Population DNA Genetics 01

    1. How about the Moors – the African Muslims who came over to SL ? Am I right in assuming that at least some Moors came from Africa? I have friends – Moors – with very dark skin as diff from Malays and Borahs. All very interesting. Thanks for the link and insights Sereno

      1. There isnt any public data or research on the DNA of Sri Lankan Muslims.

        However when you look at Muslims in India and also compare to the Mid-East populations Harappa data set comes up with these numbers.

        S Indian N Indian(Baloch) SW Asian (Arab/Semitic)
        Bihari-Muslim 42% 33% 1%
        Kerala-Muslim 52% 31% 3%
        UP-Muslim 53% 33% 0%
        Lebanese-Muslim 1% 11% 21%
        Jordanian 1% 9% 28%
        Quatari 3% 9% 54%
        Saudi 1% 5% 58%

        Arab/Semitic component is the SW Asian which is around 25% for Lebanese and Jordanian
        54%-58% for Quatari’s and Saudis.

        SW Asian is between 1-3% for the Kerala, Bihari an UP Muslims.
        Sri Lankans both Sinhalese and Tamils also range between 1%-2% of SW Asian

        Most likely SL Muslims on average will have much the same composition as Sri Lankans or Kerala-Muslims with slightly elevated SW Asian/Arab, over 2% but less than 5%.

        There is no historical evidence of large numbers of African Muslims coming to SL, i.e. numbers enough to significantly change the gene pool. The dark color is most likely the same reason most Sri Lankans are dark, an over 50% South Indian component.

  2. As a PhD Nigerian student currently at the university of Colombo faculty of Graduate Studies. A PhD colleague (Sri Lankan) gave me this link..out of curiosity I guess. I am thrill and equally curious to know more about the African-Sri Lankans. My two years stay thus far has made me know its a small world and reinforce the fact that the world though diverse is one. When I go to the market and I see coco yams, cassava, stouted yams (hahaha) and ladies finger (Okro) from Africa I feel happy… Forget the skins and languages etc.
    I hope to pay a visit soon to this place – Puttlam etc and know more.

  3. I, too, was able to visit this family and upon our initial embrace, my friends and I were greeted with open arms and the word, “Sister!” What a welcome after being around people who would stop and stare at you, sometimes without even cracking a smile and other times while pointing or laughing because of an unfamiliar look. I shared many of your same sentiments in regards to this family’s hospitality and assimilation of their genes to the point where the youngest members of the family are not recognizably African as compared to Sherine or her mother. Visiting with them was an unforgettable and life changing experience for me. They performed several songs and dances and played instruments and even invited my friends and I to join in. I will be forever grateful for making that connection. Great post! Sharing this with my friends.

  4. This is a fantastic post! I have seen Africans in Sri Lanka but never considered historical migration from Africa. Slave Island was I assumed for slaves from India. But it makes sense that the Portugese would bring slaves from Africa for free labour. They were in Sri Lanka for the profit after all. It is sad though that Sri Lankans are constantly isolating people by the colour of their skin or caste or race or religion. And use derogatory terms to match. The more demarcations there are the lesser the unity. Reflected by all the political parties that represent a certain race or religion in Sri Lanka. Should never have happened. A political party should stand for the rights and well being of everyone and not a preselected group.

    1. Acording to my research we all are Africans. Our country Ceylon Now SriLanka was once in Ethiopia near the horn of Africa and moved to Cush and again moved to a place near Madagascar. Jesus Christ was born in Ceylon. They were known as Pedi people. They were not slaves nor people brought by Portuguese. They were living people of our ancestors who were living near the lake area of Africa.

    2. I am returning to my curating of this website Nithin. Am glad that posts like this based on authentic accounts given by writers from other parts of the planet who lived in Sri Lanka such as Maryanne Kooda were interesting reading and stimulated such good responses. Makes it worthwhile as this is a personal initiative and an independent one!

  5. I love this. Please connect with me. Would love to speak to you more about conservation of langauge.

  6. This article is absolutely enlightening!
    As an African-American with mixed west African (majority Nigerian), northwestern and southern European and Mexican ancestry originally hailing from the buttcrack (!) of the American Midwest, Ohio, I am becoming increasingly obsessed discovering and desiring to visit those areas around the globe kissed by the diaspora of Africa!
    I’ve concentrated this journey primarily in Latin America, namely the Caribbean, Central and South America however my attention is now shifting towards Asia as well.
    Your illustrative description, eloquent words and honorable reverence with which you describe the Ceylon-Africans only serves to share the narrative of truly how beautiful, diverse and majestic our folk are!
    I do completely understand the sentiment of the ‘disappearing’ Africaness of each successive generations (almost the same fact reverse of the Native Americans of the Seminole nation, mainly existing in the U.S. state of Florida being almost wholly absorbed by the Black American population), however the great solace is that efforts are being consciously made at conservation as well as the fact, no matter how less concentrated the beautifully dominant and enriched the African genome may become, just having the knowledge that it will continue to persist and flow through the lifeblood of so many peoples is encouraging itself…
    Again, thank you putting your lovely experience and thoughts into words.
    Pittman, Sri Lanka is now an active item on my ‘basket’ list!
    Many best wishes and happy blessings,
    (hailing from Houston, Texas, originally by way of Cincinnati, Ohio)

    1. Anastacia, this is amazing! I returned to this website after a long dormant phase of years really, where life’s other urgent duties took me away from the space I curated especially to unite off the road, middle of the road views psot-war. To give a space to writers who have something authentic to say and say it well about themes in Sri Lanka which are multi-layered and some overlooked by the decades of insurgent-govt conflict which took away generations of people, our spirits and hid away all that made Sri Lanka a quirky place to explore and live in. Maryanne Kooda lived among us and understood its ways, the good, bad and ugly and she is a unique writer. Thank you for your comment which arrived the day I thought of resurrecting the site and continuing this ground-to – Diaspora to any Lankan and Lankan type person living on the Planet.
      Puttalam, Sri Lanka will await you! Do get in touch if you wish to visit.

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