[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.
I 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.
I 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!
“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.