Tourists, academics, historians and students from around the world cannot resist learning about a Kaffir culture that has stayed obscure in Sri Lanka for 200 years

The rustic village of Sirambiadiya is located about four kilometres off Puttalam, on the Anuradapura-Puttalam Road. It is untouched by the hustle and bustle of modernization. Everything from tree-lined roads to houses that are scattered wide apart, speaks of peace and simplicity. It is this apparently insignificant village that has been housing a community of people, belonging to an obscure but distinct race for 200 years.

The Kaffir community recently became a topic in Parliament when questions were raised about their status in Sri Lankan society by MP Buddhika Pathirana. Industry and Commerce Deputy Minister Nimal Lansa assured that steps have been taken to ensure that the Kaffir community is given equal rights as other Sri Lanka citizens. Minister Lansa further said that members of this community were given all rights while their culture had also been recognized as one that should be preserved.

Thirty-five Kaffir families live in Puttalam now while a few members live in the Galle and Hambantota Districts as well. Referred to as Kaffirs or Kapiri in Sinhala, their origin is in Mozambique with an Afro-Portuguese heritage. They are a community of friendly people with ready smiles, distinctive curly hair and African facial features. Sherine Alex is one such descendant who explained the true extent of the word Kaffir. “In our birth certificates, our race reads as Ceylon Kaffir, we don’t know how the word originated,” she says.

To mark Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, a group of singers and dancers including Sherin, was invited to visit South Africa by the South African Embassy. Their music group was called Ceylon Kaffirs.  “The embassy asked us not to use the word ‘Kaffir’ as it’s derogatory. They asked us to call ourselves as Ceylon Africans. Until we went to the embassy, we also didn’t know about this. Even on our costumes we had embroidered the word Kaffir. We changed it before leaving the country”, said Sherin.

Indeed the word Kaffir pronounced as ‘Kaf-er’ is an ethnic slur used to refer to black people in South Africa. The word originated from the Arabic word Kafir which means infidel or disbeliever. It is the term they used to call non-believers of the African region. The Portuguese, who arrived later, adopted the same name the Arabs used for them. It was considered quite neutral by the white people until the 20th Century, when the term became actionable in South African courts. However, in the Sri Lankan context, the term is not considered derogatory and just used to refer to the descendants of the people from Mozambique, who first arrived in Sri Lanka as Portuguese slaves.

Kaffirs switched alliance to the succeeding colonial rulers and today they are a dying out community found in Puttalam, Batticoloa, Trincomalee and even Slave Island in Colombo. Sirambiadiya currently has about 22 Kaffir families, who have been living there for six generations. According to Sherin, her ancestors were first brought to Sri Lanka by the British as soldiers. “They joined the regiment in Kaladiya in 1817 to fight the rebellion in Kandy. After it was over, some settled down in Kandy and others came down to Sirambiadiya,” says Sherin.

The current descendants speak Sinhala and are Roman Catholic. Their marriage rituals and funeral rites are carried out according to Roman Catholicism. Wedding attire for the bride is a frock and the groom wears a suit. Their traditional clothing consists of flared skirts and frocks as well as four-pleat skirts. The frocks have three-quarter sleeves or straps. Women wear big earrings and necklaces made of wood and metal. Men wear tweed sarongs with coats.

“Later we started wearing normal Sri Lankan clothing. Our grandmamma used to dress in redda-hette (traditional Sinhala cloth and jacket)”, recalled Sherin.

Although they speak fluent Sinhala, it’s apparent that the colonial influence has not wholly left them. They still refer to their parents as mama and papa and grandparents as grandmamma and grandpapa. Also, they use their paternal family name at the beginning of their Christian name, a custom common to Hindu and Muslim communities in Sri Lanka. Their meals consist of normal Sri Lankan food such as rice and curry.

“Mozambique is similar to Sri Lanka and they have coconuts and drumsticks. So there couldn’t have been many differences in the cuisine anyway, but they may not have rice,” contends Sherin.

During the colonial period the Kaffirs either served as soldiers or labourers. Later on, they held government jobs. They spent their leisure time making instruments such as Dholki and Raban. The core of the Ahu tree was dug out and used to make the instruments. Animal skin was used for its surface. Coconut trunks were also used to make some of the instruments.

“In those days women used to stitch cloths and were involved in animal husbandry. They had chickens, goats and cows. Kaffirs also grew vegetables in forest clearings and cultivated paddy in fields,” says Sherin.

Even now their large gardens are full of vegetable patches and rhizomes. Hens roam freely with their chicks. “We rear chickens the traditional way, we don’t give them chicken food,” says Maria Jacintha, another member of the Kaffir community.

Today, the Kaffirs do jobs such as masonry, run shops and work in hospitals. Their houses are simple, evidence of their modest means. They are a community that attracts tourists, academics, historians and students from around the world, to learn about their culture and heritage. The main attraction is their music and dancing that has remained unique to-date. They perform at hotels, cultural events, anniversaries, Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations and opening ceremonies.

They still sing the songs sung by their ancestors. The topics of these songs vary from love to subjects such as the sea and sky. Some of the songs are about sailboats and the roar of the waves as it goes to sea. It is about how the sail flies in the wind. Another song is about how a lady named Rosa danced and welcomed a Catholic priest who arrived at her home.

The songs are in Ceylon Portuguese Creole, the language originally spoken by the Kaffir community. “This dialect is only found among Kaffirs of Sirambiadiya.  The Kaffirs of Batticaloa and Slave Island are a bit different from us and apparently they no longer speak the language,” says Maria.

According to Sherin Alex, their songs are different to Kaffirinna. “Kaffirinna is sung by the Kaffir community in Batticaloa and they display similarities to Baila. Our songs are referred to as Manja.”

They use two coconut shells tapping on a plank, a rabana, a dolkiya, two spoons clicking against each other and a surface of a glass bottle tapped with coins as music instruments. The songs are short and the few lyrics repeat each other. The lyrics gradually increase in tempo until a dance beat is formed. Their dancing involves fast paced rhythmic movements similar to traditional dancing in Africa. As the beat reaches a crescendo, they include clapping and shouting to make the performance livelier.

“We have seen the way our grandparents danced for these songs. We follow the same dance steps,” says Sherin. They know the meaning of the lyrics they sing. This they have learned just by listening to the songs. Later generations started studying in Sinhala and they now talk and write in Sinhala.  As people went out of the village for jobs, they gradually decreased talking in their native tongue, Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole.

Until the third generation, they have been inter-marrying among themselves which has helped preserve their dialect and culture.  “From the fourth generation, people started marrying either Sinhalese or Tamils. This resulted in a generation gap and reduced the number of people speaking our native tongue,” says Sherin.

Now their native tongue is only spoken when they sing Manja, the only feature of their heritage that remains stubbornly independent and refuses to borrow from the contemporary music that surrounds them.
(Pics by Musthaq Thasleem)

Sherin Alex
Sherin Alex
Juliet Josephine
Juliet Josephine