A slice of Africa in Puttalam-by Dishan Joseph

A slice of Africa in Puttalam-by Dishan Joseph


Most Sri Lankans in Colombo city would have caught a glimpse of robust women, of African descent dancing to pulsating drumbeats. We have applauded the performances of the African Manja group. But have we truly understood their origins, displacement and hardships hidden behind their smiles. I firmly believe that after their generations have lived here for 500 years, they too are very much Sri Lankan.

For centuries Ceylon had been a maritime domain for foreign traders, and defiant conquerors. All these foreigners left behind their ancestors, who with time integrated into our society.

There were many nationalities that lived here in those ancient times – Arabs, Europeans, Indians and Africans. Due respect has been given to all, but people of African origin are forgotten, perhaps because their humble ancestors once came to Ceylon as slaves?. In 1807, the British Parliament passed the Act abolishing slavery. Chief Justice of Ceylon Sir Alexander Johnston also recommended the abolishment of domestic slavery. But we must understand that the Africans were brought to Ceylon first by the Portuguese as a cheap workforce. We can adduce the name Slave Island in Colombo 2 is derived from the heavy presence of African slaves.

When the Portuguese built their fort in Colombo, the slaves were daily ferried by boat to work. The Dutch engaged in this practice later.

The road Ferry Lane in Slave Island was sadly the point where these innocent men and women were assembled, counted and ferried. Subsequently the British also used some African labour to lay the pioneer railway lines in Ceylon. Even in India there is a clan called Siddi (Africans who arrived centuries ago from the Bantu clan of South East Africa) who have hopelessly adapted to Indian life living in Gujarat, Karnataka and Hyderabad.

For months I tried to make contact with the shy African-Sri Lankans. I finally decided to visit Puttalam with my friends Ravi and Sathieshchandran. One of the last such families of direct African origin lives in Puttalam.

The name Puttalam is derived from the Tamil word “upputhalam” – uppu meaning salt and thalam meaning area of salt production. To this day Puttalam duly upholds its fame by producing world-class salt that would enhance any cuisine.

We travelled by jeep on the long drive to Puttalam. We went via the old route – passing through Waikkal, Kochchikade and Chilaw. We passed many beautiful Catholic churches. We finally reached Puttalam, a distance of almost 136 kilometres. At the junction, I made inquiries to find the village of Sirambiyadi (also spelt as Sirambi Adi), the home of this last clan of resilient Africans.

We drove for five kilometres and noticed signboards warning us of elephants. There were many wild donkeys meandering about. The jeep continued on a sand road, bordered by thick foliage. After 10 minutes, we spotted some small houses in a secluded neighbourhood. It was afternoon. There were no fences or gates. This is a real community in every sense of the word. We boldly walked towards a house painted in lemon yellow colour.

We were surprised when a tall dark woman walked towards us. She stood still and smiled. Within seconds three other African women came out from another house, followed by the barking of an excited dog. In my mind, I was thinking whether these people still spoke Creole or a form of Portuguese dialect but was stunned when they spoke perfect Sinhalese with no accent. Indeed they have lived here for decades and Sri Lanka is their beloved home. We sat in the garden full of trees and a cool breeze set the tone for two hours of amazing discovery.

The oldest of the four women, Juliet explained, “We are the last Africans of old Ceylon. I assume we are children from the fifth generation. Our great grandfather was Martin Manuel. I am 60 years old. These women here are my three sisters – Jenny Florence, Maria Jacinta and Sherine Alex.” I was again mesmerized by their Catholic names. They all shared a beautiful dark complexion and naturally curly hair. They were blessed with sharp features and piercing radiant eyes.

Florence added, “Our ancestors came here when this country was under Portuguese rule. We have heard our grandfather say that at one time there were almost 4,000 soldiers and workers of African descent who worked very hard to build the Colombo Fort. Of course, the fort is no more and is a historic memory. Our father’s surname was George. We have been living here for decades. We have had some of our clan living in Batticaloa and Trincomalee, but I have never met them; we have zero contact. Today, we are happy that after much representation by our grandparents, we all have Sri Lankan identity cards.”

Jacinta remained silent and smiled. Talkative Juliet kept up the momentum, “Those days when we went to school, children would direct rude comments and jokes at us. We were hurt as children, but with time, we did not care. Thankfully, today our seventh generation of children goes to school, and there is no discrimination.” By now, three curious children joined us. The eldest of the three is Chundapa (grandchild of Juliet). They do not have any visible African facial features. Juliet pointed to the teenage girl “See Chundapa, her father is a Sinhalese, so she does not bear an African or Catholic name.” The young girl giggled and hid behind a tree. In this remote village there are 22 families of African descent laced with inter-marriage. Their respected leader is Peter Lewis who works as a lottery ticket seller.

The clan’s grand matriarch is 85-year-old Emaliyana Marcus-Jerome, the proud mother of the four sisters – Juliet, Jenny, Jacinta and Sherine. She approached, walking cautiously. The old lady reminisced, “I have happy memories growing up here in Puttalam. Those days our men worked in the salterns and some did basic level government jobs. My mother was a resourceful cook. On festive days like Easter and Christmas, she would spend hours roasting a whole pig with the help of some women. If we could not get a pig, we roasted a few chickens. Our meals were a big family affair. We enjoyed the fellowship. Our clan got together around a fire – we sang and danced. We sing old songs in Portuguese. We do not speak Creole anymore, I cannot remember if my grandparents spoke this dialect. Over the years we adapted to rice and curry.”

It was time to appreciate some Kaffir music and dance. Jacinta and Jenny got their instruments – a rabana (small drum), a pair of polished coconut shells, two silver spoons and an empty glass bottle. Juliet took the coconut shells and began a beat, within seconds Jenny followed with pulsating beats from the drum. We did not understand the African lyrics, but the women sang their hearts out. Jenny played and danced with vibrant energy, she would have looked more awesome if she was clad in a printed ankle-length gown, which is their traditional dress. Soon old Emaliyana joined the singing.

This humble musical rendition in a remote coconut grove will remain a golden travel memory forever.

The women stopped and added, “We perform as a 12-member choir and band – six men and six women. We have sung at the BMICH and sang during CHOGM event in Colombo. In 2012, we were taken on a tour to our ancestors’ homeland in Mozambique. It was our first time on a plane and we were very happy. We enjoyed the visit. Our people in Mozambique were very surprised to see us.”

But life is not a rainbow for these women. Their husbands work as fishermen and masons doing odd jobs. Their houses were built with the support from a Germany-based NGO. The women earn an income by performing at a few shows maybe thrice a year.

They are cut off from Colombo. Keeping their religious faith, they faithfully attend mass at the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity located nearby. The Kaffirs of old Ceylon are a forgotten people. I wonder how they will move on in this post-COVID-19 period. Perhaps within the next 20 years these last four African–Sri Lankan sisters will vanish from our cultural spectrum.

The beautiful historical journey of these people has not been well documented or appreciated covering 500 years. Since this visit to Puttalam we made many efforts to trace other original African-Sri Lankans living in Negombo, Kalpitiya and Trincomalee and we remain hopeful to find them in the future. 

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