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Lost Culture: Unique Sri Lankan-African Language Fading Into Obscurity

Dancing "kaffir" style in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, the ethnic group known as the country’s “kaffirs”, or Sri Lankan-Africans, speak a unique language – but they are losing knowledge of it.

“Although we call this language Portuguese, anyone visiting from Portugal doesn’t understand it,” says Emilianna Marks Jerome, 83, the oldest resident in a Puttalam district village where many of Sri Lankans of African descent now live.

I doubt that our language exists anywhere else in the world. If it did, I think we would have heard about it by now.

The Sri Lankan-Africans are descended from the Africans first brought to the island nation as slaves, servants and soldiers by Portuguese traders in the 1500s, and most likely from Mozambique

“For as long as I can remember we have lived in peace with the Sinhalese people here,” Jerome says. “Some of our people have even married Sinhalese and there are some who follow Buddhism, even though we are mostly Catholics.”

Jerome says she is the sixth generation of her family and that even though she speaks Tamil and Sinhalese she can hardly remember her own language.

“My mother is not very fluent but my generation, and our children, cannot speak it at all,” says George Sherin Alex, the leader of the community here. “These are mistakes: Our grandparents didn’t teach us the language. The language came down through five generations. It started to fade with the sixth generation and now, we, the seventh generation and our children, the eighth generation. Are clueless about it.”

Pravindi Madhushani is a member of this eighth generation. In her birth certificate it says she is a “Ceylon Kaffir” by ethnicity; those born before 1980 were classified as “Negro”.

“I cannot speak our language but I would like to learn it,” the 11-year-old says. “I’d like to participate more in our cultural programmes as well.”

Asked what words she knows, Madhushani says she understands that “kume” means to eat and “bebe” means to drink. “But other than that I know nothing of our language,” she admits. “What I picked up was thanks to various programmes. We are now Sri Lankans and our language is Sinhala. We study in Sinhala too.”

Another elder man here points to a chair and says “kantha”.

“The Portuguese are the ones that first bought us here and I think that is why our language tends to be called Portuguese,” says the man whose name is Michael Morris Leonard. “I doubt that our language exists anywhere else in the world. If it did, I think we would have heard about it by now. Many people come here and talk about this but so far nothing has really been done to preserve our identity and language and culture. This makes us sad.”

“We are trying everything we can to revive our language but we need help,” Alex concludes.


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