Sri Lanka's African slave families fade away

In a village deep in west Sri Lanka, one of the island's few remaining communities of African descent breaks into song -- a poignant elegy to a disappearing culture.

The music starts with a slow, gentle rhythm played on a tambourine, spoons and coconut shells, before it builds to a climax with dancers swinging their hips, hands and feet wildly.

The performance is a direct link back to the tiny minority's distant African past.

"We are forgotten people," Peter Luis, 52, said. "We are losing our language and, having inter-married many times, our children are losing their African features."

The population of African-Sri Lankans -- now numbering about 1,000 -- is mainly descended from slaves brought to the island after about 1500 by Portuguese colonialists.

They are known as "Kaffirs", but the term is not the savage racial insult here that it is in other parts of the world, notably South Africa.

"We are proud of our name. In Sri Lanka, it is not a racist word like the word negro or nigger," said Marcus Jerome Ameliana, who believes her ancestors came to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, as Portuguese slaves.

The slaves were also used as soldiers to fight against Sri Lanka's native kings, in the first stage of a long history of oppression under a series of imperial masters.

When Dutch colonialists arrived in about 1600, the Kaffirs worked on cinnamon plantations along the southern coast.

After the British took over Sri Lanka in 1796, the Kaffirs were further marginalised by an influx of Indian labourers who took most work on tea and rubber estates.

Lazarus Martin Ignatius, 82, remembers her grandfather telling how their ancestors were chained up and forced by the Dutch to take on the Ceylonese army.

Her memories, like those of most other Kaffirs, are fragmented, and she speaks a lyrical creole language with a mix of native Sinhalese and Tamil.

"We never learnt how to read or write, only to speak. Now young people go to school. They marry outside the community, so I think education comes from that influence," the frail Ignatius told AFP.

Louisa Williams, 17, dressed in jeans and a pink T-shirt, said she may train to become a traditional Kaffir dancer but admitted she rarely uses the dialect.

"I like to dance and will perhaps join a local dance troupe," she said. "I have heard about my ancestors from aunts and uncles, but I only speak a few words of creole like 'water', 'eat' and 'sleep'."

The future looks bleak for the Kaffirs, according to Anuthradevi Widyalankara, senior history lecturer at the University of Colombo.

"They have been denied education so they have a lack of interest in sustaining their language or culture -- unlike some other minority groups," Widyalankara told AFP.

"They have become disempowered because their patrons, the European colonisers have left the island. They have lost their role as a part of the colonial machinery," said Jayasuriya.