“There’s a romance about a people on the cusp of disappearing. You see it in Hollywood films portraying Native Americans. Here in Sri Lanka, you see Kaffirs portrayed at times as a simple, smiling people, as though their centuries’ old culture can be reduced to a collection of songs”, words voiced by Sri Lankan film maker, Kannan Arunasalam in his short documentary film, titled, “Kaffir Culture“.
The term, ‘Kaffir’ has long held a derogatory connotation to the blacks in South Africa, and its origin has been traced back to the arabic word, ‘kafir’, meaning ‘unbeliever’. The negativity surrounding this word has almost created a taboo of some sorts of it being used in modern day-to-day conversations. However, to urge for reinvention of the term, Arunasalam is calling our attention to a small group of people in Sri Lanka of African descent called Kaffirs. Our education, and knowledge of this group may ultimately lead to their survival as a minority group.
Kaffir culture began back in the 16th century when slaves from East Africa were brought into Sri Lanka by the Portuguese to fight the Sinhala Kings. Over time, these African slaves settled into their new community and formed relations, which eventually led to the birth of the Kaffir culture.
Time in some cases heals, however in this case, time is an adversary, as Kaffirs that call Sri Lanka home fear that future generations to come will have no idea about the history of their people; their African ancestors and what they’ve been through as a community due to their dwindling numbers.
But for now, the Kaffirs of Sri Lanka will continue to embrace their heritage, share their stories, dance to their music, and whatever may happen to the future of their culture, they will keep on celebrating their past and hope that one day, people no longer only see ‘kaffir’ the racial slur, but ‘kaffir’, the culture that needs to survive.
Watch Arunasalam’s documentary on Kaffir culture below: