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The Gullah are a group of African Americans living in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. They are direct descendants of slaves purchased to cultivate crops in the area, especially rice which thrives in the wet marsh areas. These peoples speak a distinct language and have managed to preserve their heritage more than any other group of black Americans.
The origins of the Gullah date back to the late 17th and 18th centuries when South Carolinian and Georgian farmers learned that rice crops would flourish in the wet areas of the coastline. Plantation owners had no experience in cultivating rice, and since it is a very difficult crop to grow, they purchased slaves from the African areas known as the “rice coast.” The peoples of this region, found in west Africa between Senegal and Sierra Leone, had generations of experience in growing rice as a staple crop. The Gullah who live in these coastal regions today are the remaining descendants of these original slaves.
The Gullah have managed to maintain their way of life through the generations. They speak a form of African language known as Creole, which is a unique mixture of English and the native language of Sierra Leone. Most Gullah peoples live in small, tight-knit farming and fishing communities, and their way of life is very simple. They have made it a point of keeping their culture intact and maintaining their agricultural way of life.
One of the primary reasons the Gullah have been able to hang on to their unique cultural history for so long, is that the majority of slaves in the region all came from Sierra Leone and nearby areas. In most other places around the south, slaves came from other heavily populated regions and often had differing cultures and customs upon arrival in America. Only in these coastal regions were the slaves similar enough in background and culture to maintain much of their African identity through the ages.
Unfortunately, the Gullah people are being faced with a crisis which threatens to separate their communities and diversify their culture. Jobs are becoming scarce in the region, so many families are being forced to move inland in order to find work and support themselves. Additionally, land on the coastal regions has gone up in value and many owners have been offered large sums of money if they decide to sell. With the current economic crisis, many are tempted to do so. This would eventually leave the Gullah separated and scattered around the U.S..
My name is Mohamadou. I am a Senegalese-born citizen who spent half a year in Clemson, South Carolina in 2010. I happened to visit Charleston, SC where I was surprised to feel I was like back home.
Almost everything there reminded me my native land: the basket makers, the landscape, the former rice fields, the streets, the trees, the food (white rice, the fish-based meals, the okra sauce, the boiled peanuts) and moreover, the human faces and the accents. I learned about Gullah people and from then on I became interested in them, and their similarities with West African, mainly Senegalese folks.