Matador was hosted for a weekend by Hilton Head Island Tourism and was blown away by the local Gullah culture.
In the late seventieth until the mid-eighteenth century, thousands of Africans taken as slaves from what is now Sierra Leone survived the middle passage to be traded in Charleston, South Carolina.
Thousands of acres in the Georgia and South Carolina Lowcountry and the Sea Islands were developed as rice fields. Those from West Africa brought a strong rice farming skill set with them, as well as heightened immunity to the malaria and yellow fever which began to run rampant throughout the area.
Fearing disease, many white planters left the Lowcountry during the rainy spring and summer months when fevers spiked. Others lived practically year round in cities such as Charleston and left their African “rice drivers”, or overseers, in charge of the hundreds of slaves per plantation. The Gullah people, which they were called, were able to preserve their African languages, cultures, and community life much better than other enslaved African-Americans who lived in smaller groups and had more sustained and frequent interactions with whites and British American culture.
Today on Hilton Head Island, the Gullah culture has not only survived, but thrives. Here are some ways that you can experience the culture firsthand:
Make friends with some locals to learn how to make a Gullah handcraft from sweetgrass. Their artisanal work is almost identical to that made by the Wolof people in Africa.
Try hardwood-smoked, pit-cooked barbecue or bowl of spicy shrimp okra gumbo. The Gullah say that food is a means for expressing love and appreciation for their families and community.
Open your mind to wudu or juju, which is Gullah witchcraft. Some Gullah believe that witches can cast a spell by putting powerful herbs or roots under a person’s pillow or at a place where he or she usually walks. There are “Root Doctors” in the culture who serve to protect individuals from curses and witchcraft.
Check out the fully preserved “Little House” at the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island for a glimpse of the traditional architecture.
Get schooled in how to properly accessorize before you go hit up one of the many cultural festivals, from The Original Gullah Festival to the Gullah Food Festival.
Take the time to learn from the wisdom of Gullah elders. From food as love and medicine, to how to overcome hardship, many are a fountain of knowledge and are more than willing to share it with the next generations. Show interest in learning from them and you might be surprised when you are still sipping sweet tea together hours later.