Journalist, Playwright, Poet

Thomas A.L. Decker

Thomas Alexander Leighton Decker was born in Calabar, Nigeria in 1916 to Joseph and Jane Decker (nee Fraser). He attended Primary School in Calabar where his father worked as a Surveyor for the Colonial Government. Upon the death of his father, he relocated to Sierra Leone with his mother and siblings in the early 1920s. In Sierra Leone, he grew up around his cousins and the Fraser family in Murray Town, Freetown. The Frasers lived primarily in Murray Town, including his maternal Grandparents, Thomas Crowley (T.C.) and Amba Fraser. After attending the C.M.S. Grammar School and Teacher’s College, Decker began a career as a Journalist and Editor for the Daily Guardian in the 1930s, where he began to explore the Krio written language. For the next 40+ years, Decker wrote and published articles, plays, poems, folktales, and translations.

When Thomas Decker worked as Editor of the Daily Guardian in the 1930s, there was no standard written language system for the Krio language. Decker mounted a campaign to promote Krio as an official language, starting with his analysis into the linguistic structures and characteristics of the language. He wrote poems and short stories in Krio and challenged its local speakers in Sierra Leone and its native speakers in Freetown to take pride in their language and empower their Sierra Leonean and African identity.

Thomas A.L. Decker

Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner

(Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Collections Blog)

By the 1950s, Decker had already translated several works into Krio and presented much of his own orthography of the language.

By the 1960s, the Independence years, Sierra Leone Theatre had begun to find itself more rooted in local stories at a national level. Raymond Sarif Easmon is seen by many to be Sierra Leone’s first major Dramatist. His play, “Dear Parent and Ogre” was the first African play produced by the British Council Dramatic Society in Sierra Leone.  The Playwright, Juliana John wrote and performed two original plays written in Krio.

Bold efforts of storytellers such as Decker, Juliana John, Dele Charley, John Akar and others, to tell stories in local languages like Krio and Mende, set the pace for the evolution of Sierra Leone theatre.

In 1964, Decker published his translation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into Krio, using his orthography.  He also wrote an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” in Krio.  His book of Sierra Leonean folktales “Tales of the Forest” was published four years later in 1968.

Thomas Decker & Lorenzo Dow Turner “Krio & Gullah”

The Krio language, in the 1930s, was still seen as a form of broken English, it had no formal name and no formal writing system. Decker wrote in a Daily Guardian article in 1939, that the language of the Sierra Leone Creole “cannot be called Broken English or Pigeon English.   In his articles he used a form of the spelling that others had used before. Instead of ‘C-R-E-O-L-E’ he spelled it ‘C-R-E-E-O’.

Around the same time Decker started his campaign for the Krio language in the 1930s, a Harvard educated African American Linguist born in North Carolina, was raising similar questions about the creolized language of the Gullah-Geechee people.  Dr. Turner had been the first African American member of the Linguistic Society of America, and had become part of a team tasked to map dialects spoken in the United States.  In the 1930s he started to conduct field studies among the Gullah people.

For the next 20 years, both men living in two continents, one in Africa and the other America, made it the cornerstone of their careers in promoting these two languages.

In 1939, Decker published one of his most notable works, “Boss Coker Befo St. Peter”. He articulated his thoughts and principles about Krio from a linguistic perspective.

In 1949, Dr. Turner published “Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect”.  In it, he included data from the extensive research he had conducted since the 1930s that affirmed his position that the Gullah language was not only a distinct language, but its West African heritage was very present in the language and culture of the Gullah-Geechee people. He included references from about a hundred wire recordings of stories, testimonies, and songs by Gullah speakers. He found African words in the Gullah Dialect from several Sierra Leonean ethnic groups, such as the Mende, Temne, and Vai.  Dr. Turner also found words from other countries and ethnicities such as Fante, Madingo, Kikongo, Bambara and many others.

In the 1950s, after decades of schorlaship around the Gullah language, Dr. Turner travelled to West Africa for the first time, to conduct further research on the African connections of the Gullah people. One of his stops was Sierra Leone.

While in Sierra Leone, Decker served as Dr. Turner’s assistant during Turner’s short stay.  Notes taken by Dr. Turner, shows the two had lengthy discussions about the basis and connection of both languages.   Upon Dr. Turner’s return to the U.S., he published an Anthology of Krio Folklore and Literature in 1963 and a book on Krio texts in 1965.

Published Books

Tales of the Forest

Sierra Leone Folktales, published in 1968, featuring tales told to him by his Grandfather and tales from across Sierra Leone.

Juliohs Siza

Krio Translation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, completed in 1964. He set out to prove that anything could be written in Krio.

Boss Coker Befo St. Peter

A satirical play, published in the Daily Guardian in October 1939, expressing his views about the Krio language.

Referenced & Featured

“Udat Di Kiap Fit: A Krio Adaptation of ‘As You Like It’ by Thomas Decker in Sierra Leone Language Review 

“Sierra Leone, 1787-1987: Two Centuries of Intellectual Life” / “Thomas Decker and the Death of Boss Coker” by Neville Shrimpton

“Creoloization and Pidginization in Contexts of Postcolonial Diversity” Edited by Jacqueline Knorr and Wilson Trajano Filho

“Entwisted Tongues: Comparative Creole Literatures” by George M. Lang

 “Language and National Identity in Africa” Edited by Andrew Simpson

“New Perspectives on the Sierra Leone Krio” by Mac Dixon-Fyle, Gibril Raschid Cole

“The Question of Language in African Literature Today: Borrowing and Carrying: a Review” by Eldred D. Jones