Roots and culture II: The enduring legacy of Brazil's Tabom in Ghana

British-Ghanaian journalist and videographer Kai Lutterodt can trace her ancestry back five generations to the Tabom people, (check part one 'Roots and culture I' here).  The Taboms were an Afro-Brazilian community of former slave returnees, mainly of Yoruba descent, that migrated to Nigeria initially and then settled in Ghana*.
© Kai Lutterodt (centre) is flanked by Carnival-goers in Bahia 2013

The community derived its name from the Portuguese phrase: ‘esta bom’ or ‘ta bom’ for short, which means it is good. As the story goes, the returnees could not speak the Ga language spoken in Accra, or English so when locals asked them questions, their response was typically: ‘Ta bom’ – hence their name.

Since then, the Tabom name has undergone a further transformation to Tabon, which is thought to be francophanisation of the name.

Spiritual journey
For Lutterodt, the exploration of her Tabom heritage was powerfully spiritual and gave her an opportunity to connect with her ancestors.
She found herself within walking distance of a site in Salvador, Bahia, north-east Brazil where Afro-Brazilians (and maybe her ancestors) fought against their oppressors. She was there on 24 January 2013. The rebellion occurred on the same date in 1835.  

"I felt so empowered,” said Lutterodt. “There are some things that are a coincidence but there are some things that are fate as well. That reassured me that despite failing University that year, coming to Brazil was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
This slave rebellion, named Malê from the Yoruba word for Moslem (Imale), occurred during Ramadan and involved around 600 insurgents, according to an article published by Harvard Divinity School. The revolt resulted in imprisonment for some, and death for others. Fearful that further insurrections could manifest, the authorities deported some Afro-Brazilians back to West Africa.

According to authors Alcione Meira Amos and Ebenezer Ayesu, between 3,000 and 8,000 former slaves returned to West Africa. Some communities settled in what is today Nigeria, Togo, Benin and Ghana. Lutterodt’s ancestors are thought to be among the contingent that eventually arrived in Ghana in 1836 and helped to establish commerce and integrate into Ghana’s Ga community.

Carnival preparations in Salvador in 2006 © MisBeee Writes

Afro-Islamic influence 
As with many of the Afro-Brazilian returnees, Lutterodt's paternal great great great grandmother Aduma was a Moslem. It is thought that many of the enslaved Africans followed Islam and were from the Hausa tribe which extends across much of West Africa. According to Lutterodt, this is the reason why many of the early Tabom returnees had Islamic names and why the women covered their heads.

Despite the powerful role Africans played in bringing Islam to Brazil, there is very little recognition or evidence of this now. And knowledge of the Tabom people is seemingly scant in both Brazil and Ghana. “I visited the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador during my 2013 trip and they did not know anything about the Tabom people,” said Lutterodt. “And in Ghana, I struggled to find people willing to speak about the community. There is a taboo about the Taboms with regard to the slavery aspect so it is not openly discussed.”
As a result, Lutterodt’s understanding of her ancestry is sketchy. What she does know comes from her late aunt (on her father’s side) Marian who grew up overhearing snippets about her Tabom culture.

Food and language
Other more obvious signs of the cultural exchange between Ghana, Nigeria and Brazil are evident in the food. Acarajé is a bean dish, fried in what Brazilians call dende oil (palm oil) which is called akara and abara in Nigeria and koose in Ghana. When Lutterodt visited Brazil, she found that their okra stew dish was similar to that eaten in Ghana.

The linguistic similarities between Brazil and Ghana are a little trickier to pin down. Ghanaian words believed to have a Portuguese link include ‘dash me’, which is thought to derive from the Portuguese word ‘das-me’ (give me), ‘sabola’ which sounds similar to the Portuguese/Spanish word ‘cebola’ and all mean onion. There is also panoo, which means bread in Ghana’s Akan languages, and has parallels to the Portuguese word pão, according to Brazilian author Marco Aurelio Schaumloeffel. And then there is ‘palavra’ (meaning word in Portuguese) which has become part of Ghanaian lexicon as palaver/palava. According to multiple sources, the meaning behind palava extends from argument to discussion and business.

Schaumloeffel has a much longer list of Ghanaian words with a Portuguese claim, which can be found via ‘Dash me more palaver: Portuguese words’ in Ghana' (Daily Graphic). But as Lutterodt points out, it is not clear if these parallels are due to the Afro-Brazilian migration or the longstanding Portuguese presence in Ghana dating back to 1471.

Modern-day Brazil
Fast forward to 2013 and Lutterodt’s last Brazil visit and she found that her trip gave her a chance to learn more about life for today's African descendants in Brazil. She also met US filmmaker Spike Lee who was  producing a documentary in the country.
Lutterodt and US filmmaker Spike Lee in Bahia. Image sourced 
from Lutterodt's Tabom Project Facebook page

“I always wondered what my life would be like if my ancestors had not come to Ghana,” said Lutterodt. “I see how my friend’s life is as a dark-skinned Brazilian woman - even though she lives in Rio de Janeiro and not Bahia. She’s got a positive outlook on life but I see it from a different perspective in terms of how she is considered.”  Typically, dark-skinned women are viewed as domestic servants or prostitutes in Brazil – something that Lutterodt experienced first-hand while there.

“Despite feeling at home in Salvador and feeling a sense of empowerment being in the country, I couldn’t see myself living there or raising my kids there," said Lutterodt. "I wouldn’t want my kids to feel that they have to be within a box. What I mean is - you can give someone scholarships and all that, but if they don’t feel they belong in a certain position, they won’t take up certain positions. We see that in Latin America and across the Diaspora where we have been conditioned to think we are in a certain box – a very small box - and it’s hard to break out of that. I wouldn’t want my children to be in that box from the moment that they are born.”
A montage of postcards, mostly designed by DorcasCreates, to
promote Kai Lutterodt's Diversity Matters organisation

Diversity Matters
These experiences laid the foundations for an awareness platform she launched after resuming her studies at the University of the Arts London (UAL). She became president of the African Caribbean Society (ACS) and during her presidency, was able to explore the Latin contribution to the Diaspora and show how wide and diverse it is. “Just because we are a diverse population doesn’t mean people are on the same wavelength on what diversity is. And that was an eye opener many.”

Her experiences allowed her to draw on her time in Brazil, showcase images and films she’d captured there to create a platform for discussion. She went on to set up Diversity Matters in 2014 as a way of challenging perceptions of race and ethnicity and its representation. In 2016, she launched 'Diversity Matters Awareness Week' and rolled out a number of projects and events promoting diversity in fields such as arts, education and the media. Moving forward, Lutterodt hopes to continue her work, using in particular workshops and film to convey complex messages about diversity to audiences.

*Marco Aurelio Schaumloeffel (2014) Tabom. 'The Afro-Brazilian Community in Ghana'.

For more posts like this, check out:

To learn more about Lutterodt's ancestral explorations, check out Lutterodt's blog here and find out more about Diversity Matters here. 

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