To enter Jamestown, the heart of old Accra, is to step slightly back into time. Gone are the skyscrapers and shiny new developments of downtown Accra. Instead, densely populated Jamestown is full of small shacks and shops with corrugated-iron roofs interspersed with pieces of colonial history and lively exclamations in Ga.
While Jamestown might be poor, it is rich in history. Two of the most striking landmarks are Fort James, a former British trading post turned prison, and the Jamestown lighthouse, built during the 1930s. While these two tourist attractions might garner the most attention during the popular Jamestown walking tours, it was a third building - Brazil House - that immediately caught my eye on a recent visit to the area. After learning tidbits about the house's history from my friend Mike, I was eager to learn more about its history.
The bright yellow Brazil House was built by the Tabom (also spelled Tabon) people – an Afro-Brazilian community of former slave returnees who arrived in West Africa on the S.S. Salisbury after the Malê Revolt of 1835 in Bahia. Approximately 10,000 former slaves returned to West Africa from 1835 onwards. From Lagos' "Brazilian Quarter" to Benin's "Ecole Bresil" and the plethora of families with Brazilian names like Souza, Silva, Cardoso, Da Costa, Gomez, and Costa, traces of this history can be found throughout the region.
While some Afro-Brazilians settled in communities in Togo and Nigeria, they received a particularly warm welcome in Ghana. The Gas, one of the most hospitable ethnic groups in Ghana, readily offered the new arrivals a tract of land in the area now known as Jamestown. The returnees were known as the Tabom people because when they arrived in coastal Ghana, they could speak only Portuguese, so they greeted each other with “Como esta?” (How are you?) and replied with “Ta bom." Over time, the seven original Tabom families integrated into Ghanaian society by marrying local people.
With their arrival, the Tabom brought many useful agricultural skills such as superior mango, cassava and beans techniques. Having been exposed to the European, African and Amerindian cultures in their native Brazil, they synthesized knowledge from each culture and also brought valuable skills such as irrigation, architectural design, and tailoring to Ghana. The Taboms founded the the First Scissors House in 1854, the first tailoring shop in the country, which once provided uniforms for the Ghanaian Army.
In 1999, recognizing the historical value of Brazil house, local and international groups began to renovate it. Following Brazilian President Lula’s visit to Ghana in 2005, the Brazilian Embassy leveraged financial support for further repairs from the Brazilian and Ghanaian private sector. Today, the house has been completely restored with a museum of Tabom history on the ground floor.
Since 2001, the Right to Abode Act has given members of the African diaspora - including Afro-Brazilians - the right to live and work in Ghana. While there may be some red tape, the restoration of Brazil House and the passage of the Right to Abode Act reflect the renewed interest in solidifying the relationship between Africa and its diaspora.