The Brasil 2014 World Cup: a family affair

As Ghana limbers up to do some damage in this year’s Brasil (spelt the Portuguese Brasilian way) 2014 World Cup, it got me thinking about how deep the ties between the West African nation and the country that gave us samba and carnival actually are.

I knew of Brasil’s slave past and its strong African connections, and how those ties formed the basis of much of its colourful culture. I am talking about the Angolan martial arts capoeira, Afro-Brasilian music maracatu and the many Brasilian dishes such as acarajé. But until I had stepped onto Brasilian soil in 2005, I didn’t know that some of those African slaves returned home to Ghana.
Brazil House is situated on Brazil Lane, Jamestown image  
© photographed by MisBeee Writes

Tabon
According to varying reports, the Tabon people were a group of around 70 to 100 families that bought or won their freedom from slavery on Brasilian plantations and made the arduous journey back to their motherlands. Some of those families returned to Nigeria, Togo and of course Ghana.

Through my education on the slave trade, one central message that has been drummed into me was that for the most part, slaves were forcibly discouraged from keeping ties with their culture and past.

Often you read in American novels that families were broken up. I have also read that Africans were punished for speaking their own language and, I believe in some cases that resulted in the removal of their tongues....

So it was heartening to hear that not only did some slaves remember their roots, keep their religion but they were also able to return home.

Islamic revolt
After some investigation, I learnt that some Africans in Brasil were deported after the Malê Revolt of 1835 following a well-known Islamic uprising in Brasil's Bahia province in the northeast of the country. Muslims in the Bahia were called malê which came from the Yoruba word imale to denote a Yoruba Muslim, according to details from João José Reis’, 'Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia'.

The Tabon people derive their name from the Portuguese for 'it’s good' 'esta bom' a common response to 'tudo bem' or 'how are you?' in Brasil. Some of the Tabon people settled in Ghana’s Jamestown area in Accra, home of the Ga people. Others can be found around the Cape Coast and Sekondi-Takoradi areas of Ghana.

Some of you will know of Ghana’s World Featherweight Boxing Champion Azumah Nelson, Mrs Georgina Wood, Chief Justice of Ghana, and Dr Titus Aruna Morton, private physician of Ghana’s first president Dr Kwame Nkrumah, all of whom hail from the Tabon people. The current Tabon Mantse is called Nii Azumah V. And I recently learnt that one of my close friends can trace her roots on her mother’s side back to the Tabon people.

According to historical reports, the Tabon people who came to Ghana arrived on the SS Salisbury ship offered by the British government. The first returnees came on 8 August 1836 – their leader was Nii Azumah Nelson. After forming a brotherly bond with the Ga king of the time Mantse Nii Ankrah of the Otoblohum area, Nii Azumah Nelson successfully negotiated for his people to settle in the area. Apparently, this was much to the displeasure of the Danes who governed Accra at the time.

The meaning of palaver
The Tabon people brought with them the skills they had learnt in Brasil and set up businesses including tailoring, goldsmithing, carpentry, and new irrigation techniques. The Tabon are known as the founder of the First Scissors House in 1854 – the first tailoring shop in the country - and are believed to have provided the Ghanaian Army with their uniforms, according to historical reports.

They also helped to popularise some Portuguese words into the local language. One that sticks out for me is 'palaver' which comes from the Portuguese ‘palavra’ for speech or word. I have also read that the word means a meeting between two important people to achieve a common understanding, according to importedghanaian.moonfruit.com.

Apparently when the Europeans came to Elmina to meet with the then chief to negotiate trade, the food served during that time took on that name Palaver-Nknotommire - (yam and plantain with spinach stew) – a popular dish in Ghana!

The connections ran even deeper for me when I made the 12-hour coach trip from Recife in the Pernambuco state of north-east Brasil to Salvador in the Bahia state.

Salvador is home to the famous Pelourinho Square or the whipping post and is where many Africans first landed on Brasilian soil to be sold as slaves. Pelourinho was where they were put on display for the wealthy to buy and at times punished in public. After the long coach trip, I distinctly remember waking up from my slumber to hear a man speaking in a language that was familiar to me, I thought I have arrived in Ghana!

Not only that, but the way of life over there mirrored Ghana in so many ways. I would see people carrying goods on their heads as practised in Ghana. The style of dressing by the older women who practised the Afro-Brasilian religion candomblé remembled Ghanaian dress and many dishes were familiar. I mentioned acarajé at the beginning of this blog and had no idea until I went to the Brazil House museum in Accra why.

Brazil House was established through support from the Brasilian government and the earliest Tabon families. It turns out that acarajé is the same dish eaten in Nigeria. But in Nigeria, this black-eyed bean dish, which is fried in dende or palm oil is called akara. The words are so similar!

Our history
The story of the Tabon people is amazing but I fear little known. I was glad to discover on my most recent trip to Ghana that Brazil House exists as a testament to that relationship between the two countries.

Officially opened in 2005 by the then (and my favourite) Brasilian president Lula, the house is painted in gorgeous bright pastel colours typical of north-east Brasil. Inside, visitors are given a snapshot of the Tabon people’s history through a serious of wall-mounted displays.

I later discovered that many of the Tabon people went on to marry into Ghana’s other tribes – including the Akan, and the Ewe people. But wherever you see such names as De Souza, Wellington, Benson, Palmares, Nelson, Azumah, da Costa, Santos and Vieira – to name but a few, they reportedly have links back to the Tabon people.

Brazil House is a gem of a place and I would urge anyone no matter where you hail from to check it out. I always knew there was some reason why I have a deep obsession with Brasil, I guess I now know why! By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

For more posts like this, check the following:
Chieftaincy in Ghana: time for modernisation or time for an end?

Belle - a new kind of English rose  
A podcast: Tudor England's African connections with historian Onyeka
Tudor England II: England's African connections
Gold Coast: a lucid look into Denmark's colonial past 
My hero: the slave

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