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“I had no clothes: only a piece of black cloth to cover my privates and I had to wear a cord around my neck. I was the lowest of the servants.” Enyonam Torclzro. When she was released from the shrine after intervention from International Needs, her father refused to accept her back.
The ancestral trokosi tradition of West Africa is one of the most difficult human rights violations to eradicate
Enyonam Tordzro lost her late teens and most of her twenties at the shrine of some war gods in Ghana’s Volta region. Tall and serious, she greets us in front of her red-mud hut in Bakpa Avedo, a remote rural village in the Volta’ South Tongu district. When she was 18, her parents took her to the Venua shrine in North Tongu, a few hours by truck from their own village. “They said I needed to go there to atone for the sin of someone in the family.”
After a short initiation in which she was stripped of all her clothes representing her former life, she was given a white piece of cloth to wrap herself in and a woven palm-leaf cord to wear around her neck, symbolising her new status: she was now a slave to the shrine. That simple cloth was to be her only possession at the shrine. “I was crying. I wanted to run away, but I had to stay to save the lives of my young siblings who were dying. Four of my cousins had already died and at least two of my uncles. So I needed to stay to save the rest of my family,” she says quietly.
At the shrine, Enyonam, now 35, became one of the priest’s 200 religious, domestic and sexual slaves. These slaves are called trokosis and are among the most disenfranchised and vulnerable people in Africa.
On the eastern part of Ghana, bordering Togo, stretches the beautiful Volta region dominated by the immense Lake Volta and the River Volta. It is an area rich in natural beauty, history and culture, but it is also home to a strange, secretive and dangerous world, ruled by its own laws and deep-seated ancestral traditions.
In remote rural villages across the region, as well as in neighbouring Togo and Benin, thousands of girls and women are still today sent to the shrines of traditional war gods to pay for crimes - sometimes as trivial as the theft of a few cassavas - committed by one of their relatives.
The trokosi custom of the Ewe (ay-vay) people of the Volta and neighbouring countries, originates from the same belief system as voodoo and has been part of the Ewe culture for centuries. The word trokosi comes from the Ewe words “Tro” meaning “god” or “shrine” and “Kosi” meaning “wife, queen or slave”. Both the tradition and its slaves are called trokosi(s), though they are also known as fiashidi, troxovi or other names in different regions.
The system is based on a communal view of justice in which a member of the community who has no connection to a crime may be punished to spare the others; conversely, when a crime goes unpunished, the gods’ vengeance may be wrecked upon an entire community.
No one knows how many girls and women might still be held in servitude in Ghana, a country recently praised for its rapid development, and neighbouring countries, as shrines are extremely secretive and often located in isolated villages, some accessible only by canoes. But based on government, academic and NGOs research, it is estimated there are about 5,000 women and children under bondage in shrines in Ghana alone, and probably as many in Benin and Togo, although little is known about them.
ONE OF THE HARDEST HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS TO ERADICATE
Walter Pimpong, the charismatic director of the charity International Needs Ghana, whose own mother is from the Ewe tribe, was so shocked when he discovered the nature and extent of the practice that he made his mission to help free the women and make the custom illegal. In partnership with the government and a coalition of smaller local NGOs, the charity has over the past decade rescued more than 3,500 girls and women held in bondage in Ghana – ranging from little girls to very old women. In 1998, the Ghanaian Parliament passed a law banning the trokosi practice and all forms of ritualized forced labour, but the tradition is still going strong.
Criminalization and pressure from NGOs have achieved some success: some priests have recently allowed their women to go to school or live in the community, and others have set them free altogether. But in many shrines, the tradition is enduring, unchanged - perpetrated through secrecy, fear and superstition. If anything, human rights campaigners fear criminalization has driven trokosi underground. “The (shrines’) strategy is now to take away women from more visible shrines and send them to more remote ones, where priests do as they wish,” says Pimpong. He believes the remaining practicing priests are a hard-core bunch who’ll do anything to protect a tradition they deeply believe in. Many have aligned themselves with Afrikania Mission, a powerful group of traditionalist priests and herbalists, as well as politicians and academics, who staunchly oppose efforts to stop the practice, seeing them as a threat to their traditional religion, culture and identity. The fact that International Needs, the main organization fighting the custom, is a Christian one, makes them even more suspicious. Pimpong and other campaigners, however, believe the issue is not one of religion, but human rights. The tradition contravenes not only the constitution of Ghana, but also many international treaties to which Ghana is signatory.
In 2001, then president John Agyekum Kufuor, commenting on the trokosi system declared: “Girls should go to school, not to a shrine,” and pledged to enforce the law. But so far, not a single priest nor family member has been arrested for continuing the practice. Of the 17 shrines monitored by the government in the Volta over six months last year, two were found not only to be active, but also to have taken in six new virgin girls.
“We have been working on the issue for a long time, but this is a tradition rooted in a very powerful superstition. It will persist for a time regardless of the law,” says Gilbert Adzraku, district officer of the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice for the Volta. “No one would dare to arrest a priest”, he adds, and anyway, “when we visit shrines, we don’t see any women there: they have become part of the community – they blend in.”
Time and again, we were advised not to try to visit active shrines. Torgbi Ahiaeu, the priest of Volta’s Avevi shrine, who has liberated his trokosis and is campaigning against the tradition, warns: “I am a priest, but even for me, it is difficult talking to priests who are still practicing. You need to be cunning in how you introduce the topic. If you are not careful, they will kill you with their juju.” He says one of his emissaries was recently killed, probably for his advocacy work. “That really scared us. I used to go (to practicing shrines) alone, but now I can’t go unless I go with the whole advocacy group with me. They are very dangerous people.”
We managed, however, to interview half a dozen of ex-trokosis in rural villages across the Volta. Some were kept for a few years; others for life. Their treatment varied from shrine to shrine, but their stories were all chilling and reflect what thousands of women and girls are still enduring today.
LIFE AT THE SHRINE
Here is Mercy Senahe’ story. A strong woman with a sleek bob and a kind face, she lives in a brick house in a little compound, near Adidome, the capital of North Tongu district, and works as a cook at a nearby school. Her four children are going to school. At 34, she is finally feeling secure and happy, but her past still haunts her. When she was about eight, she was sent to a shrine across the Volta River. She only found out much later why. Her grandmother’s sister had sold a gold earring left behind by a travelling woman. When the woman returned for her earring, they couldn’t produce it, so the woman reported them to two different shrines and the family had to send two of their daughters to the shrines. When her sister got ill and died at one shrine, Mercy was sent to replace her. “I could see it was very hard for my parents, but they couldn’t do anything about it.”
The shrine where she was sent housed about 60 trokosis and their children in four rooms with no doors. “It was like a prison,” Mercy says in a low voice. “As one of the youngest, I had to get up before dawn to sweep the compound and polish the clay statues of the gods with my bare hands. Then we worked on the farm. We each had our own plot to weed and had to work until it was done. The priest didn’t feed us and if we tried to eat some of the beans, maize and cassavas on our plots, we got caned. We were always hungry. The only way to make a little money to buy food, was to go to the bush and gather firewood to sell at the nearby market.” Trokosis are relatively free to circulate, but they usually don’t try to escape because they believe the priest and gods see and hear their every thoughts and actions. Mercy, however, did run away and against all odds managed to reach back her village. “My parents were happy to see me, but wept because I had become so thin. They had no idea I had suffered so much. I stayed with them for a month, then my grandfather came. He tied me up, put me in his truck and drove me back to the shrine. He said I’d bring death onto the family if I came back. After that, I never tried to escape again.”
A few months after she had arrived at the shrine, the priest came to her at night, she says looking into the distance. “Every night, the priest would come to one woman, even if she was very young. Even at that time, I knew the priest was doing something wrong, but if you tried to fight, he would beat you up. We had no one to stand up for us. When I think about it today, I still feel so pitiful and I weep.” (Many priests insist they only sleep with their wives, but say the gods can sleep with any trokosi they want because they are all their wives. And the gods’ spirits act through the priests.)
Mercy had her first child with the priest at the age of 11. “I didn’t know I was pregnant. Older trokosis told me and helped me during the delivery. I had four children with the priest (a boy and three girls); other trokosis had many more.” Their many children grow up in servitude too, and the priests who fathered them, don’t see them as their responsibility and don’t provide for them. “The priest sometimes gave a child away to visitors and their mother couldn’t say anything.
“We had no hope. We knew we’ll stay at the shrine until the day we died and then another girl would replace us. At one point, I wanted to kill myself. I was sick, my children were sick and I thought if I could find some poison, I would take it and end it all. I wanted to kill the priest too because he was so wicked. If I had a gun, I would have shot the priest.”
Mercy was rescued by International Needs Ghana at the age of 22, along with the other women at her shrine. She received counselling and vocational training from the charity. Freed trokosis need support because many still fear the wrath of the gods for having left the shrine and many are rejected by their communities for having done so.
“WHO CAN SAY TROKOSI IS NOT GOOD?”
Atsu Tobgi Eklo, the priest of Tsata-Bame village in Akatsi district , has set his women free a few years ago, but like many, feels the tradition played an important role in the community and wishes he didn’t have had to relinquish it.
After the customary prayers and libation (imported Schnapps is the gods’ favourite), he agrees to talk to us. The village elders and some of his eight wives and 50 children gather around him.
Priests like Tobgi Eklo are revered figures in rural areas and hold enormous power. They heal people with potions and herbs, perform rituals to protect individuals, crops and businesses, and advise villagers on various matters. And they deliver justice: “In our traditional religion, you are not supposed to steal, kill or do anything that endangers the community; if you do it, the shrine will harm you. If you commit a crime, the gods in the shrine will start killing members of your family because they are angry, so you need to bring a young girl to the shrine to appease the gods and stop the killing.”
-“Even if the crime is very small,” I ask?
-“There is nothing like a small crime or a big crime in the eyes of the gods. All crimes are equal and offend the gods,” he replies sternly.
- “Why does it have to be a young girl?”
-“Because a man marries a woman, not a man.”
Tobgi Eklo, who is now over 60, had 50 trokosis, but says he could have had many more. “Even if I had 100 or 1000 women, and people kept committing offences, I would have to take more in. It’s not my decision.” He still doesn’t see anything wrong with the practice. “We inherited the trokosi tradition from our ancestors, so who can say it is not good?”
At the Venua shrine in Tsaduma, a few miles from Adidome, its priest Venanua says he had 200 trokosis (Enyonam was one of them) and “many, many children.” Wearing a white calico and woven conical hat, he sits on a goatskin, a machete in front of him. He too released his trokosis after International Needs Ghana’s intervention, but like Tobgi Eklo, still carries out the duties of the shrine, substituting cash and material goods for virgin girls. His trokosis, he insists, were not slaves. “People who do not understand the trokosi system feel it is a servitude, but it is a blessing because that girl who comes to the shrine will protect her family from harm. Most government officials and some NGOs read documents and talk with people who are not practitioners, so they don’t understand.”
“WE CERTAINLY HAVE TO DO A LOT OF EDUCATION AND EMPOWER WOMEN”
Despite government’s and campaigners’ efforts, very few women were liberated over the past few years and the process has now come to a halt. Activists believe that all the priests who could have been convinced, have freed their women; the remaining ones will hang onto the practice regardless of the law or NGOs’ pressure. A new approach is therefore needed – and it is education.
“If one trokosi is liberated and people in her village still believe in the practice, they will send another one. Only if change comes from within, will it be long lasting - and it will only come through education,” Pimpong says.
“We certainly have to do a lot of education and empower women,” agrees Adzraka from the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice. “The system works on fear. If there is no longer fear, it will stop. But it is a very ancient practice, so it will take time.”
A delicate young woman with a beautiful smile, Millicent Thenkey, 25, is a case in point. She had been allowed to go to school while preparing to become a trokosi at Kilkor shrine in Ketu South district. At school, she learnt that the practice was a violation of human rights. She rebelled and bravely took her parents to court – something no one had dared to do before – but the case was thrown out of because they failed to attend. “I am shocked the police and court didn’t protect me. The government needs to stop the practice. We are not animals. They should abolish the trokosi system and release all of us, so we can live freely as human beings.
“Freedom will come when women believe they have a right to be free.”
* All interviews, but Millicent Thenky’s and Walter Pimpong’s, were translated by Sylvanus Adukpo.
© IFA-Amsterdam 2013.
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