“We hadn’t heard women needed to be treated as equal”
Photographer Fjona Hill and I travelled across Ghana’s Volta - a beautiful region rich in history and culture, dominated by the Volta river and lake - to try to understand why the practice of trokosi still endures today. Ghana is widely seen as a model for political and economic reform in Africa and lauded for its rapid development.
But away from bustling Accra, in remote countryside villages, some deep-seated traditions prevail. The trokosi practice calls for virgin girls to be sent to the shrines of fetish gods to pay for crimes committed by one of their relatives. They become living sacrifices, protecting their families from the gods’ wrath. Some stay at the shrines for a few years; others for life.
The tradition, also practised in neighbooring Benin and Togo, is deeply rooted in the beliefs and identity of the Ewe (ay-vay) people. It serves rural communities’ need for justice and meets the material and sexual needs of the fetish priests. But it's also considered a spiritual act and as such it is, along with female genital mutilation, one of the most difficult human rights violations to eradicate.
When Enyonam Tordzro was 18, her parents took her to a shrine in Tsaduma, 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,” says Enyonam who is now 35. After a humiliating initiation in which she was stripped of all her clothes representing her former life, she became a trokosi – the wife and slave of the shrine’s war god, and therefore of its priest. “I had no clothes: only a piece of cloth to cover my privates and I had to wear a cord around my neck. I was the lowest of the servants,” says Enyonam, who was one of the priest’s 200 slaves.
“Our days started at 4 am: we fetched water and swept the compound, then tended the priest’s land until dusk. The priest didn’t provide for us. We were always hungry. There was no sympathy between trokosis: we saw each other mostly as rivals for food and the priest’s attention. I never felt comfortable around him - he had a long wand and whipped us for all sorts of reasons - but I still wanted his attention. We were all his wives. I had six children with the priest.” Trokosis’ children grow up in servitude too, and the priests who fathered them don’t care for them.
“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.
Enyonam was liberated a few years ago after long negotiations between International Needs Ghana (ING), the leading Ghanaian charity campaigning against the practice, and the priest and elders. When she returned to her village, her father rejected her.
“He said I needed to go back to the shrine otherwise harm would come to our family. He was afraid the curse would revisit them. They were all afraid. They still are. When people find out we are ex-trokosis, they are afraid to approach us, so it is hard to do business here,” says Enyonam, who works a seamstress with Forgive Gbetev, her best friend and another former trokosi.
How do you eradicate an age-old abusive custom so entrenched it has become woven into a people's identity?
What if the practice serves to maintain order in the community and assuage powerful, visceral fears? What happens when religious freedom and respect for traditions are pitted against the human rights of thousands of girls and women?
We visited isolated rural villages, speaking with several women who had spent many years in fetish shrines, fetish priests, ING, and government officials. We were aware of being Western journalists looking at a tradition we couldn’t understand and didn’t want to present another story on “dark, exotic, dangerous Africa”.
But this is not a story about Western against African values; if anything, it’s one about modern Ghana vs. traditional Ghana. In the Ewe tongue, “Tro” means “god” or “shrine” and “Kosi” means “wife, queen or slave”. This linguistic ambiguity reflects the controversy around the practice.
The government outlawed the custom in 1998 and many Ghanaians are deeply embarrassed it is still enduring today, in spite of contravening the country’s constitution and many international treaties. There are also powerful religious and political lobbying groups campaigning against criminalising the practice. They argue the tradition is part of their cultural and religious heritage, and is misunderstood.
“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,” says Torgbi Venanua, the Tsaduma priest who owned Enyonam. Fetish priests are revered figures in rural areas. They heal people, perform rituals to protect individuals, crops and businesses, advise villagers and deliver justice. Torgbi Venanua released Enyonam and his 200 other trokosis after ING’s intervention, but insists they were queens rather than slaves.
“I was no queen,” protested Enyonam. “I wish I could send the government a picture of me with only a cloth around my privates and a cord around my neck.”
“We had no hope. We knew we’d stay at the shrine until the day we died,” echoes Mercy Senahe, 34, who was sent to another shrine at the age of 9. “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.”
The criminalisation of the practice has had some impact. In the following years, about 3,000 trokosis have been liberated. More recently, several priests have allowed their trokosis to go to school or live in the community, although they are still stigmatised, they belong to the shrines and can be recalled at any time.
But there is a hard-core group of priests and elders who’d do anything to maintain the tradition intact. “The problem has been aired in the public arena. But it is not good enough because girls are still being sent to the shrines and people in power - men, priests, community leaders - think it is good,” says Walter Pimpong, director of ING, whose own mother is from the Ewe tribe.
If anything, human rights campaigners fear criminalisation has driven the practice 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. It is estimated there are still between 4,000 and 6,000 women and children under bondage in shrines in Ghana alone.
"It takes a whole community to send a woman to the shrine"
Since the law was passed, not a single priest or family member has been arrested for continuing the practice.
Millicent Thenkey tried to defend herself but learnt the hard way that the law wasn't enough to protect her. She had been allowed to go to school while preparing to take her final initiation at Kilkor shrine in Ketu South district. There, she learnt that the practice was a violation of human rights. She reported her initiation to the police and took her parents to court – something no one had dared to do before. But her parents refused to attend the hearing and the police didn’t force them, so the case was thrown out of court.
“I am shocked the police and court didn’t protect me,” the slender 25-year-old says. “We are not animals. The government should stop the practice and release all of us, so we can live freely as human beings.”
“The tradition will persist for a time regardless of the law because people fear that something bad will happen to them if they do not atone in this way,” says Gilbert Adzraku, district officer of the high commission on human rights for the Volta region.
Rather than relying on enforcement, government agencies and NGOs are now trying to mobilise the support of priests, community leaders and teachers. “It takes the whole community to send a woman to the shrine, so we need to educate the whole community,” Pimpong says. “Only if change comes from within, will it be long lasting. And it will only come through education.”
Torgbi Abiaeu, the priest of the Avevi shrine in the Volta, agrees: “When we practised trokosi, we were cut off from the world. We didn’t know what was happening elsewhere until ING came. They told us trokosi was against the law and that women were human beings and needed to be treated as equal. We hadn’t heard that women needed to be treated as equal.” Priests who have released their trokosis can still perform their other traditional religious practices, and deliver justice, substituting women with cash and goods.
Won’t education and outside influences soon encroach on the rest of the Ewe traditions and ultimately destroy the shrines? Torgbi Abiaeu believes he might be one of the last fetish priests. “We now have a school here and the new generations are learning new things, they are reading about the world and learning what is happening elsewhere. I don’t think the next generations will be interested in sitting here behind the shrine wearing this hat of mine.”
Both based in the UK, Veronique Mistiaen is a journalist writing about social issues, human rights, development and the environment, and Fjona Hill is a photojournalist focusing on issues including human trafficking, rape and slavery.