This week I visited the Baptist Vocational Training Center which helps to rehabilitate ex-Trokosi slaves and re-integrate them into society. Before I tell you about what the Center is doing for the girls and some of their stories I wanted to explain what Trokosi is and why it is practiced. As Westerners it is very difficult for us to understand the grip that superstition and fear have on West Africans who practice African traditional religions (known as ATR, animism, voodoo, etc…). It is this fear that drives such horrendous practices as Trokosi slavery.
What is Trokosi?
Trokosi is an old cultural and ATR practice found primarly among the Ewe people group of south eastern Ghana. When a family undergoes hard times (poor crop harvest, numerous deaths in the family, chronic illness) they believe the gods are angry with them and they seek a way to appease the gods and relieve the curse that has been placed on them.
The “cursed” family will visit a nearby shrine (small village of fetish priests) to meet with the shrine custodian (aka, fetish priest, witch, or voodoo priest). The priest will consult the gods and tell them why they are cursed and how the curse can be removed. For “big” sins such as adultery, murder, and theft, the priest will demand that the family give the gods a virgin girl to atone for the sin. As long as the girl is serving the gods at the shrine then the curse will be lifted.
Since the gods require a virgin girl, the victims of this form of slavery are almost always very young teens. Also, if a girl runs away or dies, she must be replaced by another girl from the family.
What does the word Trokosi mean?
The word “tro” in the Ewe language means deity or fetish and the word “kosi” means female slave. In French-speaking countries Trokosi is sometimes called “voodoosi” or “voundounsi”. Some circles refer to it as “ritual servitude” or “hierodulic slavery.”
How can this be legal?
It isn’t. In the 1990s, several Christian organizations, including the Ghana Baptist Convention (GBC), began to lobby the Ghanaian government to stop the practice. Most of these shrines are deep in the forests of the Volta region and not very accessible. Many didn’t know about this evil practice or thought it was just rumored to be going on. As a result of their efforts, parliament banned the practice in June of 1998.
Unfortunately, laws are just words written on paper along with the signatures of some rich politicians. Enforcement of such laws deep in the Volta forests of Ghana is difficult. The government lacks the finances and man power to root out all the shrines and stop the practice. As a result, numerous Christian organizations and NGOs have taken it upon themselves to negotiate with shrine custodians and liberate Trokosi slaves.
How do Trokosi slaves serve the gods?
As you probably guessed, serving “the gods” means serving the fetish priests. The slave girls (and women once they have grown up) do most of the manual labor in the shrine village. This means waking up early to go to the fields and farm. Coming back and preparing dinner for the priests. Probably most disturbing of all is that these young girls are also sex slaves. The provide “entertainment” for the priests which involves dancing in the nude and they are regularly raped.
Living conditions are very poor for Trokosi slaves. Most shrines only allow them to wear a single white cloth – not even shoes. They are not always properly feed since the shrine custodians get priority and sometimes the gods they serve require them to abstain from certain foods. Slaves are beaten and whipped for disobeying the priests and there have even been reports of slaves being starved and forced to kneel on shards of broken glass for hours as punishment.
2nd and 3rd generation Trokosi
When a Trokosi girl gives birth at the shrine, her children also become the property of the priests. Due to the regular raping by priests, an adult Trokosi woman may have 4 or more children.
Since the banning of ritual servitude in 1998, the number of new slaves has dropped significantly. Most of those enslaved were taken prior to the law being passed but continue to have children born in to slavery. These children whose mother is a slave and father (or grandfather) is a shrine custodian continue to serve at the shrine but are sometimes treated a little better since they are related to the priests (though the priests claim they are born of the gods).
How many Trokosi slaves are there?
This is a tough one. As you can imagine, the census bureau doesn’t visit these shrines and count their slaves. However, various NGOs estimate that before the law was passed there were around 5,000 slaves and 15-20K slave children (2nd+ generation).
Since 1998 over 2,000 slaves and their children have been liberated. Some of the most active organizations liberating slaves are GBC, Every Child Ministries, FESLIM (Fetish Slaves Liberation Movement), and International Needs Australia.
To be continued…
I’ll follow-up in another blog post about the GBC‘s efforts and successes in liberating Trokosi slaves and rehabilitating them.
In the meantime I ask you to pray for the thousands of young women & children still in bondage due to this evil practice. Pray that they can find physical freedom through the efforts of GBC and other Christian and human rights organizations. Pray that they can find spiritual freedom through Jesus Christ. He is the sacrifice that atones for sin – not Trokosi.