The little girl shuffled along the dusty ground on barefoot, her back bent steeply to avoid eye contact. She hunched over as she uttered a chant – an incantation that was taught to her. Eyes downcast and her posture still stooped, she retreated with her arms folded across her naked chest. Her despondent mother, Adonosi, watched her carefully, knowing that she was forbidden from speaking to her. She may never be able to see her child again. The only reason Adonosi was afforded the opportunity to see her on this occasion was because Unreported World paid the entry fee to the voodoo convent the girl was being held in so that she could be part of their documentary. Under normal circumstances, Adonosi could not afford the fee.
After five miscarriages, she had gone to the local voodoo priest to help with her last pregnancy. He performed a ceremony with the ominous statement that meant that, if the baby survived, the child must be given over to the voodoo shrine and initiated. When her daughter was born, the desperately impoverished woman had no financial means with which to pay for the initiation sacrament that costs roughly £200.
Gripped by fear and superstition about the voodoo spirits, she allowed them to take her child. She said that if she could get the money to pay for the initiation fee, she could “buy” her daughter back. Earning just 12 pence a day from collecting firewood, it would take her many years to save the amount. Yet, if Adonosi does not find the money, her daughter will remain in the convent for the rest of her life – where she will be kept away from school and denied any medical care that she may need.
In Benin, two-thirds of the population follow voodoo – a religion that emerged in West Africa some 10,000 years ago. It is regarded as one of the country’s official religions and involves a plethora of Gods and spirits who must be appeased by rituals and animal sacrifices. Yet, in penurious communities, the prices of these initiations prove to be insurmountable for penniless parents. In many ways, the costs of voodoo have further exacerbated Benin’s issue of abject poverty.
The voodoo priests, however, claim that the money is not for enriching themselves, but instead, are for the expenses of the ceremonies such as the costs of alcohol, goats, and jewellery.
Plan International have said that children as young as two-years-old are sometimes kept in the shrines. They are forced to learn a new language, change their name, and adopt a completely new lifestyle. In some cases, they may be released, but only after years have passed.
“They come out and many of them have grown up; sometimes their parents have died, they have nowhere to go, no education. It’s difficult to integrate back into communities. Their childhood has just passed them by,” Angela Singh, a global press officer at Plan International told CNN.
Singh said that Aissi Anita, a child protection officer from the local government explained: “When children are set free from voodoo convents, it’s like they’ve been set free from slavery. They are scarred, tired and unable to talk. Voodoo has become part and parcel of our local culture. There is no way we can shun this practice. I only wish the voodoo convents are reformed so children are able to get the education they deserve.”
To mitigate the expenses, many parents sell their children to cover the costs. The trafficked children are forced to work as domestic servants or are employed in hard labour. It is estimated that in Benin, around 40,000 children a year are sold into child labour where they are consistently beaten, starved and made to work gruelling hours.
Tobias, a thirteen-year-old boy, said that he was sold to a man who took him to Nigeria where he was forced to break stones in a quarry. They were starved and beaten profusely if they did not complete their workload. His showed his small arms, which were plastered in deep scars that meandered from his wrist all the way up to his elbow. Yet Tobias regarded himself as lucky to have survived. He had witnessed the deaths of many children in those rock quarries.