Welcome to the Trokosi’s clandestine playground. There are no games to be played and the waif girls who roam here, sometimes daydream about suicide.
For centuries, girls as young as two-years-old, have been offered to shrines across Ghana as slaves to the priests who dwell there. The girls are there to act as repayments for crimes committed by their relatives – some of whom have died generations before the girl was born.
Julie Dorbadzi was six when she was donated to recompense for a theft of 200 cedis (about 10 pence) that her great-grandfather had committed. Ten-year-old Mewornovi Kokou was given because of a crime that was committed by an ancestor so long ago that no one recalls what the crime was or who did it. Grace Duga Cabanu was sent as an offering to the Gods to improve the family’s harvests – an agreement that existed since the early 1800s with her ancestors. Abla Kotor was used to atone for her father raping his niece.
Most of the girls are destined to spend the remainder of their lives in servitude in whatever capacity the elders see fit – toiling long hours in the farms; as servants in the house; and as sex slaves to the priests. They are relegated to being little more than human property.
Nor does death necessarily bring with it any escape. When a girl dies, the burden is sometimes on her relatives to replace her with another young virgin. The practice can fuse into a conveyor belt of young girls whom the family will keep providing.
The ancient custom originates from the Ewe communities of Togo, Benin, and Ghana. The word stems from the two Ewe words “tro”, which means God, and “kosi”, which means slave, and as such, the term translates to “slave of God.” It has been particularly prevalent in the upper Volta region of Ghana which borders Togo, and some tribes in Togo and Benin have similar practices.
Danny Morris, National Director of International Needs UK, detailed the difficulties the dated practice has on its victims.
“One of the things is the feeling of powerlessness as a teenager or a young girl. The trauma of being separated from her family and then growing up in this situation gives real powerlessness to a young girl. These girls are there for life. And they are there to bear children to the priests. There is also a sense of fatalism to which she is resigned. It carries a mental and moral hold because the girls believe they are saving their family. And if they try to break away from it, it will put their family in danger. And those who do manage to break free most times will find they are ostracised from their family, society, and villages.”
In 1998, International Needs Ghana was instrumental in a campaign, which saw the release of around 2,800 Trokosi girls. It ultimately led to the outlawing of the system, for which the organisation was directly responsible. Yet, despite being banned, Trokosi continues to flourish in some parts of the country.
“Making it illegal meant that it was driven underground,” Morris explained. “One of the problems was that outlawing the practice appeared to some to be the imposition of Western values on a traditional culture. But we believe it is a moral issue. How could you live with yourself if you allow society to enslave young girls and women?”.
“It is rooted in a cultural belief which requires a change from the ground up. And in rural parts of Ghana, traditional beliefs hold a lot of power – especially when it is linked to extreme poverty. There was one girl who was given to the shrine because her family believed they were cursed since they had certain illnesses. The interesting thing is that we rescued women but because their families still believed in the practice, they didn’t want to be reunited with their daughters. There are hundreds of women who have been liberated and are living normal lives. But sadly, they are still alienated by their families. “So it requires a real transformation in thinking for it to truly be eradicated. But we will continue to support the eradication of this process and practice.”
Kept far away from prying eyes, the custom still remains under-reported – even in Ghana itself. Many Ghanaians who live in the city and away from the rural areas are unaware of the tradition. And then there also remains a certain sector of society who does know but chooses to ignore it. And so, away from the bustling towns, in the far-flung dusty regions, the regressive institution that is Trokosi continues to prosper.