Ritual servitude is a practice in Ghana which also takes place in the neighbouring countries of Togo, and Benin where traditional religious shrines (popularly called fetish shrines in Ghana) take human beings, usually young virgin girls, in payment for services, or in religious atonement for alleged misdeeds of a family member. In Ghana and in Togo it is practiced by the Ewe tribe in the Volta region; in Benin it is practiced by the Fon.
These shrine slaves serve the priests, elders, and owners of a traditional religious shrine without remuneration and without their consent, although the consent of the family or clan may be involved. Those who practice ritual servitude usually feel that the girl is serving the god or gods of the shrine and is married to the gods of the shrine.
If a girl runs away or dies, she must be replaced by another girl from the family. Some girls in ritual servitude are the third or fourth girl in their family suffering for the same crime, sometimes for something as minor as the loss of trivial property.
This form of slavery is still practiced in the Volta region in Ghana, in spite of being outlawed in 1998, and despite carrying a minimum three-year prison sentence for conviction. Among the Ewes who practice the ritual in Ghana, variations of the practice are also called trokosi, fiashidi, and woryokwe, with “trokosi” being the most common of those terms.[ In Togo and Benin it is called voodoosi or vudusi. Victims are commonly known in Ghana as fetish slaves because the gods of African Traditional Religion are popularly referred to as fetishes and the priests who serve them as fetish priests.
Thousands of women across West Africa have been enslaved by this centuries old practice called “trokosi”. Although the practice has officially been banned in Ghana, it’s still happening there and in other parts of West Africa but on a smaller scale.
The word trokosi comes from the Ewe words “tro”, meaning deity or fetish, and “kosi”, meaning female slave. The “tro” deity is not, according to African traditional religion, the Creator or what might be called the “High” or Ultimate God. “Tro” refers to what African Traditional Religion calls the “small gods” or “lesser deities”—spirits of nature, etc. which are venerated in traditional religion. The term trokosi is commonly used in English in Ghana, as a loanword.
6 Facts about the Trokosi system that will shock you.
The misdeeds for which atonement is sought may often date back generations. One former trokosi’s family gave her to a fetish shrine when she was 8 years old, because her great-grandfather had failed to repay a debt and subsequently family members had started to die from seemingly mysterious causes.
A girl designated to become a trokosi is usually committed at a very young age (6 to 10 years old) to the shrine, where an initiation ritual betrothing the girl to the gods is performed. The ritual establishes a relationship of spiritual bondage between the girl and the shrine. From the moment of her betrothal, the trokosi must wear special insignia indicating her status and outsiders are prohibited from having any sexual contact with the girl. If a man sleeps with a trokosi, his family is believed to have incurred the wrath of the gods, therefore, must also offer a virgin daughter to the shrine. Meanwhile, the girl with whom the man had sexual relations is ritually “purified” and remains a trokosi at the shrine.
In addition to performing ritual duties and domestic chores at the shrine, a trokosi is usually also expected to work long hours on farmland belonging to the shrine. She does not receive anything in return for her labour and her family is required to provide her with food and all other necessities.
Once a trokosi reaches puberty, the shrine’s fetish priest (tronua) is entitled to sleep with the girl to consummate the marriage between her and the gods. Groomed from a very young age into accepting their servitude at the shrine, the girls are not in a position to refuse. Daughters born from such sexual relations also have certain obligations to the shrine.
After serving several years at the shrine, a trokosi may be released from servitude if her family pays for a special ceremony, but she will retain a relationship with the shrine and continue to perform certain rituals there. Released trokosi are allowed to marry, but are often unable to find a husband. If a trokosi dies, her family is expected to replace her with another girl and the cycle of ritual servitude and exploitation recommences.
Government officials were under the impression that the practice had since almost vanished. Information obtained from other sources indicates that the practice continues to thrive. Reportedly, there are at least 23 shrines in the Volta Region and 3 in the Greater Accra Region which still accept trokosi.
The question of why only girls and not boys are sacrificed to serve these shrines still rises and Trokosi who have been serving in these shrines ask themselves these questions but are never answered as they are technically not allowed an opinion. Many Trokosi still do not know why they are serving in the shrines they were brought to and don’t know they crimes they are paying for. In most cases the crimes these young girl virgins are paying for are for men in their families who committed a crime, usually one of adultery.
Below a video on understanding the Trokosi system. Twenty years after she was freed from this practice, Brigitte Sossou Perenyi goes on a journey to understand what trokosi really is and why her family gave her away.
There are two major reasons for the practice of ritual servitude. Most common is the concept of atonement. A girl is given to the shrine or to the gods as a kind of “living sacrifice” to atone for the real or alleged crimes of a family member or ancestor, as discerned by the priest of the shrine. During a process of divination he calls on the gods of the shrine to reveal this information. Girls given to atone for such crimes in a sense are considered a kind of savior, for as long as she remains in the shrine or under its control, the anger of the god is believed to be averted from the rest of the family.
The second most frequent reason for the practice of ritual servitude is that the girl is given for the continuous repayment of the gods for services believed to have been obtained or favors believed to have been rendered from the shrine. Thus a girl may be given into ritual servitude when someone believes a child has been conceived or a person has been healed, for example, through the intervention of the shrine.[
Proponents of the practice claim that some participants choose a life of ritual servitude of their own volition, but human rights organizations claim that while this may be theoretically possible, they haven’t found one yet.
In the past, the traditions of the shrines were veiled in secrecy, and people dared not discuss them, fearing the wrath of the gods if they dared to do so. For this reason, the practice was neither widely known nor well understood. In more recent times, since the 1990s at least, abolitionists and human rights advocates have penetrated the veil of secrecy. The issue has been widely discussed, for instance, in the newspapers and on the radio in Ghana
In 1998 the Law Reform Commission, drawing on the recommendations of Ababio and others, drafted a law specifying “ritual or customary servitude” as a crime. The law passed, requiring a mandatory three-year prison term for those found guilty.
Ritual Servitude Today
Although the practice was outlawed in Ghana in 1998, it continued, due to fear and the reluctance of the government to interfere with traditional practices. Some NGOs had already worked to liberate shrines, but after the law did not solve the problem, NGOs began to get even more seriously involved in advocating against the practice and in working for agreements to reduce the practice by liberating individual shrines. Some of the organizations that have joined the effort are UNICEF, International Needs Network Ghana, the Swiss “Sentry Movement”, Trokosi Abolition Fellowship, the Anti-Slavery Society, and Every Child Ministries. Survivors for Change is a group of former trokosi who have banded together to speak up against the practice. Organizations that have been most active in liberating ritual slaves are FESLIM (Fetish Slaves Liberation Movement), founded by Mark Wisdom, International Needs, and Every Child Ministries.
Christian NGOs and human rights organizations have been fighting it—working to end the practice and to win liberation for the shrine slaves. They have carried out their activities with strong support from CHRAJ—The Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice—and the Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Affairs. A Court of Women was organized in Accra in 2003 to continue the fight against the practice.