For centuries, girls as young as two have been given to priests in Ghana for life in payment for the crimes of their ancestors. Although some powerful men support the practice, opposition to it is growing
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Mewornovi Kokou has a delicate, solemn face and an air of resignation which makes her seem more like 75 than 10. She is one of a group of seven little girls gathered under a tree outside their village shrine. The day is bright. Light dances down through the leaves and the other children shriek excitedly and run about. But these girls don't play, chat or even smile. All are sombre, weary, subdued. It's obvious that they are, somehow, different from the rest. They are known as the wives of the gods.

These children are among the thousands of female Trokosi or "fetish slaves" who are serving life sentences at the shrines of traditional West African war gods. They are paying for crimes, sometimes as trivial as the theft of a few heads of maize or a goat, committed by distant and even long- dead relatives. Most of the Trokosi women are condemned to a lifetime of hard labour, sexual servitude and perpetual childbearing at the service of the village priest.

Mewornovi's family had to give a virgin daughter to the shrine to atone for an ancestral crime, as required by the traditions of the Ewe (pronounced Evay) people who live in Ghana's Volta region. The original offence was committed so long ago that nobody can remember what it was, let alone who did it. "Human memory may be frail but the gods do not forget," says Togbe Charmla, the weasel-faced priest of the shrine in Dorfor village where Mewornovi will remain a virtual prisoner until she dies. "The fetish demands it," he explains. "If the family withheld her they would be cursed and die."

Trokosi, which originates from the same belief system as voodoo, is practised in at least 12 shrines in Ghana and scores of others in neighbouring Togo and Benin. "Tro" means god and "Kosi" can be translated as virgin, slave or wife. The custom varies from one shrine to the next, but wherever she is sent, the Trokosi's lot is miserable. Some are given to the shrine as young as two, for crimes by relatives ranging from murder to the theft of a goat. When a fetish slave starts menstruating, she undergoes an initiation ceremony after which the priest, or as the custom would have it, the god through the human channel of the priest, can have sex with her whenever he wants. Older women are sometimes kicked out when they've lost their physical appeal.

As well as bearing the priest's children, the Trokosi work from dawn to dusk cultivating his land and selling the produce. But they don't enjoy the fruits of their labour. All profits go to the priest, and the Trokosi's family are expected to send food for her and her children and even pay for her eventual funeral. In some cases, when the Trokosi dies, the family have to replace her with another female virgin. Some women in the shrines today represent the fifth successive generation to pay for a crime.

Most Trokosi shrines are located in remote, inaccessible places and Dorfor is no exception. The village sits at the end of an isolated finger of land which points into Lake Volta and gets cut off for three months during the rainy season. It overlooks a vast, pewter-coloured expanse of water scribbled over with the silhouettes of fishermen paddling dugout canoes. The villages's three fetish shrines are small, circular buildings moulded, like the surrounding houses, from ochre-coloured mud, crowned with a thick grass thatch. Ghana's bustling modern capital, Accra, is only two hours away by road, but the Volta region is one of the poorest and least developed parts of the country. Dorfor has no electricity, no running water and only one vehicle - the village tractor. Time hasn't just stood still in Dorfor; it sits on the village like a vast, unmoving weight. It is difficult to imagine how long each day must have felt to the thousands of female slaves who have, over the centuries, served life sentences at the shrines.

Togbe Charmla, the white-robed fetish priest who doubles as headmaster of Dorfor's village school, would gladly tell me more about the origins of the Trokosi system, but there's the small matter of the customary gift to the shrine to see to. Ghanaian schnapps will do, although the fetish prefers foreign spirits as they contain the ghosts of foreign ancestors. Scotch whisky or even London gin are particularly well received. And then there's the traditional gift of cash; 150,000 cedis to be precise (about pounds 50). The sum is negotiable, but you must understand, says Charmla, his brow furrowing with concern, that it is for your own wellbeing and safe passage home. It would be such a terrible shame to disappoint the fetish in the interests of economy. It's only money, after all.

Once the booze and cash have been handed over, Charmla relaxes and warms to his theme. A nominal Christian by upbringing, he converted to traditional African religion while at teacher-training college. "I started to get vision problems," he says. "I couldn't focus on the blackboard or concentrate on anything, but the doctor told me there was nothing wrong with me. I realised the fetish had entered me and was summoning me to become a priest."

Charmla believed he was being summoned by one of the intermediary gods appointed by Mawa, the supreme deity and creator of the universe. The 600 or more lesser gods, often associated with natural phenomena like thunder, mountains, rivers and lakes, mediate on man's behalf, giving protection, adjudicating supernaturally in criminal cases, and punishing the guilty.

Say, for example, a child is killed by a hit-and-run driver. The parents come to the shrine and invoke the war god, praying that he punish the offender by demanding a virgin girl in payment for the crime. The killer may then find that unexplained deaths start to occur in his own family. Suspecting that the fetish is at work, the guilty person would then come to the shrine, confess, and ask what he must do to pacify the fetish. If the price is a virgin girl he will gladly pay it, to put a stop to the curse.

And that really is a problem, says Charmla, who confides that he has no interest in raping pubescent virgins. He already has four perfectly good wives of his own and, though he does not go around broadcasting it, he thinks the system is cruel and outdated. While Charmla doesn't intend to use Mewornovi as a concubine, she and the other Trokosi still have to live at the shrine, perform ritual duties and work on his farm. "Their families wouldn't take them back even if I begged them," he says. "They're too afraid of angering the fetish."

The Trokosi at Dorfor are fortunate compared to others pledged to shrines run by abusive priests. Julie Dorbadzi was six when her family abandoned her at Tseduma shrine in Kabenu, where she grew up with five other Trokosi. Now 23, she recently ran away to the town of Adidome, but a 2in scar on her left cheek still marks her out as a Trokosi. "People notice it and, if they're from round here, they know what it means. I can tell that some of them are afraid of me."

Julie was paying for the theft of 200 cedis (about 10p) by a great-grandfather. She was the fourth successive virgin sent by her family to atone for that crime. "By the time I was seven, the priest wanted to have sex with me, but I resisted until I was 12. I gave in because if you didn't sleep with him, the priest would beat you."

She had her first child when she was 18 and ran away when she was pregnant with her second. "I was pregnant and the priest beat me up. The other women joined in. I had to run away." Julie plans to move away from the area and start a new life. She doesn't know where her family are, and her chances of finding a local man who would marry her are slim, because she is still, according to local custom, the property of the shrine.

The Ewe people are thought to have originated in the Niger Delta. From the 1500s on, driven out by rival tribes, the Ewe migrated westwards to Benin, Togo and eastern Ghana; during this period, while they were under attack from hostile kings and rival tribes, their war gods took on great importance. At the time, political and religious power went hand in hand, and the priest acted as law-maker, adjudicator and enforcer. Once the Ewe had resettled, the present system of chieftaincy emerged and some of the priests' powers were devolved. But they remain the most revered, feared and powerful figures in many rural communities.

The priests of the Trokosi shrines are considered particularly influential in the spirit world, because they communicate with the war gods. Senior members of Ghana's armed forces, police service and a handful of government ministers are said to visit the shrines seeking promotion, protection and success in their operations. Appalled by the practice, some Ghanaians have broken the fearful silence which surrounds Trokosi. But their calls for it to be banned have had little impact on this centuries-old tradition, which has the blessing of some of Ghana's most powerful men.

Jerry Rawlings, the country's charismatic, if not exactly democratic, president - himself an Ewe - has spoken of Trokosi as an important part of Ghana's cultural heritage. Fetish slavery is still common in the rural east, affecting an estimated 10,000 women and girls, and the vociferous objections of Christian campaigners including several foreign missionaries have, if anything, led to Trokosi becoming more deeply entrenched. The fetish slaves have become pawns in a holy row in which Christianity is pitted against traditional African religion.

The battle began in 1471 when the first Europeans set foot on Ghana's "Gold Coast" which they went on to establish as the hub of the international slave trade, trafficking up to 650,000 people in a year. As well as gold the Portuguese, who were the first to land, hoped to find "Prester John", leader of a fabled sub-Saharan Christian Empire, with whom they would attack Muslim North Africa from the rear. Today, Christianity is plugged as aggressively here as powdered baby-milk, and Ghana has the highest concentration of Christians in West Africa - around 40 per cent of the population. Many rural schools and development projects are backed by Christian churches, and traditional African religion - unobtrusive and unchanged for thousands of years - is supplying most of their converts.

Heading the Christian crusades against Trokosi is Pastor Mark Wisdom, a Ghanaian Baptist minister in his mid-forties who lives in a tumbledown mud house in Adidome with a flimsy church made of woven palm fronds in the corner of his yard. While his habitual expression is a benign, forgiving smile, close up his eyes flicker with the fire of holy frenzy. "Before Christianity came to Africa, we were a dark continent," he declared starkly. "We worshipped craven idols." Within minutes of meeting you, Wisdom will blowtorch his way into your soul and demand to know whether the Lord resides there. If He does not, Wisdom will insist on an explanation and offer to Show You The Light, with the intensity of a double-glazing salesman working solely on commission. He is a juggernaut for Jesus, his face illuminated by a look which seesaws between the crazed and the beautiful.

Wisdom has been campaigning for the abolition of Trokosi for 15 years. It is his God-sent mission. The order from the Lord came to him in a dream when he was a teacher in neighbouring Togo. He returned immediately to his home town, Adidome, in the heart of the Volta region. By 1982 he had persuaded all the fetish priests and shrine-owners in the region to gather for a big meeting at which they agreed the practice should be abolished. So persuasive was Wisdom's speech that the priests agreed to go ahead, there and then, with a ceremony allowing the release of all Trokosi. But one canny shrine-owner, feeling perhaps that they were about to surrender an army of women providing free labour and unlimited sex, rather too easily, suggested that the ceremony should be postponed for two weeks. If Wisdom was still alive at the end of the fortnight, he said, it would be a sign that the fetish gods were happy to let the women and girls go. If he did not survive, the tradition should continue.

That night saw the start of what Wisdom considers a spiritual battle. "The priests tried to kill me by all sorts of means. I had a boy who cooked for me. They gave him a fish hook attached to a thread and made him put it in my food. Fortunately I did not swallow it." Every night for two long weeks, Wisdom's humble home reverberated with thuds and bangs. The nights were rent by muffled screams and cries, he says, as he wrestled with evil spirits sent by the fetish priests. "Witches and wizards came to hypnotise and attack me. They vowed to kill me at all costs," he says, his face wracked with a look of terror.

But as a Christian, doesn't Wisdom regard the fetishes as powerless? "Not at all. The fetish has evil power," he says. "It comes from the devil and Satan is mighty. The fetish priests have the power to kill, but I fought them off." He beams triumphantly and pauses for effect. "Mysteriously, all the fetish priests in the area who wanted to kill me have since died. Some people say that I killed them with my spiritual strength." He shrugs the suggestion off with a show of modesty.

However, by the time Wisdom had sent the devil packing, the priests had decided not to free the Trokosi after all. Unperturbed, Wisdom teamed up with Sharon Titian, a white Canadian missionary and former social worker who had recently divorced, found God and headed for Africa with the zeal of an avenging angel. "Sharon, she does not forgive," says Wisdom, ruefully. "She said, in America, you do wrong, you don't get forgiven. She hated the fetish priests."

And what more exquisite trophy could one of Christianity's raw recruits have hoped for than the souls of vestal virgins, snatched from the sweaty clutches of African fetish priests? She came up with the idea of starting a rehabilitation centre and school for the Trokosi. They would be taught to read and write and receive training in sewing and bread-making so that they would be able to support themselves in the event of their eventual release. And they would be instructed in the Christian faith.

A New Zealand-based Christian charity provided funding. Soon the school had 50 female pupils, all Trokosi on loan from the fetish priests on the understanding that they would come back to the shrines during the school holidays. Every-thing went well until the school's grand inauguration day. Television crews and newspaper reporters travelled from Accra for the opening ceremony only to witness mutiny amongst Christ's footsoldiers.

A large sign had been erected outside the school, bearing the name of the charity which had donated the funds in big letters. Sharon didn't like it. "They've hijacked our project," she raged to Mark Wisdom. "They have claimed all our hard work. They are trying to steal the glory!"

"I told her that the glory belongs to the Lord," says Wisdom, shaking his head. "But Sharon wanted a sign with the name of her organisation, Missions International, in big letters." The other charity would be allowed only a small plaque inside on a desk. Sharon insisted and the sign was uprooted. When the funding was withdrawn, the project then went into decline. Sharon's daughter fell seriously ill, and she returned to North America.

Now there are two totally separate schools for fetish slaves in Adidome. The women and girls have to go back to the shrines at the end of the term, and as many have returned converted to Christianity, some priests have objected and stopped co-operating. The schools, acting independently of one another, are not in a strong position to negotiate and the situation seems to have reached a stalemate.

However, the latest recruit to join the anti-Trokosi camp, an independent Ghanaian development group called the Green Earth Organisation, has adopted a more conciliatory approach. "The religious angle has complicated matters," says GEO's executive director, George Ahadzie. "We want to liberate and reintegrate as many of these women as possible back into their families. But the priests don't like their religion being looked down on. We need to let them know that we respect it."

Appointed to negotiate this cultural minefield is Vivian Addy-Lampety, an Ewe woman in her early thirties who grew up in the Volta region. She has neatly braided hair, pursed lips and a sweet, almost docile expression which conveniently distracts from the glint of steely determination in her eyes. Once a week she leaves the capital, bouncing over the rutted, red-dirt country roads in a car which rings out with the clanking of half a dozen green glass bottles of schnapps, on her way to pay reluctant homage to the fetishes of the Trokosi shrines. She presents booze and cash, removes her shoes, shirt and bra at the shrine gates and wraps up in a traditional garment so that she is fit to enter the sacred inner sanctums. Still clutching her handbag, she kneels in the dirt before the fetish priests, imploring them to grant her an audience, only to be regaled with hostility and abuse. But slowly she is making progress, winning their confidence.

When we meet, the whites of Vivian's eyes are starting to turn yellow. Overwhelmed with fatigue, she thinks she might be coming down with jaundice or malaria. "Yes, sometimes I feel like I have become a slave to the fetishes," she smiles. "But I am determined to get these women released in the shortest time possible. I speak to them privately when I visit the shrines, and I know how much they are suffering."

Vivian has joined forces with Emile Short, head of Ghana's Commission for Human Rights. He recently visited two fetish priests in the village of Volo who have about 45 Trokosi and at least 100 children between them. Short stood up in the village square and made a speech about inviolable human rights, ending with the suggestion that the priests should accept goats or sheep instead of girls. At the end of the speech, nobody clapped. They stared at him in disgust until the younger priest finally broke the silence. "Do you really expect us to have sex with animals?" he asked.

Since then, Togbe Charmla has been to talk to them, and now they are coming round to the idea of setting their Trokosi free. Progress, however, comes at a price. One ram, one goat, four bottles of spirits and two million cedis - about pounds 1,000 (negotiable) for every woman and girl released, to be precise. "We need compensation," insists Charmla. "Think of all the labour they will lose. The priests will need to buy tractors and farm machinery."

While Western charities campaigning against slavery baulk at the prospect of buying off its beneficiaries, Ghana's exhausted anti-Trokosi campaigners are delighted. Last month, Emile Short met with all the traditional chiefs and queen-mothers of the Volta region and they voted to help him put a stop to Trokosi. "These are the most fruitful meetings we've ever had. I think if we presented the priests with compensation now, they'd have to accept it," says Short, who now has the unenviable task of gathering together several tankers full of Ghanaian schnapps and a few thousand goats. "What we need now is people outside Ghana who might be able to assist with the money and the items," he says pointedly. "Perhaps the people who read your article might like to help."

! For information on GEO's work in freeing the fetish slaves, write to George Ahadzie, Green Earth Organisation, PO Box 16641, Accra-North, Ghana