Until he was 13 years old, Vananua, the shrine priest of Kebanu village, a small rural community in south-eastern Ghana, was, he says, just an ordinary child.
He got up early every day, helping his brothers fetch water before going to school at 7.30am. But, one night, he had a visitation. Mama Vananua, a god worshipped by the inhabitants of Kebanu, entered his body. She informed him he would take on her spirit and lead his village as the next "trokosi" priest. From then on, her name would be his name.
Trokosi is a traditional practice of slavery still seen as normal in parts of Ghana, Togo and Benin. Girls as young as two are offered to a fetish shrine priest as a way of appeasing the gods for a relative's transgression, past or present. The word trokosi comes from the Ewe words "tro", meaning deity, and "kosi" meaning female slave. The tradition, which has been part of the Ewe culture for centuries, requires a girl to spend the rest of her life as a "wife of the gods".
Vananua sits, deep in concentration, in front of the Kebanu shrine - a small ochre-red hut, surrounded by high walls on the outskirts of the village. There is no door to the shrine, and the unremitting darkness within makes it impossible to see inside. "Troxovi", a small spiky wooden carving, or fetish, stands at the entrance. Vananua is dressed in long flowing white calico robes and a conical shaped hat. He says the customary prayers to welcome a visitor to the community and then pours libation.
"Mama Vananua is a god who takes children," he says. "She looks for people who do wrong but who pretend they've done nothing. When you're brought before her, she will consult the higher gods and then will bring these crimes to light.
"For this, Mama Vananua takes a girl, or a lady, to pacify her for the work done."
Trokosi originates from the same belief system as voodoo. From the 1500s on, the Ewe were driven from the Niger River delta westwards. During this violent period their war-gods took on great importance and the fetish priests were more important than the chiefs. Before entering combat, warriors would visit religious shrines where they offered women to the war gods in exchange for victory and a safe homecoming. Today, trokosi priests are the most revered figures in many rural areas. Families believe that if they refuse to give a girl to the fetish shrine, it will bring bad luck to the community, ranging from poverty, disease and death.
Mercy Senahe was nine years old when her parents handed her over to the Avakpe shrine, about 30km (19 miles) from her family home in Ho, the capital of Ghana's Volta Region. Her grandmother had been blamed for the theft of a trokosi woman's gold earring. After that, Mercy recalls that members of her family started falling ill and dying.
"Nothing was said to me before I was taken to the shrine. Beads were placed around my knees and ankles and then my family left. I started weeping when I realised that I'd been given to the priest. I cried until some of the women, also trokosis, came to tell me I could not go back, that they'd been there for many years."
Mercy says there were about 60 women and girls in the shrine. As time went on, more children began to arrive. "The priest was about 50 years old. If we refused to do the work he gave us - chopping wood, working in the fields, preparing food - he would beat us."
Although trokosi do have some freedom of movement, Mercy says the women and girls in her shrine never ran away because they believed it would bring bad luck to their families. Mercy, however, did attempt to flee. "The suffering became too much so I tried to escape to my parents but they wouldn't accept me and sent me back to the shrine," she said.
A law was passed in Ghana criminalising trokosi as a form of slavery in 1998. A year later, 1,800 women and girls were liberated by a non-governmental organisation called International Needs Ghana, which is partnered with the human rights organisation Anti-Slavery.
But Walter Pimpong, the director of International Needs, says there are still around 5,000 girls in Ghana's trokosi shrines.
"It is the fetish priest, or the traditional priest, who stands in for the gods. So these girls belong to the gods. They are also the priest's slaves. After her third menstrual cycle, the priest will have sex with a girl, which will bring into "completion" some of the rituals that he has to perform. The priests justify this by saying that trokosi are like priestesses who copulate with the gods through their earthly servants."
Since 1999, trokosi-practising priests have formed a council called the Afrikania Mission and have support from politicians and academics who view efforts to stop the practice as a threat to traditional culture. This is now a very powerful lobby.
Kofitse Ahadji is the director of the Afrikania Mission. He says girls who enter shrines are not mistreated. "These people are the stumbling blocks between the living and the devilish forces that create problems for a family. So when you are having problems in your family caused by negative elements, you send your child to the shrine to acquire divine powers and come back. That girl becomes a 'fiashidi' or queen. She's not a slave."
International Needs has tried to negotiate freedom by providing schools and clean drinking water. In addition, money and animals, such as goats and cows, are given to priests in exchange for liberated woman. It was this complex system of bartering that eventually compelled the community of Kebanu to release the women in its two shrines. Vananua, however, says the money he gained for the liberations was not an "adequate compensation"and continues to justify trokosi by saying it is the "will of the gods." One of the communities most resistant to International Needs' calls for an end to the practice is Klikor, close to the border with Togo. Hundreds of women and girls serve in its two shrines. The trokosi I saw there had closely shaved heads and were naked apart from the trademark black cloth around their waists, held together by rope.
Back in Accra, Ghana's capital, we were refused permission to take photos of the Klikor shrines. Later, the photographer was told in Klikor and other trokosi-practising villages, that the Afrikania Mission had banned all trokosi women and girls from giving statements or being photographed.
Mercy says she was 13 when the Avakpe priest first slept with her. She gave birth to four children in the shrine. "The priest sleeps with every woman of his choice. He would not inform you'd he'd be coming to have sex with you. And if you refused he would assault you by beating you. When it first happened to me, I felt hurt, hurt in my private parts. The older trokosi women, they took care of me."
Since the practice was outlawed, no shrine or priest has been prosecuted. One factor is that the Ewe possess significant political clout. The implementation of the law has also been difficult because many believe that the spirits of death and misfortune inhabit trokosi shrines and that great harm will come to them if they offend the priests
International Needs says its work has also been hindered by the most recent annual report on religious freedom from the US Department of State. The report claims that "there is no evidence that sexual or physical abuse is a systematic part of the practice," and that "a shrine rarely has more than four trokosis serving their atonements at any one time". It goes on to conclude that "according to credible reports from international observers and local leaders, there were not more than 50 girls serving at trokosi shrines throughout the Volta Region."
"Something really has to be done at the national level to end this severe form of exploitation," says Romana Cacchioli from Anti-Slavery International. "We cannot go on in the 21st century to allow girls and women to be used and abused in this way. The government of Ghana should take some concrete action, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable this may be."
Mercy had spent 12 years in Avakpe shrine by the time she was released.
She says: "People call us wives of the gods, but we were never that. We were just children."Reuse content