In 2021, I decided to leave Europe, for the first time in my life, to do an internship for my studies. I headed for a TV-Production company based in Accra, Ghana. After spending two months in this country, I already realized that a lot of things were quite different from what I was used to in Germany. But one thing seemed so absurd that it took me quite a while to accept that it was real.
It began on what seemed to be a normal day at the office. My colleague informed me about a shooting the next day and instructed me to prepare interview questions. She mentioned “Trokosi system” and explained that there were some girls that had lived in a so-called “shrine” for a while. They were then saved by a vocational school that bought them “free” as part of an aid project.
Since one of the biggest sponsors of the company I was working for was MTN Ghana, a telecom company, the film shoot was supposed to show a donation from MTN to the girls on their graduation day. MTN’s gesture was to give them the opportunity to build up small businesses after their training, in order to start over a new life.
I had never heard about this “Trokosi” thing before. So, I started by going online to get more information. Three minutes later, my jaw dropped, and I felt like losing my sanity and my faith in humanity.
The “Trokosi” system basically seemed to be just a more pleasant term for sex-slavery. “Tro” in the Ewe language means “deity” while “kosi” stands for “slave”. Put together it can also be referred to “slave of the gods”. Trokosis or Fiashidis sometimes serve as wives of the priests who run the shrines as the representatives of the gods.
In this traditional practice, which is common among the Ewe and Ada people, young girls (mostly virgins) are given to shrines to atone for crimes committed by their families. The system might not have started as abusive as it is nowadays. But since it became that way, girls who are sent to shrines have to live without education and have to work hard or suffer from hunger, sometimes for decades.
If a girl owned by a shrine dies, she has to be replaced by another virgin from her family. Boys are less popular since they are known as being often more rebellious which would increase the risk of an escape. Fleeing doesn’t appear to be happening often in general since the girls grow up in this environment from a young age and, therefore, don’t get to experience another life that they would wish for.
Moreover, in the sense of the tradition many girls as well as their family members believe penalty has to be paid to avoid a punishment from the gods. Being in fear of that, some relatives even send girls back to the shrine after they escape and try to find help at home.
All of this is officially already forbidden by law since 1998. Unofficially, according to estimates, around 5000 Trokosi slaves are still captured in shrines in Ghana, Togo and Benin.
After reading all of these facts, I just kept starring at the computer monitor, unable to move or say anything. After a few minutes, one of my colleagues asked me if there was something wrong with me.
I explained that I was shocked, and that seemed to confuse her. A couple of seconds later, she told me that her mother had also served in a shrine.
When I asked her why, she told me the story: Her family migrated to the Volta Region a few decades ago. And some people in that family line were doing bad things. They were stealing and even killing people. Because of that, someone in the village decided to report their behaviour to a shrine, which was having a similar role as a court nowadays.
People had to sit down and talk about what they did. The shrine invited them to come and do that, but the members of the family refused to follow. My colleague explained that the gods got offended because the attendees didn’t show up so they started to kill people of her family.“Someone could just wake up with a headache and die,” she said.
The family wanted to stop these deaths from happening. They had a talk and the great-grandfather of my colleague decided to go to the shrine and appease the gods. This led to an agreement that the family would stop committing crimes and, therefore, the deaths would stop.
But one family member was stubborn and didn’t want to change. He believed he had the right to do whatever he wanted to do. With that mindset he went to the shrine without even having an invitation. And according to my colleague, because of this action “someone had to pay the price”. The shrine asked for a virgin girl of the family to come and serve there. Otherwise, the agreement would be reversed, and the deaths would start again. My colleague’s grandmother chose her daughter, my colleague’s mother, to go. Four of her children had already died and she hoped to stop this by sending her thirteen-year-old child to serve the gods.
Her daughter agreed to it but she didn’t really understand what this would mean to her life. After a couple of years in the shrine, she decided to run away. She had seen her sister going to school, living her life, and she wanted the same for herself. When she looked at the other girls in the shrine who seemed to not care about the sexual abuse, who thought this was it, this was their life, she decided that she didn’t belong there.
So, she escaped.
Her disappearance had to be compensated with cows and land, but no other family member was asked to replace her. Perhaps, because she had already served around five years.
Coming from another culture, Trokosi was too much to take in for me.
The following day was the video shoot. A queasy feeling accompanied me on the journey to the vocational school in the Volta Region. When we arrived, I saw a joyous crowd celebrating the students’ graduation day in the neighbourhood of meadows, mountains and palm trees. Nature looked so heavenly that I almost forgot why we were even there.
I started to remember again when I saw the logo of MTN, shining bright and yellow panting for everyone´s attention. There were people in MTN-branded Shirts, an MTN-table cloth, an MTN-tent and little boxes with the MTN logo on them. They stood in front of the gifts for the girls. In addition to all these, there was a poster with a QR-code, which promised enjoyment after downloading the new MTN app.
Graduation day and promo-event in one. The fusion reached its perfection when one of the speakers began to explain the advantages for new MTN customers if they would download the app already in the ongoing week.
The only thing that seemed to have a higher priority than MTN was religion and the trust in the Lord. While the crowd was singing, I thought about all the things that must have happened to the girls in the name of different gods.
I knew that a lot of the Trokosi girls/women believe that they have to go through the punishment to save their families. But how strong do you have to believe in something, that you send someone who is a blood relative, and who is completely innocent, into this system to suffer for the whole family? In my opinion no one should have the power to decide over someone´s life just like that.
My thoughts were inconsequential. The ceremony went on. After a couple of speeches, songs and the handing over of the graduation certificates partly by an MTN employee, we started with the interviews. It didn’t go pretty well. I´m not able to speak Twi and the village isn’t necessarily the place where you can expect people to speak fluent English, so communication was a little tough.
Moreover, the camera man and I were pursuing intentions that were quite different. He wanted the girls to talk about their life in the shrine, while I was just hoping not to retraumatise someone. After a couple of minutes filled with words I didn’t understand, I managed to make an interpreter ask the first girl whether she even wanted to talk about the shrine.
She declined and left.
A day earlier, my colleagues wrote down a few questions they wanted me to ask in the interviews:
“What kind of crime brought you to the shrine?” or “Can you describe your daily life in the shrine?”
Maybe, I´m a little too sensitive for this country but I decided to rather get fired than to ask these questions. Instead, I wanted to focus on how they were feeling about graduating that day and what kind of plans and hopes they had for their future. I tried. But I wasn’t that true to my principles.
My colleague kept putting pressure on me to not leave out the shrine-topic completely and after a while I got bent. Even though everything felt horribly unethical especially when you keep in mind that the video was not about the girls in the first place, but about MTN being generous to donate gifts to them.
Ignoring my guilty conscience, I asked two of the girls how they were feeling about the time they had spent in the shrine. One just shrugged her shoulders and the other one looked away.
There are a million reasons why they wouldn’t want to talk about the shrine. But even on questions about how they were feeling about graduating or their future, the highest number of words that I got for an answer was maybe three or four.
Neither the interpreter nor the sending away of the pushy cameraman seemed to help. Maybe the Trokosi girls just didn’t like to give interviews, but I also think there was a big part in their lives where no one ever asked them about their feelings.
And when your feelings don´t seem to matter anyway, it´s hard to learn how to express them. Or even to know what you are feeling, especially when there is so much pain that has to be processed first to make place for what is beneath that.
Back in the office the next day, the other intern and I were asked to write a short voice- over text to explain what Trokosi is about. My colleague read the text and pointed on the part that explained the sexual exploitation of the Trokosi girls.
She shook her head and said, “No, it´s not about sex slavery. This is, maybe, just some unfortunate thing that comes with it. And if you write it like that, they can put you in the shrine.”
Even though no one could really be put in a shrine just because of writing this, her words might sum up the reasons why nothing much has changed in over two decades since Trokosi was officially been forbidden—Playing down how bad it is and scaring those who don´t see things that way.
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