ACCRA, GHANA January 2000
Human rights groups in West Africa are meeting in Ghana to try to stamp out a ritual slavery called Trokosi which is widespread in some parts. As part of religious sacrifice, young women – often under ten – are handed over to village priests as life-time slaves in order to ensure nothing bad happens to their families. The women are sexually abused and are put to heavy manual work without pay. Ghana’s new president, John Kufuor, has pledged to stamp it out.
The woman let her bright green cloth slip down to reveal her breasts. But she didn’t care. The African heat seeped through a hazy sky, drying up everything around and sapping strength. She hauled up a bucket from a well, spilling water on the dirt ground, then rested by burying her head in her hands. Her rounded, scarred shoulders showed years of hard labor.
When she looked up, her eyes were completely blank as if no longer able to reflect pain, happiness, or any of those basic human emotions.
Hutealor Wede doesn’t know how old she is, nor can she remember how long she’s been in the village of Fiato Avendrpedo in Eastern Ghana. All she knows is that she’s a slave and likely to die there.
‘My grandfather had illegal sex with a women,’ she says, dead pan with no expression. ‘The gods punished our family. I was the virgin daughter, so I was brought to this village and given to the priest to stop the disasters happening. I have to do everything for the priest. Anything he wants.’
Hutealor Wede is a victim of Trokosi, which from the local dialect literally means Slavery to the Gods. It’s part of a traditional religion where the priest mediates between the people and the gods. Three years ago a law was passed specifically to ban it, with a minimum punishment of three years in jail. But no woman has been freed because of it and no-one has been arrested.
It is a crime being carried out openly. It took us three hours to drive to the village from Accra and a bottle of gin to get in.
The village’s septuagenarian priest was a thin, bearded little man, called Togbe Adzimashi Adukpo. He was the slave master. His throne was a deck chair and before he talked to us gin was poured into a thimble sized glass which he drank from alone. More was mixed with a misty liquid in a coconut shell and splashed on the sand. He sipped from it, wiped his lips with the back of his hand and declared he was ready to answer questions.
‘Yes, the girls are my slaves,’ he said. ‘They are the property of my shrine.’ He pointed behind him to a long, mud hut where the worship took place. ‘They are brought here as virgins to be married to the gods. So if a man from the village wants one for himself, I have the power to give her to him.’
Trokosi is an eternal penance. When one woman dies, her family has to bring a new girl to the priest, who is then initiated with the Trokosi ritual. She kneels in the shrine in front of him and the village elders. All men. Then, while chanting, they strip her of her bracelets, her earings and her clothes until she is bowed and humiliated in front of them. From then on, she’s a slave. She is raped frequently. If she escapes and is caught, she’s beaten. If she gets away to her superstitious family, they just send her back.
Villages in this part of Ghana are divided into the liberated and un-liberated. The human rights group International Needs has had some success in raising money to buy women their freedom. The going rate is gentle persuasion and about forty pounds a head.
Togbe Adome Ahiave, the priest in one near-by liberated village saw himself as a modern man, mixing with human rights activists and claiming his own role was that of a monogomous village leader.
‘We used to have fifteen slave girls here, but we were told it was against human rights,’ he said proudly. ‘So we let them go. Life’s a lot tougher now, we need more people to work the land. Perhaps you can give us a tractor. That would help.’
There are about three thousand women known to still be in slavery in Ghana and at the present rate it would years to get them all freed.
And there’s also political and religious opposition with a strong lobby within the Ghanaian establishment which argues that the campaign against Trokosi is a campaign against African culture.
Its leader is His Holiness Osofu Kofi Ameve the head of the African Renaissance Mission, who invited me to the shell of his half-built headquarters. It will be the size of a hotel when it’s finished, indicating there’s plenty of money around.
‘It’s all lies,’ he bellowed when I asked him. ‘I tell you it’s lies. No woman is in slavery in Ghana. Christianity, your Christianity allows for no another religion. You want to eradicate all African religion.’
But back at the Trokosi village we visited, after fetching water from the well, Hutealor Wede and another, younger slave, were summoned to the shrine.
Surrounded by animal bones, a skull soaked in red dye, and strings of beads, they knelt forward, their hands on the earth, palms up, finger curled and heads touching the ground.
The priest rang a bell and chanted.
Day after day, week after week, year after year, they have to undergo the same degradation. Never do they expect to be freed.