Monday, 17 March 2014

Virgin Wives of the Fetish Gods - Slavey in Ghana

Enyonam and Forgive, both former trokosi slaves, at home in their village. They bonded due to the stigma they face from the community and say "we have become family to each other". Photo by Fjona Hill (Aletheia Collective)
I love Ghana, so when Magnum ice cream asked me to conduct interviews for a film on sustainable cocoa in the Ashanti region, I jumped at the chance.  It would also allow me and photographer Fjona Hill to report on a story we have wanted to do for a long time, but didn’t have the means to, as editors rarely pay for travel expenses these days.

So after the film, we stayed behind and headed north to the Volta - a beautiful region rich in history and culture, dominated by the vast Lake Volta and the River Volta. We wanted to look at the terrible trokosi tradition and try to understand why it still endures today.  Ghana is widely seen as a model for political and economic reform in Africa and lauded for its rapid development.

But away from bustling Accra, in remote countryside villages, some deep-seated traditions prevail. The trokosi practice calls for virgin girls to be sent to the shrines of fetish gods to pay for crimes committed by one of their relatives. They become living sacrifices, protecting their families from the gods’ wrath. Some stay at the shrines for a few years; others for life.

The tradition, also practised in neighbooring Benin and Togo, is deeply rooted in the beliefs and identity of the Ewe (ay-vay) people. It serves rural communities’ need for justice and meets the material and sexual needs of the fetish priests. But it's also considered a spiritual act and as such it is, along with female genital mutilation, one of the most difficult human rights violations to eradicate.
With the help of International Needs Ghana (ING), the main NGO campaigning to stop the practive, we visited isolated rural villages, speaking with women who had spent many years in fetish shrines, fetish priests, ING director and government officials.  We were aware of being Western journalists looking at a tradition we couldn’t understand and didn’t want to present another story on “dark, exotic, dangerous Africa”.

But we felt this was not a story about Western against African values – rather it was one one about modern Ghana vs. traditional Ghana. The Government outlawed the custom in 1998 and many Ghanaians are deeply embarrassed it is still enduring today. But there are powerful religious and political lobbying groups who argue the tradition is part of their cultural and religious heritage, and is misunderstood.

Here is our story for the Thomson Reuters Foundation and here is the same story on the Chime for Change site, a global campaign to convene, unite and strengthen the voices speaking out for girls and women around the world. 

The priest, Torgbi Ahiaeu at the Avevi shrine. He complains that he now has to do the farmwork himself now the women have gone. His wife, behind him, is the one remaining trokosi in the village. All the other 23 trokosi have left the village after liberation. Photo by Fjona Hill (Aletheia Collective)

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