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Trokosi: Indentured Servitude of Women Lingers in Pockets of West Africa


The trokosi system is an ancient tradition among the Ewe people of Ghana. Oral tradition supported by trokosi priests and elders traces its origins to the practice of paying deities for services rendered.

Cromwell Awade is the Project Officer of International Needs Ghana, a non-profit organization working to create awareness of the system.

“It is believed that when people went to war and won victory, when people needed a child and went to the shrine, they send as an appreciation the child to the shrine. This was voluntary but over time, the situation changed and shrines began demanding. Also families which had problems like unexplained sicknesses consult deities and they get to know that another member had invoked a curse on the family. So the shrine will ask that another member, a girl be brought to the shrine to remove the curse from the family,” he says.

Young girls, usually virgins, are sent to the shrine to begin a life of servitude. It has been established that there are 39 trokosi shrines in the Volta region of Ghana and two in the Dangbe district of Greater Accra.

Priscilla Kaletsi, a counselor who works with liberated Trokosis, said sometimes the girls are enslaved at the shrine through trivial offences committed by their family.

“Somebody plucked somebody’s pawpaw. He [the culprit] went to the farm, was hungry, plucked the pawpaw and ate. Then the farm owner came asking who had plucked the pawpaw. He was not there to say he was the one. That was why the [culprit’s] child was sent to the shrine [where] she was abused and raped and [was subjected to] all sorts of trauma," says Kaletsi.

Awade said the practice of trokosi is not characteristic of every shrine in the Volta region.

“They are sent usually to [what are] called Troxovi shrines. It is not every shrine in the community that has the mandate to receive girls as trokosis. [They] are located in communities and their concentration is mainly in the southeastern part of Ghana,” he says.

Awade says rituals are done at the shrines to initiate the girls into the trokosi system. Literally, the term Trokosi means "bride of the spirits," so the ceremony takes the form of “a newly married maiden joining her husband”. After the ceremony the girls are stripped of their dresses and given basic clothing that identifies them as trokosis. Awade said most of them are denied education and used as labourers on farms.

“There are stringent punishments in the shrine. In some cases, you will be made to kneel down on broken palm kernels as punishment. And it is also reported that the priest being the representative of the deity; they [the girls] are deemed to be the wives of the deity, so it is reported that the priests do have sex with some of them. It’s been denied by some priests, but it’s been confirmed by some others too. Some of the women confessed during counseling, others do not like talking about that,” he says.

Awade says some of the girls serve in the shrines for life and are replaced by their families after their death. Others are allowed to go home after serving for some number of years although such people still hold links to the shrine and could be recalled at anytime. He estimates the number of trokosi girls in active service and those still linked to the shrine at five thousand adding that the number has been disputed by others.

“No study has been done conclusively to say that this is the number. The American Embassy claims there are not more than 100 trokosis in the shrines,” he says.

The practice of trokosi violates article 26 of the constitution of Ghana. The article prohibits “all customary practices which dehumanize or are injurious to the physical and mental well being of a person."

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