The system of female servitude, or trokosi, is practiced in some parts of the Volta Region of Ghana, and in parts of Burkina Faso and Benin. What does it feel like to be a trokosi. Accra-based journalist Joana Mantey set out recently to find the answer to the question.
The road leading to the International Vocational Centre at Adidome in the Volta Region is bumpy and rough. Equally so is the trokosi system under which Mary Aku was held under bondage for 6 years.
Today, as a student at a local vocational centre, Mary is learning to be a hair dresser. In the mornings, she joins other students to learn such styles like the corn row, rasta, and weave on. She is also being exposed to issues regarding human rights, violence against women and reproductive health.
Mary is one of 150 vulnerable children including former trokosi girls studying at no cost at the centre. She recalls the period during which she served as a trokosi at a shrine. She was two years old when it all started. Speaking in Eve, she explains the circumstances that led to her confinement at the shrine.
Mary says she was often sick as a child. So her father said the gods wanted her to serve them – so she should be sent to the shrine. The school counselor said Mary’s parents coined the story, because the truth, she said, was more embarrassing. She did not elaborate.
She said as a two year old she was taken care of by an elderly woman who was also a trokosi. Her daily chores included house cleaning and farming. Mary said she never went to school, never went outside the confines of the shrine. And what happens to people who disobeyed rules ?.
The older woman told her she would not eat that day. Because of the fear of going hungry, she did not refuse.
Mary observed a strict dress code. She said the confined girls wear pieces of cloth covering their breasts and hips. The girls were also barefoot, and had their hair shaved.
Now as a student at the vocational center, Mary wears a uniform to school. She is also free to wear other clothes including shoes, necklaces and earrings. Mary says she is happy to be free from the trokosi system through the effort of the non-profit organization, International Needs.
“When International Needs came they said the children should be liberated so she was fortunate to come out of it but those that the man raped automatically became his wives. They had no place to go," she said.
Mary is also learning to read and write. However, her ambition is to make it big as a hair dresser after she graduates from the school.
“If I finish hair dressing here, I want someone to help me to do my salon”
In her free time, she chats with friends or watch TV.
Mary Aku is not sure about starting a family in the future. Under the trokosi system, she would have needed permission from the shrine to marry even if she no longer happened to be staying at the shrine. Conditions of her release however make that demand unnecessary. However, the counselor at the school said she did not think Mary was interested in marriage – after all she had experienced at the shrine.