Slavery remains one of the biggest legal, social, and cultural problems in the modern world. Africa represents one of the most problematic geographical clusters in terms of slavery. The goal of this paper is to review the current state of occultism and slavery practices in Africa through the prism of the trokosi system. The paper describes the history and nature of the custom. The state and examples of the modern trokosi practices are described. Attempts to eradicate the trokosi system and opposition to the reform are discussed. Recommendations to improve the situation are provided.
Keywords: trokosi, slavery, Africa, Ghana, women, virgin girls, sacrifice, sin.
Occultism in Africa – the Trokosi System
Thousands of people in the developed world would be deeply surprised to hear that slavery is still one of the most incurable cultural practices across peoples and nations. Ghana is, probably, one of the most problematic geographical clusters in terms of slavery: the country’s trokosi system remains an object of the hot political, legal, cultural, and human rights concerns for activists around the globe. Within and even outside of Africa, people from all around the world pay a lot of attention to this practice. Some people think that the custom should be abolished because it ignores little virgin girls’ rights, while others believe that the tradition should be maintained, as it is a cultural practice with a long tradition. In this paper, I discuss the trokosi system from an outsider’s perspective to suggest what society can do to rescue these innocent little girls from being dehumanized. This paper is written to raise public awareness of the trokosi problem, based on the academic and historical knowledge about trokosi and its effects on society.
The Trokosi System: Custom and Example Practices
Trokosi is often described as an essential aspect of African religious traditions and cultural practices. The word “trokosi” can be interpreted as the “slave of the gods” (Boaten, 2001). The conceptual basis of the trokosi system in Africa is in exchanging virgin girls for the sins their families have committed: by sacrificing a virgin girl, her family hopes they will be able to avoid punishment for their major and minor mistakes (Boaten, 2001). As a result, trokosi can be considered as a complex belief system, which is based on the assumption that everything has its divine cause (Boaten, 2001).
The basic intent of the trokosi system is to punish wrongdoers (Boaten, 2001). “The vestal virgins who are initiated as trokosis in the various shrines become trokosis because someone in their families had confessed to committing crimes that demanded reparations” (Boaten, 2001, p.93). Such crimes may include sexual abuse or stealing (Boaten, 2001). In reality, trokosi is a system of slavery, a complex set of sophisticated cultural norms that violate human freedoms and result in discrimination and abuse. The history of this slavery custom is believed to date back to the seventeenth century, when the first Ewe-speaking peoples came to Ghana (Greene, 2009). Originally, the trokosi was a system that helped its people to find truth about the world (Bilyeu, 1999). The system reflected the communal beliefs about crime and the importance of effective punishment to prevent similar instances in the future (Bilyeu, 1999). Centuries ago, it was enough to give cattle, liquor, and money and, only with time, the practice shifted towards using animals and virgin girls to appease the gods (Bilyeu, 1999). The change represented a conceptual and cultural shift in Africans’ religious mentality. Simply stated, with time, priests realized that virgin girls were cleaner than cows and could bring much more physical and sexual benefits to their owners (Bilyeu, 1999). This change in religious practices was also attributed to the official abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 (Greene, 1999). In this way, religious leaders wanted to preserve their social power and retain the effectiveness of slave trade against the laws passed in Ghana at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Trokosi: Modern Practices
Modern trokosi practices are not limited to Ghana but are also widely practiced in Togo, Benin, and Nigerian Yorubaland (Boaten, 2001). Still, the main elements of all these trokosi systems are similar and deeply interrelated. Today, it is more a system of slavery rather than religion, which allows legitimatizing discriminative practices that would have been illegal otherwise. The most common example of the trokosi system in action is when a young virgin girl is offered to the priest by a family that seeks to end its misfortunes (Miers, 2000). Theoretically, the girl must spend a few years working for the priest. In reality, her enslavement often goes beyond lifetime (Miers, 2000).
Today, the main crimes punished through the trokosi system include: stealing, murder, adultery, and having sexual relationships with a trokosi (Boaten, 2001). Whenever any of these crimes takes place, the victim approaches the priest asking to find the offender. Spiritual search helps invoke the knowledge of the offense, and the offender must pay reparations by sacrificing his/her virgin daughter to the gods (Boaten, 2001). By providing a virgin girl, the offender protects himself (herself) from the gods’ curse. However, in most cases, the vestal girl does not even know who of her relatives or family members has committed the crime (Boaten, 2001). One of the most cited cases is when the seven-year-old girl was sent to become a trokosi simply because her grandfather had stolen a few pennies (Miers, 2000). She was used for agricultural work and, since twelve, had been used and abused sexually by the ninety-year-old priest (Miers, 2000). She tried to escape twice, but only the second attempt was a success: she was twenty-one when she managed to find refuge with a non-governmental organization (Miers, 2000).
Needless to say, every girl and woman living as a trokosi wants to become free by all means (Bilyeu, 1999). The trokosi system is not a religion – it is a legitimate instrument of discrimination and slavery. Girls are used for cheap labor (Miers, 2000). They work long hours just to have the basic necessities of life (Miers, 2000). Many girls who have experience being a trokosi confess to having no food and soap for their personal hygiene (Boaten, 2001). These girls and women have no right to education and freedom (Miers, 2000). They cannot become free or get married without their priest’s permission (Miers, 2000). Over the past years, almost a thousand of women have been released from the shrine, but trokosi remains one of the most widely practiced cultural traditions in Ghana (Miers, 2000).
The Trokosi System: Opposition and Reform
In 1998, Ghana outlawed the trokosi system. Nonetheless, thousands of girls and women keep suffering from the tragic impacts of slavery, discrimination, and abuse as a result of being a trokosi. Trokosi has disruptive effects on the quality of family life in Ghana and exemplifies a potent instrument of gender discrimination (Boaten, 2001). Numerous legal and social attempts have been made to eradicate the trokosi practices. The Trokosi system falls under many laws and conventions that deal with the crimes against humanity, including enslavement, sexual slavery, torture, forced pregnancy, and similar inhuman acts (Bilyeu, 1999). The Ghana Constitution also prohibits trokosi, but the popularity of the practice continues to persist.
At the heart of the current slavery problems in Ghana is the government’s failure to enforce the anti-trokosi laws it has passed. According to Perrault (2008), no criminal prosecution has been initiated against the trokosi practices, due to the lack of effective enforcement options and limited knowledge of how to bring and validate a claim. Another problem is that trokosi is inherently a religious practice (Miers, 2000). Consequently, by making trokosi illegal, the government of Ghana can be blamed for limiting the freedom of religious choices in the country. Two other reasons explain why the government does not enforce its laws and the Constitution: first, government officials are not willing to interfere with the religious and cultural practices of its people; second, they are also feared of the curse that can be brought by the shrines if they oppose their cultural traditions. Finally, it is not enough to have a girl released from her slavery bondage. Girls who live as a trokosi have no education and social skills to pursue their goals. Therefore, only holistic and sophisticated models of social assistance can let them overcome the major barriers to living a free life.
What We Can Do
In light of the earlier failures, broad educational efforts still have some potential to improve the situation. Priests need to be educated about the discriminative and illegal implications of their cultural practices, whereas potential victims and their families need better knowledge of laws and possible ways to protect themselves from discrimination. For instance, publishing articles on the harsh impacts of the trokosi system on children, women, and families can raise public awareness of the problem (Rinaudo, 2003). At the same time, “educating the chiefs on the human rights violations of Trokosi and encouraging them to discourage this practice in their villages […] may continue to prove to be the most successful means for eliminating the Trokosi practice” (Bilyeu, 1999, p.501). All these measures will become even more effective, if coupled with complex social programs that empower young girls and women to live their lives in freedom.
Despite numerous legal efforts, trokosi remains one of the most popular slavery practices in the African continent. Under the trokosi system, virgin girls are sacrificed to priests as reparations for their families’ sins or crimes. The trokosi system is a potent instrument of discrimination, abuse, and dehumanization of girls and women. Only broad education and social assistance programs can empower African girls and women to live their lives in freedom.