Regular readers of my blog will know that I take more than a passing academic interest in sexual fetishes. It was during one of my random Google fetish searches that I came across ‘fetish shrines’. I have to admit that I didn’t have a clue what a ‘fetish shrine’ was or what was involved so I started to do a little research into the topic and became horrified about what I read.
In short, I learned that a few counties in the world have fetish shrines as part of their religious culture, and that they are connected with a particular type of slavery known as “trokosi” (where young women are coerced to become “slaves or wives of the gods”). Because the gods of African religions are normally referred to as fetishes, the victims are usually referred to as fetish slaves, and the priests who serve the gods are referred to as fetish priests.
More specifically, trokosi is a type of ‘ritual servitude’ that is based on both patriarchal superstition and religious tradition. As far as I can tell, only four countries in the world still adhere to trokosi practices – Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Ghana. According to Siman Abaxer in his publication Trokosi Situation on the Ground in Volta Region, the practice is not universal across these four countries but regional. Of these, it is Ghana that appears to have trokosi most embedded within its religious culture and/or is most written about. Despite being outlawed in Ghana since 1998, and with a minimum prison sentence of three years for those convicted of engaging in the practice, trokosi is still relatively widespread (although to date, no-one appears to have been prosecuted for such offences). The practice is very much connected to criminal wrongdoing and acts as a vehicle for religious atonement (a ‘living sacrifice’). When someone commits a crime (however, trivial), the family of the person committing the crime has to offer up a virginal daughter (usually aged between eight and fifteen years old) to the local fetish shrine where she becomes a sex slave to the local priest(s).
The priest has complete ownership of the girl and controls all actions and interactions in their life. The priest is allowed to (ab)use the girl in any way they deem fit which includes sex on demand. Such girls are kept in brutal conditions and used for both cheap labour and sexual gratification. Whether the girls receive food, education and access to health services is completely at the mercy of the priest, and there is no remuneration for any of the services provided by the girls. Those given up as slaves will usually be under the priest’s control for about ten years but can be more depending upon the nature and the severity of the crime committed by the girl’s relative. If the slave girl dies while under the priest’s control, the family have to pay up a large sum of money or (more usually) give up another of their daughters to the priest.
According to Sarah Aird, a staff writer for the Human Rights Brief, there are approximately 5,000 trokosi slaves within Ghana, and as many as 35,000 worldwide. (I tracked down the original source for these figures and they are from 1998 article by Amy Bilyeu in the Indiana International and Comparative Law Review). Aird also claimed that many Ghana families are so dedicated to the trokosi practice that they have sacrificed up to five generations of daughters to the fetish priests. She also reports that:
“The trokosi custom is part of a traditional fetish belief system, according to which gods or spirits reside in various ritual objects and shrine priests. Within Ghana, trokosi slavery endures primarily among the Ewe ethnic group, albeit in altered form since its 17th century origins. Trokosi slavery originated in Togo and Benin as a war ritual in the 1600s. Before entering combat, warriors would visit religious shrines where they offered women to the war gods in exchange for victory and a safe homecoming. Today, many Ghanaians revere priests of trokosi shrines, because they believe these priests communicate directly with the war gods and are particularly influential in the spirit world, even capable of determining life and death”.
As noted in the quote above, in Ghana (as in Togo), trokosi is practiced by the Ewe tribe, and in Benin and Nigeria it is practiced by the Fon people. It is also known by other names and variations including ‘fiashidi’ (Ghana), ‘woryokwe’ (Ghana), voodoosi (Togo and Benin), and vudusi. (Togo and Benin). According to the online Trokosi Dictionary, the word trokosi comes from the Ewe words ‘tro’ (i.e., deity or fetish) and ‘kosi’ (i.e., female slave).
Professor Sandra Greene in her 1996 book Gender, Ethnicity and Social Change on the Upper Slave Coast noted that in Ghana, trokosi dates back to at least the late 18th century (although as the quote above notes, it may date back even further). In a Wikipedia article on ritual servitude, it notes that in relation to trokosi, the fetish priest’s genitals are dedicated to the gods of the fetish shrine, therefore enslaved girls having sex with the priest is considered a sacred act (and in essence having sex with the gods). Many trokosi and vudusi have described beatings and other severe punishments imposed on them for refusing sex with the priest. In Ghana, it is claimed that fetish shrine slaves have an average of four children while in servitude. The fathers may not just be the priest, but may also be the elders of the shrines. In relation to the children born during servitude, Sarah Aird also wrote that:
“Any children born to trokosi slaves are also slaves of the priest and are known as trokosiviwo. When the priest dies, the priest next in line inherits his trokosi slaves and trokosiviwo children, so trokosi becomes a tradition in perpetuity. Only priests and shrine owners may release a trokosi slave from the shrine, with shrine owners maintaining the ultimate power to affect such releases…Fetish priests who favor trokosi slavery view the practice as an effective means to keep people from breaking community norms. They perceive trokosi slaves as links between the gods and the family, reminding family members to lead moral lives”.
In defence of their actions, the fetish priests claim that the practice deters community crime, and that the enslaved girls constitute role models, and save their family from punishment. However, as Mark Wisdom (Executive Director of Fetish Slaves Liberation Movement) noted:
“If it is intended to serve as a check to crime, then we can say that it is not effective because it has existed since time immemorial but people continue to commit crimes”.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Abaxer, S. (2007). Trokosi Situation on the Ground in Volta Region. ECM Africa Publications.
Bilyeu, A.S. (1998). Trokosi – The Practice of Sexual Slavery in Ghana: Religious and Cultural Freedom vs. Human Rights. Indiana International & Comparative Law Review, 9.
Aird, S.C. (undated). Ghana’s slave to the gods. Located at: http://www.wcl.american.edu/hrbrief/v7i1/ghana.htm
Bilyeu, A.S. (1998). Trokosi – The Practice of Sexual Slavery in Ghana: Religious and Cultural Freedom vs. Human Rights. Indiana International and Comparative Law Review, 9.
Hawksley, H. (2001). Ghana’s trapped slaves. BBC News, February 21. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/1158115.stm
Greene, S.E. (1996). Gender, Ethnicity and Social Change on the Upper Slave Coast: A History of the Anlo-Ewe. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Petraitis, R. (2000). Ju-Ju’s fetish slaves. The Reall (Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land) News, 8(9), 1-2.
Wikipedia (2012). Ritual servitude. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritual_servitude