Trokosi and the Malevolent Stereotyping of Ewes

Mon, 22 Oct 2007 Source: Pryce, Daniel K.


I wish to state unequivocally that the information contained in this article has the capacity to provoke an incendiary “analysis” ? although I hope for a sagacious debate instead ? among readers on both sides of the deliberation; but I feel strongly that now is the time to take on this behemoth of an issue, before it becomes an even larger problem for our Ghanaian society, a society that has been on the right path since 1992, when a noble decision was actualized, by transitioning from mordant military rule to multiparty democracy.

The Influence of Trokosi

As an Ewe, I categorically deplore the practice of Trokosi, a system that physically and sexually enslaves very young girls and forces them to serve in shrines under the guise of “mollifying” some god(s) for the sins of the progenitors of these slaves. Trokosi is commonly found among the Ewes of Tongu and Anlo of Volta Region and the Dangmes of the Greater Accra Region. While this nagging practice has existed for centuries, not only in Ghana but also in some neighboring African countries, it is only in the last three decades that the world has received greater awareness of the problem, due to the concerted efforts of individuals, religious organizations and NGOs to expose the perpetrators and force the hand of government to enact legislation to outlaw the practice. And while there is now legislation in place banning all forms of forced labor in Ghana, punishing Trokosi practitioners and devotees for their deeds has not been an easy task.

As a matter of fact, in June 1998, the Ghanaian Parliament passed and President Rawlings “signed legislation to ban the practice of trokosi in comprehensive legislation to protect women’s and children’s rights” (U.S. Dept. of State’s Annual Report on Religious Freedom in Ghana, 1999). According to the aforesaid 1999 report, the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) and several NGOs successfully negotiated the release of over 1,000 girls and women from these shrines that same year; many of these former slaves were then given some form of training to make them employable.

Cultural Relativism

According to Abercrombie et al (1984), cultural relativism is the window through which the practices of a society can be expatiated by means of the viewpoints of members of that society. Bayefsky (1996) also argues that cultural relativism promotes the uniqueness of each culture, and what may constitute an unacceptable behavior to outsiders, may well be within the confines of what is acceptable to those within a particular group.

Dr. Anthony Owusu-Ansah, a professor at Lindsey-Wilson College in Kentucky, U.S.A., while discussing the viewpoints of the adherents of Trokosi in a 2003 report, points out the dangers inherent in an absolutist position on culture in this statement: “As groups and concerned individuals embark on crusades to free these poor girls from this form of slavery, they should understand the enormity of the task ahead. Priests in the shrines will always believe and stay with the thinking that the girls and women are not slaves but priestesses. They believe that their traditions and culture of their land cannot be wished away by some foreign views about human rights.”

Dr. Owusu-Ansah, in his explanation of cultural absolutism, does not, in any shape or form, endorse the practice of Trokosi, but only attempts to explain the monumental tasks facing others if they are to successfully persuade Trokosi adherents to jettison their reprehensible practices. In fact, Dr. Owusu-Ansah elucidates further that “a positive development of rural [Ghana] will suffer if [Trokosi] women are deprived of education, quality heath care, the chance to choose their life partners and more importantly, to live decent ordinary lives.”

The Present Position of the U.S. Government

In its 2007 report on religious freedom in Ghana, the U.S. Dept. of State has this to say: “Practitioners of certain indigenous religious customs also faced discrimination. Trokosi, a religious practice indigenous to the southern Volta region, involves pledging family members, most commonly female teenagers but sometimes children under the age of 10, to extended service at a shrine to atone for another family member’s sins. Trokosis (the pledged family members) help with the upkeep of these shrines and pour libations during prayers for extended periods of service, lasting from a few months to three years. Labor and human rights activists have decried the practice but also indicated that the number of Trokosis was declining considerably, with perhaps no more than 50 children serving at Trokosi shrines throughout the Volta Region.”

Since the U.S. Government does not habitually bootlick foreign governments ? poor countries like Ghana are the ones always with a cup in hand begging for “crumbs!” ? it is clear from this recent Dept. of State report that the combined efforts of CHRAJ, individuals and NGOs have been yielding positive results, one freed slave at a time!

The Position of the Ghana Government

The Criminal Amendment Code of 1998 makes it a criminal offence to subject any person in Ghana to ritualized forced labor, Trokosi being a good example. With the difficult cultural and ethical issues involved, President Rawlings, while in office, not unexpectedly, did not send police officers to these shrines to arrest the practitioners of Trokosi, and for good reason: Eliminating Trokosi by means of brute force is not the solution to the problem.

Similarly, President Kuffuor, while declaring in 2001 that “girls should go to school, not to a shrine,” an obvious reference to the Trokosi system of belief, has also wisely not caused the arrest of any Trokosi adherents, in order to avoid negative publicity and furor over the matter, preferring to, perhaps, give religious organizations, NGOs, concerned individuals, and CHRAJ the opportunity to continue to educate these Trokosi priests on the horrors of their actions. The latest U.S. State Dept. report, perhaps, is a testament to the fact that efforts to both educate the offenders and liberate the victims of Trokosi have continued to be very successful!

Foreign Cultural Practices

In a recent online discussion, Tara Foley, a U.S. Foreign Affairs Officer stationed in Saudi Arabia, bemoans the restrictions Saudi women face in many areas of their lives. As some of you already know, women are not allowed to drive in the Kingdom; are required to wear an abaya (a long black robe covering the entire body) and a headscarf when away from home (foreigners are exempt from the headscarf rule); and are generally not expected to shake hands with men. Additionally, the Kingdom refuses to allow the establishment of churches, fearing the proselytizing of Moslems. Sadly, the few underground churches in the Kingdom cannot count on the U.S. Government to pressure the Kingdom to reform its religious laws! My position here is that culture can be a thorny subject, and what is acceptable to some, may be obnoxious to others. And although I am of the firm belief that Trokosi is wrong, eliminating the practice successfully can only be done through education and not brute force.

Tribal Stereotyping

Tribal conflicts are nothing new on the African continent, with the wars in Burundi and Rwanda serving as examples of what can go wrong when tribal dichotomies are trivialized, rather than dealt with through dialogue, especially when, in the same nation, one tribe claims to be superior to the other tribes. In the case of Ghana, there is evidence to suggest that some harmless stereotypes are associated with all tribal and ethnic groups, but calling all Ewes Trokosi practitioners and cat eaters is extremely offensive and detracts from our sensibilities as Ghanaians. After all, the number of Trokosi adherents, when matched against the rest of the Ewe population in Ghana, is statistically insignificant. I am therefore urging decent Ghanaians everywhere to never use, or to stop using if they are already doing so, inflammatory language ? both verbally and in print ? that has the capacity to permanently scar their fellow citizens.

For many Ghanaians living overseas, especially in Europe and North America, it is likely they have been victims of racism at one time or another ? whether they hold doctoral degrees or sweep the floors at local Wal-Mart stores. If racism stirs angry emotions in Ghanaians in foreign lands, why should tribal and ethnic jabs not be construed as producing the same effect? Uniting around the commonalities that bind us together as Ghanaians will serve a better purpose than throwing decorum out the window and resorting to brazen name-calling that will only impede our efforts at nation-building.

The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, in addition to two undergraduate degrees, holds a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University, U.S.A. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at dpryce@gmu.edu.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Pryce, Daniel K.