Traditional Religion, Social Structure, and Children’s Rights in Ghana: The Making of a Trokosi Child

Deborah J. Johnson, DeBrenna LaFa Agbényiga and Robert K. Hitchcock (eds.)Vulnerable Children2013Global Challenges in Education, Health, Well-Being, and Child Rights10.1007/978-1-4614-6780-9_16© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

16. Traditional Religion, Social Structure, and Children’s Rights in Ghana: The Making of a Trokosi Child

Robert Kwame Ame 

Tshepo Institute for the Study of Contemporary Africa, Wilfrid Laurier University, Grand River Hall Room 127, 73 George Street, Brantford, ON, Canada, N3T 2Y3



Robert Kwame Ame


The troxovi system lies at the interface of traditional religion, social structure, and social/crime control; hence, one cannot fully understand the system without also understanding these factors. Trokosis children, mostly female virgins, are made to atone for the crimes of family members. The human rights violations of this practice are numerous and include violation of both national and international legal instruments such as the Ghanaian Criminal Code, the Children’s Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 19(2), 51–72, 2004; Pan-African Issues in Crime and Justice, pp. 23–39, 2004; Indiana International and Comparative Law Review, 9(2), 457–504, 1999). The primary objective of this chapter is to show how Ewe traditional religion and social structure produced and sustained the troxovi system for more than 300 years. It is hoped that in doing this, both children’s rights scholars and practitioners occupied with addressing the “trokosi problem” (Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 19(2), 51–72, 2004) would have a better understanding of the complexities of the problem they are dealing with. Another benefit of this work is to help refocus attention on transforming the practice rather than the current focus on demonizing Ewes, which could be counterproductive.

The trokosi system lies at the interface of traditional religion, social structure, and social/crime control; hence, one cannot fully understand the system without also understanding these factors. While the human rights violations inherent in this practice are numerous and include violation of both national and international legal instruments such as the Ghanaian Criminal Code (Act 29), the Children’s Act (Act 560), the African Charter on the Welfare and Rights of the Child, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Ababio, 1995; Ameh, 1998, 2004a, 2004b; Bilyeu, 1999; Short, 1995, 1997, 2001), the primary focus of this chapter is not the violations per se but a demonstration of how Ewe traditional religion and social structure produced and sustained the trokosi system for more than 300 years. It is hoped that in doing this, both children’s rights scholars and practitioners occupied with addressing the trokosi problem will have a better understanding of the complexities of the problem they are dealing with.

Another benefit of such understanding is to help refocus attention on transforming the practice rather than the current focus on demonizing Ewes in popular media (, which could be counterproductive. As Sandra Greene (1996) has rightly argued, discussions of gender relations must move beyond, “The simplistic, analytic categories of oppression and agency” (p. 182). Writing about gender relations among the Anlo-Ewe, she posited that it is important to determine why individual Africans and social groups made particular choices and when they did. To that end, she situated her own studies within the demographic, political, social, economic, and religious factors that impinge upon the people. A benefit of this approach, she pointed out, is “it avoids demonizing the individuals and groups who marginalized members of their own families on the basis of gender” (p. 181). “Only then,” she added, “can we begin to understand why gender relations in any given society changed in particular ways” (p. 182). Similarly, this chapter argues that the method suggested by Greene is a more productive approach to resolving the trokosi problem than the simplistic approach of demonizing Ewes.

In this vein, while grappling with the trokosi problem, it is important to seek to understand some of the factors that made Ewes create and maintain a system that looks abhorrent, oppressive, and horrendous today. What would prompt presumably loving parents to surrender and send their child to a lifetime of bondage? Were the Ewes wicked, barbarous, and pedophiles as some within the trokosi debate have sought to make them appear (discussed later in this chapter)? An understanding of Ewe social structure, the concept of “collective responsibility” and its implications for individual choice and action among Ewes (Nukunya, 1969, 1997b) would help address some of these questions. Understanding the traditional religious and crime control systems would provide further insight into these cultural systems. In particular, understanding the Ewe concepts of “sin,” “crime,” “forgiveness,” “sacrifice,” and “punishment” and the institution of troxovi as analyzed by anthropologists, criminologists, and sociologists such as Abotchie (1997), Gaba (1997), and Nukunya (1969, 1997b) will shed light on the questions raised.

This chapter argues that while the trokosi system developed out of “a coherent system with its own values, beliefs, and ritual conduct” (Diouf 1985), that does not justify its existence in Ghana today, especially when viewed through the lens of international human rights. A religious and social control system that makes slaves of innocent children for life is indefensible in Ghana and anywhere else today. The sociopolitical situation in present-day Ghana is significantly different from that of 300 years ago when the system was developed; hence, there is a need to adapt the institution and practice accordingly. Apart from its own national legislation, Ghana is signatory to several regional and international legal agreements, by which it is bound to comply as a member of the international community. Understanding the sociocultural factors that created the system should only hasten the transformation of the trokosi and troxovi systems.

The Trokosi System

The trokosi system is a practice whereby a child who is a virgin, preferably a female, is selected by her family to serve time in a shrine in reparation for crimes committed by a member of her family, often a male. The child becomes known as a trokosi, an Ewe word variously translated as “wife of the gods,” “slave of the gods,” and “a person consecrated to the gods.” The plural form of the word is trokosio or trokosis. The practice is found among the Dangme, the Fon-speaking, and Ewe ethnic groups in West Africa, with the Ewes being the main practitioners. The Dangme word for trokosi is woryokwe. While the length of service varies from one shrine to the other, in theory, it does not exceed 3 years. In practice, however, it becomes a lifetime of service because, once sent to the shrines, the families are reluctant to take back their children mainly because of the stigma attached to trokosis. Hence, trokosis as old as 65 years have been encountered at trokosi shrines.

The system is set in motion when a crime occurs, and the offender is not known. In line with the Ewe virtue of seeking the truth in all circumstances, as will be discussed below, the victim seeks the assistance of a shrine1 to find the offender. Once the shrine finds the offender, they strike by causing sudden and unnatural deaths, mysterious diseases, serious accidents, and tragedies in the family of the offender but make sure they spare the life of the culprit to live to confess his crime. Following the same practice of seeking the truth, the offender’s family, in turn, seeks the cause of the deaths, diseases, accidents, and tragedies from a shrine. They are then told about the offense, the identity of the offender, and the solution, which often translates into a sacrifice to the gods. If the particular shrine accepts human beings as objects for sacrifice (as indicated in the section below on traditional religion), then the offender’s family would send a child, usually a female virgin, to serve in the shrine in atonement for the crime.

Trokosis perform several functions at the shrines, including house chores, auxiliary functions during religious rites, and lending free labor to the economic activities of the shrine priests and owners. In some practicing communities, the priest must be the first to have sexual intercourse with them, which often takes place just after a girl’s menarche. The vast majority do not go to school. The negative label attached to trokosis is a product of several factors. For one, how the shrines operate is shrouded in mystery, instilling much fear in the people. So community members would rather stay clear of anything that has to do with the shrine, including trokosis. Second, trokosi girls are feared in the community because it is forbidden to have sexual relations with them. The family of anyone who has sexual relations with them must, as punishment, also provide a girl to serve in the shrine. This reinforces the negative perception community members have of trokosis to the extent that even those who are fortunate to be redeemed must often move away to other parts of the country in order to find partners for marriage.

It is important to make a distinction between trokosis, known in the trokosi system as “wives of the gods” and by some opponents in this controversy as “slaves of the gods” and related practices such as fiashidis and dorflevis. Fiashidis 2 are initiates of the Nyigbla and Yewe religious order, who are either given by their families, inducted by the deities, or voluntarily choose to serve in the shrines. They are exclusively perceived as the “wives of the gods” and, consequently, are treated with respect by all in the community, including the priests. It is deemed an offense to the gods if their husbands maltreat them. They own property and are not considered poor by community standards. Fiashidis who serve at the insistence of their families do so as compensation for services rendered by the gods to the families in their times of difficulty (Greene, 1996, pp. 87–88). Many girls and women on their own accord opted to serve as fiashidis because of the benefits that accrued from doing so. Greene explains that association with one of the most powerful gods in Anlo, Nyigbla, (1) granted the women prestige, (2) gave their families the opportunity to establish close ties with the most powerful political and religious families or clans, and (3) provided them with an expanded set of contacts that could be of potential social and economic benefit (pp. 89–91).3 For most fiashidi women at the time, it was the only opportunity to associate directly with the political and religious elite of Anlo society, leading to respect from their own husbands and the rest of the community. It is no wonder that some young women were actively encouraged by their mothers to become fiashidis. Even for the Anlo state as a whole, the practice of fiashidi was seen as bringing unity to the whole polity as the state deity, Nyigbla, recruited initiates from every clan in the state. Nukunya and Kwafo (1998, p. 38) have also noted that because most fiashidis live with their parents and not in the shrine and are only summoned to the shrine on festive and special occasions, the harsh treatment meted out to trokosis in Tongu shrines is absent in the shrines in Anlo.

A subcategory of fiashidi practice is when a barren woman solicits the help of a god to reverse her infertility.4 According to Dovlo and Adzoyi (1995), this act is known as dorfefle (womb purchasing) and the offspring are known as dorfleviwo or dorflevis (children of womb purchasing). The first product of dorfefle if male is called Klu and if female is called Kosi. Dovlo and Adzoyi point out that these names denote indebtedness to the gods since in the Ewe language, the name Klu or Kluvi means slave.

Ewe Social Structure and Rights

The Southern Ewe are comprised of a group of autonomous Ewe states whose people migrated from Ketu in the modern Republic of Benin and stopped over in Notsie in the present Republic of Togo before settling down in the southeastern corner of contemporary Ghana (Amenumey, 1986; Asamoa, 1986). The eminent Ewe historian, Professor Amenumey (1997) dismissed claims of migration from “Babel” of the Bible—Mesopotamia and Egypt—on the basis of lack of scientific evidence. This invalidated the claims of trokosi proponents such as Dartey-Kumordzie5 and Robert Barker (2007a, 2007b; 2011a, 2011b)6 who argue that Ewes are Israelites and that trokosi practice identifies them as one of the lost tribes of the kingdom of ancient Israel. They occupy the southern part of the Volta Region and are spread across five administrative districts—Keta, Ketu, Avenor, and South and North Tongu—within the local government organizational structure in Ghana. The most dominant states among the Southern Ewe are the Anlo, the largest polity among the Ewes, and the 13 states that constitute Tongu (Nukunya, 1997a). Though autonomous, the southern Ewe states, like all the Ewe states in Ghana, are known for their unity as one people. The basis of this unity is founded on a common history of migration from Ketu, language (though with dialectical variations), and shared social, political, and religious values and institutions (Nukunya, 1997a).

Patrilineal descent is the main principle around which southern Ewe social organization revolves (Nukunya, 1997b). Families are built around a group of people who can trace common descent to a known male ancestor (Nukunya, 1969). To the southern Ewe, family is not, however, limited to a nuclear family of father, mother, and children. In fact, the mother is not a member of her nuclear family as she rather belongs to the family of her father. The family of prime importance to the southern Ewe is the extended family of people, male and female, who trace their descent through the male line. The extended family is important because a group of extended families constitutes a lineage or clan, the most important social unit among the Ewes (Amewudah, 1984; Nukunya, 1969, 1997b).

Lineage or clan membership carries with it rights, duties, and obligations. In traditional Eweland, whatever rights an individual was entitled to, and did enjoy, was by virtue of his or her membership of a particular lineage or family. Members were entitled to political, economic, social, and religious rights such as succession, inheritance, help during emergencies, and plots of land for farming or access to creeks for fishing (Nukunya, 1997b). Very few rights, such as the right to life, existed outside clan or lineage. Even then, individuals enjoyed the right to life only within the parameters of the clan’s collective interests. The lineage or clan was thus a corporate unit of great socioeconomic importance to every individual. However, as Nukunya (1969, 1997b) explains, members were also obliged to observe the clan/lineage taboos and norms, rules of exogamy, bear a family name, defend and protect other family members, and offer assistance to other family members in need. Thus, the principle of “collective responsibility” (group rights and duties) was the major notion that informed clan membership and action (Abotchie, 1997; Nukunya, 1969, 1997b). From the foregoing, it is clear that this principle is reciprocal: just as rights accrue to an individual by being a member of a clan, a member could be asked to pay for acts of omission or commission by other members of the clan. For example, the clan must seek vengeance on behalf of a victimized member.

Collective responsibility constitutes a major ground for members to be interested in the conduct and discipline of other members, to ensure they comport themselves in a manner as to bring no disgrace to the name of the clan. In effect, the clan takes precedence over the individual, and group rights surpass individual rights. In this way, it is not difficult to understand how children (trokosis) or any other member of the family could be asked to pay for crimes committed by other members of the family. What is not easily explained is, “Why the preference for female children?” which relates to the wider question generally asked of the victims of most negative traditional practices in Africa, “Why is it always girls and women?” The importance of males in patrilineal systems does not fully explain the choice of females as victims regarding most negative traditional practices considering the prominent status of males in even matrilineal systems where the family is traced through a known female ancestor (e.g., the preeminent significance of mother’s brother and the fact that women are the victims of traditional widowhood rights among the matrilineal Asantes in Ghana). Hence, it is proposed that patriarchy, the system and practice whereby everything male is deemed as more important than anything female, better explains the choice of women to become the victims of controversial traditional practices such as the trokosi system (Ameh, 2004b). Among the Ewes, as will be explained below, the type of sacrifice that produced and maintains the trokosi system is regarded as punishment and making a trokosi sacrifice connotes losing a family member, since it ends up becoming servitude for life. If sacrifice entails “losing” a family member, it is better to lose the least important than the most important members.

Religion Among the Ewes

One cannot completely understand the practice of trokosi without also comprehending the religious worldview and practices of the southern Ewe. The Ewes perceive the world as consisting of the living and the dead, of the natural, and of the supernatural. As Abotchie (1997) points out, however, they believe that the beings of the supernatural world hold the key to life and death, to justice and fairness among human beings. Staying in harmony with the supernatural beings, i.e., strict observance of the moral codes presided over by the supernatural beings, ensures abundant life, a state of fafa or dagbe, which means “peace” (Gaba, 1997). This state leads to all the good physical and material things of life. Offending the supernatural powers, however, leads to curses and afflictions, which include tragic deaths, accidents, and mysterious diseases. With this cosmology, the Southern Ewe perceives sin, nuvo, like crime, as an act offensive to the gods such that they withhold the good things of life from the individual, offender, and society in general (Abotchie, 1997). In effect, sin or crime is not a state but an act with negative consequences for life (Abotchie, 1997; Gaba, 1997). Considering the negative consequences of sin (crime), the Ewes place a strong value on leading a morally pure life. They question every misfortune, accident, and affliction, such as those that trigger the trokosi system, and believe the truth must be found in every instance. Finding the truth and appeasing the gods restores the state of harmony that ensures peace (fafa), the ultimate stage of the good life. Abotchie (1997) contends that this quest for finding the truth accounts for the abundance of gods (trowo), cults (voduwo), and ancestral spirits (togbenoliwo), which serve as mediums of religious worship and for detecting criminals and discovering the truth, in Eweland.

But sin, or crime, requires atonement in order to restore the state of harmony with the gods so they do not withhold the good physical and material things of life from the people. According to Gaba (1997), “forgiveness,” tsotsoke, is achieved through prayer, gbedododa, which he defines as an intense “petition for evil, pain and suffering to be removed from the human condition and replaced with material prosperity and long life (p. 97).” However, forgiveness is achieved not only through words (prayer) but through action. As Gaba (1997) puts it, forgiveness “is something that must be done rather than asked (prayed for) by the worshipper, who needs to be indispensably assisted by his objects of worship (p. 97).” For the southern Ewe, as Gaba explains, this means prayer must be accompanied by offerings to the gods, which constitutes “sacrifice.” Gaba argues that “sacrifice” constitutes an important aspect of religious worship among Ewes. He identifies several types of sacrifice, drawing particular attention to two major categories. First, dza sacrifice involves giving physical and other material gifts to the gods. The purpose of the offertory may vary from asking for favors, gratitude for a fulfilled need or received favor, or even simply a heartfelt show of appreciation to the gods from a devoted worshipper. According to Gaba, these gestures form part of the everyday worship as thanks offerings.

The second major type of sacrifice of significance to the trokosi system is the nuxe (nuxexe) or vosa (vosasa) sacrifice. Gaba explains these words very well:

Nuxe is a combination of two words, a noun, nu which means a thing and a verb xe which means to pay a debt or to prevent from happening. Similarly in vosa, vo, a noun, means evil and sa, a verb, which means to bind or to pass by or over. Nuxe and vosa, then, convey the same idea and mean the removal of an over-hanging or the stopping of a threatening danger which comes from the sacred. In short, nuxe or vosa sacrifice becomes necessary when the Ewes of southeastern Ghana desire to remove a life-negating manifestation of the sacred from human affairs thereby restoring communion with the object of worship so that the human condition would be full of life-affirming experiences. (1997)

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Feb 14, 2017 | Posted by in PEDIATRICS | Comments Off on Traditional Religion, Social Structure, and Children’s Rights in Ghana: The Making of a Trokosi Child
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