Before Insecure star Jay Ellis would secure a leading role opposite Issa Rae in the hit HBO dramedy, he featured in a Ghanaian film about a traditional Ewe custom known as trokosi.
In Like Cotton Twines, Ellis plays an American teacher in a remote village in south-eastern Ghana. He takes a special interest in one of his promising students after he learned that the 14-year-old girl would have to leave school and go serve at the shrine of the local deity.
This development had been occasioned by the teenager’s father’s iniquities. He cannot atone for them so his daughter has to be one of the many wife-servants to the deity.
However, the deity’s priest, a middle-aged man, would be the physical manifestation as well as spokesperson of the deity. He, too, has urges that the young girls, and some older women, would have to do well to satisfy.
The film brought on screen a very real but also tricky conundrum. Trokosi has been the way of the Ewe people for centuries but in the face of modernization, or rather honestly, westernization, director Leila Djansi, urges abandonment of something African.
This dilemma has been hard to negotiate for the Ewe people who are not only in Ghana but in Togo and Benin too. Although the Ewe themselves had been an organized ethnic group in West Africa before European colonization, one of the earliest documented records known to us on the history of trokosi is from 1920.
W. Price Jones, the district commissioner of the Eastern province in the Gold Coast (pre-independence name of Ghana), described the practice in an investigation as “a pernicious habit of handing girls over to the fetish.” Jones had been looking into a report of the enslavement of young girls in a small village east of the Volta river.
But the colonial government, surprisingly did not pay much attention to shutting down shrines that had been keeping girls during the time. This was contrary to much of what the British did in other parts of the Gold Coast where the emphasis on Christianization was seen as one of the goals of colonial governance.
Turning a blind eye to fighting trokosi a century ago was probably borne out of the consideration that, that part of the colony did not hold much commercial promise for the Crown.
Etymologically, trokosi means a “female servant of the god”. The servant has to be a virgin female, preferably young so she can live long enough to serve off the punishment of the misbehavior of a relative, usually, a male.
Interestingly, there is no statute of limitation in the traditional Ewe justice system. This means that a 10-year-old girl could be forced into servitude for the crime of a great-grandfather she does not even know. Other times, a young girl may be committed as a trokosi to a shrine as a symbol of the family’s gratitude to the deity of the shrine.
For as long as the priest of the deity would allow, women serving under trokosi would be housed at the shrine. They cook, clean, and even bear children fathered by the priest. They work on farmlands and other economic ventures that the priest may be involved with.
The women are known to forge new families among themselves, giving each other the companionship they need to survive. Some never see their actual family homes ever again.
Governments in the three West African countries where trokosi is still practised have tried different means of rescuing the young women, from negotiations with local religious leaders to the threat of force carried by the state.
The child abuse element is often a strong motivation for governmental anti-trokosi crusades and that is why trokosi is outlawed in Ghana, for instance. But there is also the lingering fear of antagonizing a voting bloc or thousands of one’s own citizens.
Tensions that have cultural and ethnic undertones easily blow into deadly conflicts in a sub-region where countries are still working out their senses of nationhood.
Those who are proponents of the custom have argued on the bases of religious and cultural freedom. But as time has passed, child rights activism seems to have shamed many of them into hiding.