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Thursday, 8 February, 2001, 12:27 GMT
Ghana's trapped slaves
Togbe Adzimashi Adukpo
Togbe Adzimashi Adukpo is a priest - he is also a slave master
By Humphrey Hawksley in eastern Ghana

The woman let her bright green cloth slip down to reveal her breasts. But she did not care.

The African heat seeped through a hazy sky, drying up everything around and sapping strength.

The girls are my slaves - they are the property of my shrine"

Togbe Adzimashi Adukpo
She hauled up a bucket from a well, spilling water on the dirt ground, then rested by burying her head in her hands. Her rounded, scarred shoulders showed years of hard labour.

When she looked up, her eyes were completely blank as if no longer able to reflect pain, happiness, or any of those basic human emotions.

Hutealor Wede does not know how old she is, nor can she remember how long she has been in the village of Fiato Avendrpedo in eastern Ghana. All she knows is that she is a slave and likely to die there.

"My grandfather had illegal sex with a woman," she says, expressionless. "The gods punished our family.

"I was the virgin daughter, so I was brought to this village and given to the priest to stop the disasters happening.

"I have to do everything for the priest. Anything he wants."

Law ignored

Hutealor Wede is a victim of Trokosi, which from the local dialect literally means slavery to the gods.

It is part of a traditional religion where the priest mediates between the people and the gods - and of course interprets what they want. Three years ago a law was passed specifically to ban it, with a minimum punishment of three years in jail.

Agbogbe Hodui
Agbogbe Hodui: Faces daily humiliation
But no woman has been freed because of it and no-one has been arrested.

Human rights groups are now meeting in Accra to try to put pressure on the government to stamp it out. The new president, John Kufuor, has pledged to implement the law in full.

"Young girls should be in educational establishments not in the harem of some fetish priest," he told the BBC.

At the moment though, Trokosi is a crime being carried out openly.

It took us three hours to drive to Fiato Avendrpedo from Accra and a bottle of gin to get in.

The village's septuagenarian priest was a thin, bearded little man, called Togbe Adzimashi Adukpo. He was the slave master. His throne was a deck chair and before he talked to us, gin was poured into a thimble-sized glass which he drank from alone.

More was mixed with a misty liquid in a coconut shell and splashed on the sand. He sipped from it, wiped his lips with the back of his hand and declared he was ready to be interviewed.

From then on, she is a slave. She is raped frequently

"Yes, the girls are my slaves," he said. "They are the property of my shrine."

He pointed behind him to a long, mud hut where the worship took place.

"They are brought here as virgins to be married to the gods," he said. "So if a man from the village wants one for himself, I have the power to give her to him."

Trokosi is an eternal penance. When one woman dies, her family has to bring a new girl to the priest, who is then initiated with the Trokosi ritual. Some are younger than 10-years-old.

The girl kneels in the shrine in front of him and the village elders, all men. Then, while chanting, they strip her of her bracelets, her earrings and all her clothes until she is bowed and humiliated in front of them.

From then on, she is a slave. She is raped frequently.

If she escapes and is caught, she is beaten. If she gets away to her superstitious family, they just send her back.

Long way to go

Villages in this part of Ghana are divided into the liberated and un-liberated. The human rights group International Needs has had some success in raising money to buy women their freedom. The going rate is gentle persuasion and about $58 a head.

Togbe Adome Ahiave, the priest in one nearby liberated village saw himself as a modern man, mixing with human rights activists and claiming his own role was that of a monogamous village leader.

"We used to have 15 slave girls here, but we were told it was against human rights, so we let them go," he said. "Life's a lot tougher now, we need more people to work the land.

"Perhaps you can give us a tractor. That would help."

There are about 3,000 women known to still be in slavery in Ghana. At the present rate it would take years to get them all freed.

And there is also political and religious opposition - a strong lobby within the Ghanaian establishment, which says the campaign against Trokosi is a campaign against African culture.

Its leader is His Holiness Osofu Kofi Ameve, the head of the African Renaissance Mission, who invited me to the shell of his half-built headquarters. It will be the size of a hotel when it is finished, indicating there is plenty of money around.

"It's all lies," he bellowed when I asked him. "I tell you it's lies.

"No woman is in slavery in Ghana.

"Christianity, your Christianity allows for no another religion. You want to eradicate all African religion."

But back at the Fiato Avendrpedo, after fetching water from the well, Hutealor Wede and another, younger slave, were summoned to the shrine.

Surrounded by animal bones, a skull soaked in red dye, and strings of beads, they knelt forward, their hands on the earth, palms up, finger curled and heads touching the ground.

The priest rang a bell and chanted.

Day after day, week after week, year after year, they have to undergo the same degradation.

Never do they expect the police to arrive to free them.

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See also:

06 Aug 99 | Africa
West Africa's child slave trade
31 May 00 | Africa
Slavery investigation wins award
07 Jan 01 | Africa
Ghana marks start of 'new era'
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