Imagine someone in your family committed a horrible crime. Perhaps your uncle committed adultery or your father murdered a man and buried his body in a shallow grave. Such crimes cannot go disregarded or unpunished. Society would descend into anarchy and chaos would govern. The right course of action would be to make sure that the culprits atone for their crimes. This would satisfy the principle of atonement and save your family’s name from tarnish.
Now imagine that instead of the offender being sentenced and sent behind bars, you – a young girl – are abducted by members of your own family and imprisoned in a shrine in their stead. This is the basis behind the practice known as Trokosi: a religious custom that still exists in communities all over West Africa.
Trokosi was a hot button issue that dominated conversation on Ghanaian social and traditional media for a time before like all controversial topics it fizzled, lost steam as people put their interest in the topic in the same place where that of witch camps is stored. With so many woes plaguing the planet, the idea that the country should come to a standstill for the sake of a few thousand girls was not only ridiculous, but impractical. Even though Ghana markets itself as a Christian nation (it isn’t), many people still practice traditional forms of worship, visiting juju priests and priestesses for counsel and resolution of their myriad woes. Marital problems, infertility, failing businesses, the destruction of an enemy…there is no one or small reason to seek the direction of the gods in a shrine. Sometimes, a small sacrifice of money or farm produce is enough to cover the requisites of one’s request. Sometimes the penalty is much higher: A life for a life. And because Ghana is still a nation that places the burden of virtue, recompense and reconciliation on the shoulders and/or between the legs of women and girls – some as young as 9, practices like Trokosi still endure.
Leila Djansi is a Ghanaian-American writer and filmmaker who tackled this subject in her movie Like Cotton Twines (available on Netflix) in 2016 through a protagonist named Tuigi. The movie stars Jay Ellis who plays Micah, an American teacher on assignment to teach English in Ghana’s Volta region. He co-stars with Yvonne Okoro of Adams Apples fame. I have to admit to my utter shame that I only discovered this movie after Leila called out the Ghanaian public’s culture of disenchantment when it comes to supporting the creative arts.
Her rebuke stemmed from being tagged by individuals who called on her and other Ghanaian filmmakers to be “serious” and to look to Nigerians like Genevieve Nnaji who (and congratulations to her) just got inked a Netflix distribution for her movie Lion Heart. Leila’s exasperation is more than justified, particularly when she puts so much effort into creating awareness around her movies and we (I’m including myself here) fail to reciprocate by keeping that chain going. Promoting homegrown is something Nigerians have perfected, whereas we haven’t even shown up to the race.
Like Cotton Twines has been met with critical acclaim for its potent story-line as well as its storytelling. Leila’s biggest strength – in my opinion – is her ability to conjure and make manifest the worst sort of villains. They are frightening because they are familiar. They are your co-worker, your stepfather, your spiritual leader…sometimes you yourself. It took me many years to look at Leon with anything other than abhorrence after I saw him in Leila’s film Where Children Play. I haven’t despised a man as much since Laurence Fishburne’s role as Ike Turner. It’s easy to hate men like the fictional David McCain or the real-life Ike Turner. These men are veritable monsters. Not so easy is how to reconcile one’s feelings for Father Baani (David Dontoh), the cowardly minister who hides behind his collar, church protocol and his own intellectual sloth in his refusal to confront, let alone intervene to save the lives of young students under his charge. His excuses for his own inaction are the ones we use to justify our own apathy.
This is tradition. It’s the way it’s always been done.
This is what parents have chosen for their family. Who are we to interfere?
I don’t want to bring any matta to my own household ooo. I am a good Christian/Muslim/religious person and meddling might bring curses on me.
It makes you sick when you think about how alike we all are to the chicken-hearted and apathetic Father Baani. The magnitude of the problem is too great. Like the Catholic Church, traditional religions have a strong roothold on the hearts of the people who adhere to its principles. The bodies of children bear the infliction of the men who wield unimaginable power.
Sure, we can pat ourselves on the back, declare that things are better for women – and in many ways they are – but that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. When we fight for and achieve a society that’s truly equal and fair for all, then we can set ourselves on a path to restoration the best parts of our humanity. Not morality: humanity. A great place to start is with accountability.
Even though the plot of Like Cotton Twines centers around the religious sacrifice of female youth and innocence to cover the sins of those entrusted to protect them, it also extends to the way our institutions require the same. Any time we punish seventh graders for short hemlines because it was “distract boys from their studies”, or shame mothers for breastfeeding squalling newborns on buses, or join in the harassment of female passengers who object to invasive searches by aggressive airport workers, we are no better than the father/mother who sells their daughter to become a wife of the gods. And worse, both are cyclical.
Still, I am encouraged. This story needed to be told in this way and in this time; a time when there is a dynamic shift in the thinking of the population. Like The Color Purple was to my generation, this movie is a stitch in time. It will break your heart, but it will ultimately free your mind. Growing numbers of people are beginning to openly and fearlessly question religious despotism. Like Tuigi, they are interrogating ancient superstitions. Blind fealty is no longer guaranteed and this is a good and necessary thing.
To learn more about trokosi and one woman’s escape from bondage, check out the BBC Documentary ‘My Stolen Childhood’.