My stolen childhood: understanding the trokosi system – BBC Africa Eye documentary


This is Ghana, West Africa. When I was 7, I was brought to this country
and forced into a system I knew nothing about. This is me.
I was held as a slave in a religious shrine. What crime is this child paying for? Her uncle committed adultery. Thousands of women across West Africa
have lost their freedom because of a practice called trokosi. And it’s still happening. Now I’m on a journey to try and understand
what happened. To find answers to questions
I’ve had on my mind for years. What is trokosi? And why did my family give me away? Hey, this is Brigitte – you’re my uber. My name is Brigitte Sossou Perenyi. I live and work in Accra, the capital of Ghana. It’s the city where I feel most free. But my first memories in this country are among my darkest. I was trafficked here from my home
in neighbouring Togo and held in captivity as part of a practice called trokosi. Trokosi is illegal and it’s not often talked
about in Accra. But to my suprise,
Richard tells me his own grandmother is living as a trokosi. This same system robbed me of my childhood. Twenty years later, I’m on a journey to understand what really happened. I was told I had to leave home. To go and live with my uncle. I was placed on the back of a motorbike. I
didn’t even know the driver. I thought it was the strong wind causing my
tears but I think I was actually crying. Because I was being taken away from my family. And then I was left at a place I had never
been before. I didn’t even understand the language. They took away my clothes and wrapped me in a purple cloth. They even took away my name. How old is this little girl? 7 years old? Do you know why you’re here? No. In 1997, I was filmed by an American news crew at the place I was being held – a shrine
run by a priest dedicated to the worship of deities. I was labelled a trokosi, a wife of the gods,
paying for a crime committed by a family member. Do you miss your parents? Yes. I remember feeling a range of emotions. Neglect, rejection, isolation. Adding to that, the idea of – that could have been life, that
could have been my life, that could have been my life. And that’s why I feel like I don’t
watch it much. But this report changed everything. With the help of a charity called International Needs, an American viewer flew to Ghana to negotiate my release. His name was Kenneth Perenyi, and he would
become my adoptive father. He took me to the US, where
I spent the next 13 years. I was relieved to be out after about a year
in the shrine. But there was a huge emptiness that could
never be filled. I was still thinking about my Togolese family,
my birth family. It was in my heart, in my mind. I never stopped thinking about them. A few years later, my American dad and I agreed I should go and look for them. The charity that freed me, helped me find my village
and filmed my return. My family had no idea I was coming. I didn’t even know if I’d find all of
them alive. I hadn’t seen my mother since I was 7 years
old. I found out I even had a little brother
who I’d never met. That day was so surreal,
almost like a dream. Now that I’m older, I feel ready to explore
the cultural background of trokosi. It’s practiced in parts of Ghana, Togo and
Benin by various ethnic groups, one of which is the Ewe. I’m driving into Ghana’s Volta region,
a lush area of lakes and rivers, where trokosi is most prevalent. So right now we are following Richard whom I met on the first day of the journey. After our chat in the uber taxi, Richard invited
us into his community to speak with a group of Ewe elders. To mark our arrival, they were saying prayers
and pouring libation to their gods. But they believe if you offend the gods,
they can bring misfortune. I would like to know if there has ever been
human sacrifice. He’s talking about trokosi where you’re
banished from the community to pay for the crimes of your family. Another elder tells me that two of her relatives
were sent to the shrine. Given this fear of punishment from the gods,
I can understand why the trokosi practice has survived for over 300 years. But for me, life in the shrine meant no life
at all. Each day, I was woken at 5am and sent to fetch water. I had to carry heavy buckets on my head. It was hard physical work for a child. I was made to sweep the compound and work
long hours on the farm. I wasn’t allowed to play. Or even go to school. I was in total isolation. On the campus of the university of Ghana,
I am meeting up with Dr Robert Ame and Reverend Walter Pimpong. They are both experts on the trokosi practice. They’ve spent their lives raising awareness
of the abuses that go on in the shrines. Sexual servitude was common.
And many women would bear the children of the priests. I was liberated before puberty,
so I didn’t have to go through this. But I wanted to know why someone would serve
time for another person’s crime? Ewes believe that they have a right to select
any member of their family to serve in the shrine whether that person committed a crime or not. By the collective principles, they believe
they are doing the right thing. But it’s one or two men within the family
that get to decide for the family? Because those are their values. We are one. When I left the shrine in 1997, there were about 5,000 trokosi women and children in
Ghana alone. Thousands were liberated and trokosi was made
illegal in 1998. But no priest has ever been prosecuted and
the practice still goes on. I meet back up with Richard the uber driver
whose grandmother is still living as a trokosi. Shortly we’ll be going to see your grandmother.
Could you tell me a bit more about how you feel about her being a trokosi? So does that make you believe? Like me Richard’s grandmother was given
to a shrine to atone for a relative’s sin. Even if you’re from the community, if someone
believes in something for so many years and decades, it’s difficult to go to that person
today and say what you’re doing, your belief systems are wrong, and expect that person
to give up or to change their ways. We drive to the town where Richard’s grandmother
is serving in a shrine. Alugba is one of the few who became a trokosi
after she married and had children. Speaking to her, it seemed she’s happy to
be serving as a trokosi because she believes it protects her family. As night fell, a young trokosi girl wearing
a blue cloth came to speak to me. I felt sad because she misses her mum and
I know how that feels. She came here two years ago, at the age of
12, so she misses her mum and I don’t see how we can justify that. That’s what it is. She misses home and she
wants to go home, she wants to be home. For me, growing up without a mother was devastating. But what kept me going was a few cherished
memories of my early childhood. I remember my mum and dad and four siblings, all girls. I’m the second. I was closer to my dad, I think I was a daddy’s
girl. For dinner he would build this big fire. He would dig the ground around it and roast
corn, peanuts, sweet potatoes and yam. It was so good. It was really good. I remember at night we’d lay under the stars
and the moon. Life was simple. I’m going to visit my family in Ahassome, the village in Togo where I was born. It’s at least a day’s journey from the
Volta region in Ghana. I haven’t been back for a few years. I felt apprehensive. I’ve spent my whole life wondering
why they gave me away. But I’ve never had the courage to ask. This time I feel ready to find out the truth. This is it. This is it, on the right.
It’s right here, on the right. Since I left at the age of seven,
I’ve lost my mother tongue. I’ve visited a handful of times but I have
to use a translator. My younger sister…
…and her baby, my niece. I wanted to speak to my father. All I knew was that one of my uncles had sent
for me. But I’d never known what my father had agreed
to. My uncle’s house was in the capital, Lome,
a long way from my village. To find some answers my father went to a soothsayer. Are you aware, now, where I was taken? No. He took me to Ghana, Volta region of Ghana,
and I was placed in a shrine. He left me. I was supposed to be there for the rest of
my life. You not understanding me, I don’t want to
use the word blame. For many years I was sad because I was not
with my family, but now I’m ready to put that behind me. If I was angry at my family,
if I wanted to blame, I wouldn’t be here. I won’t. Sometimes it’s easier just to carry on with
your life. Accept the way things are. Wanting to discover who you are, when things don’t
make sense, tracing your roots and asking questions, it’s too much, the emotions are
too much and the weight is too much. Right now my head hurts. I have a headache. Last night’s conversations with my dad was really difficult but I needed to know the
truth. I was dwelling on the fact that I couldn’t
communicate with them and that I was taken away and that’s why I can’t speak French,
that’s why I can’t speak Ewe. I was taken away. So I was sort of dwelling on the negative. My parents were lied to. They thought they sent me to live with my
uncle to get a better education. They didn’t choose to send me to the shrine. And that was a huge weight off my mind. From this point forward, we can only build. And the last few days is a start to building that bridge, it is a start to building that
relationship, that connection. I’m back in the Volta region of Ghana, close to the village where I was held captive
in the shrine. Being here is not easy for me
but feeling the love of my family has given me strength to return. There was a young girl that I was doing the
chores with. Her name was Christiana. She’s the only one I remember. We parked up near the shrine.
I was paralyzed with fear. What I remember about this place is pain and
loneliness and sadness and isolation, getting and getting out and walking about
doesn’t feel natural to me. I wanted to see if Christiana was still here. I found her, still living in the town, 20
years after we were both freed. We recognised each other right away. Do you know who I am? Yes. Who am I? Thank God for your life! We haven’t seen
each other in so long. I miss you. Thank you, I missed you too, I’ve always
thought of you. After spending 5 years in the shrine, Christiana
was also freed after appearing in the 1997 news report. She had never seen it before. Are you happy here? Do you want to run away? And why don’t you run away? Where are your parents? They died? When my father died I stopped going to school,
even though I had wanted to become a doctor. I feel very sad because by staying here, I
have lost my chance at an education. Why are you crying? What’s wrong? Yes, we were not supposed to be in there but
we are out now. We are out now. It was amazing to hear about Christiana’s
life outside of the shrine. I’m free, I can decide to go anywhere, today
I can eat, if I say today I eat then I can eat, if only I have money. I can wear anything at all. She showed me her tattoo celebrating her reclaimed
name. How does it make you feel when you look at
that? I feel happy. Why? Because I am that I am. That’s my name. It’s the name my parents gave to me. Sometimes, your past is worth getting back to – not to hold you back, but to strengthen
your future. My deep faith in God and the love of my family
and friends have allowed me to grow into the person I was born to be. Somebody decided that was supposed to be our lives. It’s incredible that we’ve been given a second chance to have life.

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