Unwilling Sacrifices | Arts Feature | Indy Week
Pin It

Unwilling Sacrifices 

A performance piece at UNC revisits the ritual behind a nonviolent social revolution in Ghana

The terms of Soyini Madison's grant were specific: Go to Ghana for a year, teach at the university in the capital city of Accra, and study how village storytelling traditions have influenced contemporary Ghanaian fiction.

That was before she learned about the Trokosi, young girls abandoned by their families as a sacrifice for wrongdoing.

Her experiences with them are the subject of Is it a Human Being or a Girl?, a biographical performance piece showing this weekend at UNC-Chapel Hill's Swain Hall. The piece is based on the three years Madison spent in Ghana--two beyond her original fellowship. All proceeds from the production will go to the human rights group International Needs Ghana.

Since the term is idiomatic among Ghana's Ewe people, the translation of Trokosi is imprecise, even among native speakers. Some in the more affluent villages along the Volta River tend to believe it means "The Wife of God," and call it a high honor, while poorer and less-educated groups are convinced the term means "God's slave."

Public behavior in the poorer communities leaves no doubt that being "God's slave" is no honor. The ritual works like this: Say that someone convinced your family that your grandfather or uncle once committed a wrong against someone from your community. In this cosmology, a sacrifice would be required to make things right. Now, say that you're the granddaughter or niece. It doesn't matter if you never even knew the man who did the wrong. Odds are, you're the sacrifice--you're Trokosi, and your life will never be the same because of it.

For at least 300 years, families in the Ewe's religious tradition sacrificed generations of daughters by leaving them, against their will, in the "care" of Fetish priests at a series of shrines in rural Ghana. Many were raped by the priests and kept as concubines. Very few received formal education. They were responsible for all of the cooking, cleaning and farming work at the shrines. None had a choice in the matter or were allowed to leave.

In the 1990s, as Ghanaian culture changed, the practice came under increased scrutiny. Widespread debate on the issue blossomed shortly after Madison's arrival, as Ghana's government voted to ban ritualized forced labor.

"Three or four months into my research, suddenly surrounding me was this debate," Madison says. "It dealt with women's human rights, and it concerned issues of identity and religious fundamentalism. It was everywhere, and everyone was talking about it."

Most significant to Madison, who is a professor of communication studies at UNC, was that the debate was being carried out within Ghanaian culture. "We often see images of Europeans and Americans going into places like these to offer help. But these were the locals themselves," she says. "They did not get that kind of public attention, and they were at far greater risk because they were of the community, working to change the cultural norm."

In Madison's piece, Jules Odendahl plays her alter ego, a witness trying to understand and document a culture in flux, whose contradictions are at times bewildering. The work also captures the spirit of change accomplished through nonviolent means--something Madison witnessed repeatedly on travels to Ghanian villages.

"I saw human rights activists interacting with shrine priests with respect and patience," she says. "They would go in, make friends with the shrine priests, get to know them and spend time with them. Then they would begin to negotiate with them and the Trokosi women, with sensitivity to antiquity and history, to open up a conversation around other possibilities of how to practice their religion."

To date, 2,900 women--more than half of all known Trokosi--have been liberated and are being reintegrated into Ghanaian society. Madison's work is an attempt to document, from one woman's vantage point, how that happened. EndBlock

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Arts Feature



Twitter Activity

Comments

For five years in the mid 70s my family lived in an area about 1/3 mile from where the couple …

by Homeward on In The Long Dance, Two Journalists Reporting on a Cold Murder Case in Durham Become Podcasters Participating in an Investigation (Arts Feature)

I was only there from the very beginning through the first couple of years I guess, but watching the Carrack …

by $#jw on An Old Tobacco Complex Turned Arts Hub Evolves as the Carrack Appoints a New Leader and SPECTRE Arts Closes (Arts Feature)

Most Recent Comments

For five years in the mid 70s my family lived in an area about 1/3 mile from where the couple …

by Homeward on In The Long Dance, Two Journalists Reporting on a Cold Murder Case in Durham Become Podcasters Participating in an Investigation (Arts Feature)

I was only there from the very beginning through the first couple of years I guess, but watching the Carrack …

by $#jw on An Old Tobacco Complex Turned Arts Hub Evolves as the Carrack Appoints a New Leader and SPECTRE Arts Closes (Arts Feature)

Celeste ISD in Celeste, Tx. We are Blue Devils for life in this small Texas town. I was the high …

by Brandon Lamm on How a Blue Devil Statue that Was Raising Hell in Small-Town Mississippi Escaped, After a Brief Abduction, to Durham (Arts Feature)

Poultney High School in Poultney VT also has the Blue Devils as their mascot.

by jcevarts on How a Blue Devil Statue that Was Raising Hell in Small-Town Mississippi Escaped, After a Brief Abduction, to Durham (Arts Feature)

Many thanks for the review, Chris Vitiello. There are two things I would like to clarify as the exhibition curator. …

by L Turner on In Versus, This Year's Crop of UNC Studio Art MFA Graduates Take a Long View of Immediate Crises (Arts Feature)

© 2018 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation