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.