(The following story was compiled with the assistance of Brigitte Sossou Perenyi.)
She was just seven years old when she was taken away from her family and left at a religious shrine dedicated to worshiping deities. This was the sacrifice needed to please the gods and atone for her uncle’s infidelity. She worked from dawn to dusk and lived a difficult life away from her family. Fortunately, she was rescued and now shares her story of hope and survival.
Brigitte Sossou Perenyi is passionate about telling stories. As an associate producer for Refined Creative, she is part of a team that captures African stories and produces documentaries for Africans and the Western World.
This work is near and dear to Brigitte because she recognizes the impact a story can have. It was a documentary produced over 20 years ago that triggered a chain of events that led to her freedom from captivity at a religious shrine in rural Ghana.
Brigitte was born into a loving family in Togo. But at the age of seven, life as she knew it ceased abruptly when her uncle asked for her to go and live with him in Lomé, the capital city of Togo.
“I remember leaving. I remember being sad,” Brigitte told The Weight She Carries. “But nothing else was explained to me.”
What Brigitte didn’t know was that she would be trafficked to Ghana to a shrine as a slave to atone for her uncle’s marital transgressions – part of an age-old practice called “trokosi.”
Trokosi is an ancient belief system in certain communities in West Africa that requires a girl, often a young virgin girl, to be sent to a shrine. Though in practice, the girls are serving the priests, they are really there to serve the gods for the rest of their lives as reparation for the sins of a family member. Girls trapped in servitude are viewed as wives to the gods. It is believed that this act pleases the gods and removes any retribution or ill-fortune.
“They believe that when there is sickness in the family, in order for the person to get better a sacrifice must be given. If someone just dies and no one knows why, they go to a soothsayer who will tell the family a curse has been placed on the family and a sacrifice must be made. If you don’t have a different belief system, you’ll listen to what you are being told because you have no alternative.”
– Brigitte Sossou Perenyi
While this practice was outlawed in 1998 in Ghana, it is still practiced by various ethnic groups.
Unbeknownst to her parents, Brigitte’s uncle took her to a shrine and left her there.
“Before I was taken away from my family, I was a daddy’s girl. So no longer being with my father and my family had a big impact on me,” she said.
Not only was she separated from her family, she did not understand the language.
“I was really young, I felt lost,” Brigitte said. “I didn’t know what was happening.”
Her day began at 5 a.m. with chores which included sweeping the yard and fetching water for the day. Then, she would go and work on the farm for the rest of the day. She was not allowed to go to school.
There were many women on the compound when Brigitte arrived. She was one of the youngest. Some of the women were married to the priests, but many were trokosis – who were sexually exploited after their first menstrual cycle.
Due to her age, Brigitte was not violated sexually.
During her time at the shrine, Brigitte was captured in a documentary produced for CBS’ 60 Minutes by Christiane Amanpour. When the program aired, an American man, Kenneth Perenyi watched it and flew to Ghana to make arrangements to adopt Brigitte with the help of an organization called International Needs Ghana.
The process took about a year.
“I didn’t know him very well at the time, so I was trying to study him to understand who he was to me,” Brigitte said.
At the age of nine, Brigitte’s now adoptive father went back to Ghana to bring her to live with him in Florida. Although life was good, and her new dad provided everything she needed for a comfortable life, Brigitte always wondered about her biological family. Had they consented to her being a trokosi? Had they not wanted her? Did they know where she was?
When she was 10, Brigitte had a dream that her biological parents had died and were buried in the same grave. Now she wondered if they were even alive.
In 2010, when she was 19, she decided to travel to Togo to reconnect with her family.
“They didn’t know I was coming. We couldn’t get a hold of them. The NGO that helped free me wanted to gift me by going with me because the project manager that was on the anti-trokosi project Wisdom Mensah had an idea where my family was. So I was accompanied by a group of adults and we set off to find my family. I was very nervous. I didn’t know if I would find them all alive. My mother was so happy because she thought I was dead. My father kept saying that God had brought me back, but I didn’t fully understand what he meant until several years later when I returned to ask questions.”
– Brigitte Sossou Perenyi
The visit was brief, and a few weeks later, Brigitte was on her way back to the US. She was grateful to have seen her family, but couldn’t help but wondering why they had given her away.
“I’m a deep thinker, and I was living in my head. I couldn’t understand what had happened. My parents had seemed happy to see me when I visited them. But were they pretending? What was their involvement in me being taken as a trokosi?” she said.
To seek answers to her questions, Brigitte travelled back to her village in Togo in 2017. This time she was accompanied by a film crew documenting her story. Brigitte decided to film her story, which has been commissioned by BBC, to share her story to inspire others share their story and bring to light the trokosi practice.
“My father said my Uncle took me away for me continue my education in Lomé. After some time, my father said he went to look for me, but my uncle refused to tell him where I was,” Brigitte said.
Her uncle is now deceased.
“Closure for me was not about speaking to my uncle. It was more about hearing how my parents felt about me leaving. My father said what he had to say, and I believe him,” she said.
Brigitte added that while trokosi is still practiced, it has been modernized, according to the practitioners, and the girls are now allowed to go to school.
But one must ask themselves if this fact makes this practice acceptable.
Eradicating this belief system so that girls are not forced to give up their lives – as the custom requires – can only be accomplished through education, community development and creating jobs because this brings economic gain for the priests, Brigitte said.
In the BBC documentary “My stolen childhood: understanding the trokosi system,” Brigitte details her experience and seeks to learn more about the practice that had such an enormous impact on her life.
It is works like these that spark dialogue and encourage healthy discussions surrounding age-long practices and belief systems.
“Hopefully, with time, people will start realizing that there is value in education; there is value in the girl child acquiring an education to work in a better environment than farming or life in captivity. With my story, I hope we can call attention to ancient practices that infringe on girl’s and women’s potentials.”
– Brigitte Sossou Perenyi