Back to School for Girls Serving Togo's Voodoo Priests

August 18, 2008

TOGOVILLE, Togo (AFP) — Hundreds of young girls will be able to abandon their roles serving Togo's voodoo priesthood and go to school, ending what some rights campaigners blasted as a deeply abusive system.

After a three-year campaign, rights groups claimed victory over a way of life that they said cut the girls off from their own families, sometimes involved ritual scarring — and occasionally led to sexual abuse.

But it took some intense lobbying of political and religious authorities in this small west African state — and, it would seem, the voodoo divinities — to get there.

Voodoo believers in Togo where new laws mean girlscan now leave their roles as servants to the voodoo priesthood

The final decision only came after numerous offerings to the divinities of beef, poultry, drinks, cola nuts and animal sacrifices to the ancestors during voodoo ceremonies in the heart of a sacred forest.

"Maman Kponou" (Mother Kponou), the "mother of the divinities" in Togo, finally gave her consent to the changes in late May.

About 60 years of age, a string of multi-coloured pearls laced around her neck, she reigns over the sacred forest of Togoville, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of the capital Lome.

Her authority extends to about a dozen "convents" serving 150 gods — in a country where voodoo remains influential.

Voodoo priests say that several hundred young girls are baptised every year as voodoo adepts, or voodoosi, after lengthy initiation rites of between three months and two years.

Animal skulls at a market in Togo where new laws mean girls can now leave their roles as servants to voodoo priests

Under the old system, instead of rejoining their families after these ceremonies, they had to stay at voodoo convents to serve the gods.

During their religious instruction they would be taught the language and rules of the community as well as the sacred dances.

Some of them would be ritually scarred on the forehead, chest and arms to indicate which gods they served.

According to research by WAO-Afrique, some of these girls suffered sexual abuse — but if they ran away they faced the possibility of being ostracised by their families.

Some of the girls, who are generally between seven and 12 years of age, are even forced into arranged marriages.

"What a relief, these girls are finally safe," said Togo deputy and a former minister for children, Christine Agnele, who for years fought to end the voodoo convent tradition.

Cleophas Mally, the leader of WAO-Afrique, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns for children's rights, congratulated the authorities on having found a middle line between respecting both children's rights and local customs.

"But we have to remain vigilant," he warned.

Togo's children's code, which was voted into effect in June 2007, made it an offence punishable by up to five years' prison to hide or take away children with the aim of depriving them of their family environment.

"From now on, our girls will be freed after their initiation rites so they can go to school," said Togbui Gnagblondjro III, the president of the voodoo priests.

A voodoo believer dancing in Togo where new laws mean girlscan now leave their roles as servants to voodoo priests

"It was a long process, punctuated by prayers and sacrifices to the ancestors," said the grand priest.

"Rites reserved for girls will from now on take place during the holidays," said Houndjenouko, a priestess of the voodoo god of thunder, Heviosso.

The change is no small accomplishment.

Born at the end of the 16th century on the banks of the Mono river that flows between Benin and Togo, voodoo is practiced by an estimated 60 percent of Togo's five million population.

It is focused on the worship of the god Mahu through a pantheon of 200 divinities, and practiced particularly in the country's south.

Rituals such as sacrifice are offered to these spirits, but devotees insist that voodoo is not witchcraft. They decry the legends of curses and magic as a misunderstanding of the rewards one's devotion to the spirits — notably Mahu, the most powerful — can bring.


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