“Women and girls enslaved to fetish priests in traditional African shrines.” When I read those words while living in Ghana in 1999, my feminist, western & anthropological mind clicked on. The following day I read an article defending the practice and calling the women and girls fiasidi, “wives of the god.” They said they are the queens of the town and the objectors are Christian missionaries trying to eradicate traditional religion. I had to see for myself.
I went to the town in the Volta Region of Ghana with the most prominent shrines. Following the sandy roads lined with coconut trees to the center of town, I bowed before the the priests and chiefs and asked permission to stay and learn from them. A lot of false information had been published about the traditional religious practice (including reports published in BBC, Marie Claire and a documentary ). Media had obtained access to the shrines through Christian based non-profits supposedly purchasing the freedom of the women and girls and “liberating and rehabilitating” them through Christian counsel. The media stay for a few hours, grab their footage, make their assumptions based on western mindset and go. They were not welcome back. To my surprise, I was granted full access to the shrines, the priests, the women and families. Their only request was that I speak the truth.
That was 14 years ago. In 2005 I returned for four months from a grant from Ohio University Graduate Student Awards where I was getting a masters in Visual Communications. I teamed up with anthropologist Julie Jenkins who specializes in religion, gender and ritual slavery in West Africa. Together we returned this past July commissioned in part by The Revealer – NYU’s Journal of Media and Religion. We live in the homes of the wives, drink gin with the priests (often starting at 7:30am), eat with the families and carry water in buckets on our head (sometimes not so successfully). We have unprecedented access to the shrines and aspects of traditional african religion, have established deep friendships and feel very much like this is our second home. I even have a namesake, Romanoff, who was born to my good friend and fixer my first trip.
To see more images and find out if the women are truly slaves of the shrine or queens of the town, view the short multimedia documentary I created in 2005 (with the help of the talented multimedia producer Rob Finch & editor Mike Davis).
A heartfelt akpe (thank you) to the women and families we live and dine with as well as our friends and translators Ojukwu Azemati, Oscar Dudicorff, Francis Fiamavor and father Dale Massiasta (RIP). ***(Atsimene!!)