Stories | Themes | Being curious | Ghana | Brigitte Sossou Perenyi

Photo by Kwamena Som

In 1996, when she was seven, Brigitte Sossou Perenyi was brought from Togo to Ghana and held as a slave in a religious shrine run by a priest dedicated to the worship of deities.

I remember being happy as a child until the age of seven when one day I was told by my mother that I was going to Lome, the capital city of Togo to be educated and live with my uncle. I was sad to leave my home but accepted that this was the best thing for my life. Very shortly after I arrived at my uncle’s house he took me to a shrine in Ghana and left me there. I was given a piece of cloth to wear, told to recite incantations. From that day on I was marked a Trokosi – which means slave of the gods, or wife of the deity.

Later I learnt that my uncle had been told by a soothsayer that he had Parkinson’s disease because a curse had been placed on the family due to his crime of adultery. To be cured and to atone for his crime, a young girl from his family had to be taken into a shrine to serve the gods.

At the shrine I felt confused and lost. There was no learning, no laughter or playtime. I received a lot of verbal and emotional abuse from the priest who ordered me around like a slave. I slept in a room with the other girls and women who were all there to atone for sins committed by a family member. The men were intermediates, appointed by the gods to look after the shrine.

According to the practice, girls were supposed to stay for five years but many remained there for the rest of their lives.

I was one of the lucky ones because I got out after about a year. A charity called International Needs Ghana launched an anti-Trokosi campaign. CBS were filming at the shrine and I was caught on camera. When the report was broadcast, a Caucasian American called Kenneth Perenyi saw it and decided he had to rescue me. He started the process of adoption and paid for my release. Over 3000 people were freed with me that year in 1997.

To have a better transition into the American culture and language, I was placed with a Ghanaian couple who had kids around my age. I played a lot of sport, learnt English and discovered that I loved learning. The Sabaa family embraced me like their own. I had given up on happiness when I was left at the shrine but my new family showed me love and taught me to have hope again. They also introduced me to the love of Jesus Christ.

Two years later in September 1999 I left for Florida to live with my new adoptive father. Although I was full of gratitude to him for rescuing me and giving me everything I wanted, sometimes I felt lonely and incomplete. I often wondered why I’d been given away by my biological family and why they hadn’t rescued me. I had nightmares about the past and wondered what I’d done wrong.

When I was 21 I returned to Ghana and completed an internship in Accra. My Ghanaian mother then suggested that International Needs should accompany me to trace my family in Togo. We took a camera crew so that I would have a record of everything that happened. It was an incredible meeting, like a dream come true. I was reunited with my parents, my four siblings and a new brother born after I left.

Three years later I returned to my village with a journalist to write my story for Marie-Claire magazine. I was still trying to figure out how to establish a relationship with my biological family but it was difficult because I had forgotten my mother tongue and it pained me deeply that I couldn’t talk to them, especially my mother. This second visit brought back a lot of sad memories of being taken away.

But then in 2017 Code4Africa and European Journalism Centre (EJC) founded a small team to film my life story, so once again I returned to my village. After filming, the BBC commissioned the edit. Through making this film I found my voice again. My Ghanaian family continued encouraging me in my walk with God which I found to be very positive and healing. It meant that finally I was able to ask the questions that had been weighing heavily on me.

I found out that my parents had never known I’d been taken into a shrine to become a Trokosi, they also said they didn’t know about my adoption and being taken to America. In fact they had always thought I was dead. Knowing this took away the sadness and isolation I’d felt for so long. I realized everyone was doing their best and looking at my life in terms of opportunities and aspirations.

Most of my anger had been focused on my now dead uncle who used me as a sacrifice.

But by accepting my past I have been able to forgive him.

I now realize he felt he was doing something he had to do. I have also forgiven myself for believing for so long that my biological family didn’t love me. Forgiveness has freed me because it recognises we are all human and we all make mistakes.

In 2017 Brigitte made an award-winning documentary for the BBC called “My stolen childhood; understanding the Trokosi system”. She now lives in Accra where she works in film production.

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