Text By Julie Jenkins. Photographs by Dana Romanoff.
West African shrines, dedicated to deities and spirits, are often portrayed as mysterious and shrouded in secrecy. In the Western imagination–and for many Ghanaians—these sacred spaces are dark and dangerous, involving animal sacrifice, secret knowledge, and oppressive behavioral restrictions, even amounting to slavery, some claim. To many outsiders, the shrines exemplify long-practiced traditions, closed off from new ways of thinking. Dana Romanoff and I have been working in and around the shrines amongst the Klikor-Ewe in the southeastern Volta Region of Ghana for thirteen years, and our experiences with them challenge this type of imagery and misconception. Both of us were introduced to the area’s shrines while undergraduates on a study-abroad course in Ghana. In 2005, we joined together to examine the shrines in more depth through our individual specialties: Dana as a photojournalist and myself as a PhD candidate in Anthropology. Since then, our collaboration has continued as we examine the socio-economic and religious experiences of the initiates in the shrines, who are exclusively female and called fiasidiwo (‘wives of the deity,’ sing. fiasidi). Some of these women become wives of a shrine’s priest as well; others do not. As Dana and I have seen, the fearful imagery of both the shrines and the ‘wives of the deity’ obscures the reality of these dynamic institutions.
When walking along the sandy footpaths of Klikor, a small town near the Togo border, you come across three prominent shrines that house what are a collectively known as the Adzima deities: Togbui Adzima and his two ‘wives’, both named Mama Vena. The Adzima deities are three of many deities in the southern Volta Region, grounded into human social life through their shrines. Petitioners make offerings through the priests to ensure health, wealth, and protection against hostile forces and dangerous experiences: witches, evil spirits, or others who are trying to inhibit the petitioners’ success.
Much of everyday life in Klikor centers around the Adzima shrines: women sell peanuts, pure water, cloth, and other provisions while men gather around the lottery kiosk, and listen to BBC news on the radio. Both men and women use the shrines’ steps as meeting places to talk with neighbors, play games, nap, have their hair dyed or their nails painted, or simply ‘catch the breeze.’ From time to time visitors enter the shrine compounds barefoot and covered with cloth, in accordance with the taboos of the deities, their arms loaded with offerings–bottles of gin and occasionally a chicken or a goat. With these visits, the areas liven with activity, as people gather closer to hear the gossip from afar and in hopes of receiving a portion of the alcohol or the cooked sacrificed animal. Making an offering to the deities, being present in these moments, or regularly greeting the priests also ensures that one is visible to the priests, who frequently give money to initiates and petitioners in need or just as a treat.
During the month-long annual festival for the deities, activity in and around the shrines intensifies even further. Fiasidiwo and petitioners from across Ghana, Togo, and Benin gather for rituals designed to bring prestige to the deities and secure the petitioners’ and fiasidiwo’s continued well-being. These rituals are the manifestation of a relationship between the petitioners and deities that influences familial, economic, and social interactions throughout the rest of the year. Just as important, the annual festival also serves as a place for friends to reconnect and women and men to scope out potential marriage partners. The highlight of the month is the day of drumming, when petitioners and initiates gather to dance, drink, and celebrate the success and power of the deities.
While visitors shape much of the activity in the shrines, they are also homes for the priests, their wives and their children. Since a priest is rarely allowed to leave the proximity of the shrine, his wives take turns staying with him and cooking his meals. The priests’ wives have their own homes nearby, built for them either by the priest or on their own, where they reside intermittently, along with their children or relatives. The priest’schildren visit daily, asking for lunch money and school fees. The shrines are not simply or only religious spaces—they’re households, with children running around, studying for school, preparing meals, washing clothes, and entertaining guests.
Recognizing the shrines as homes and everyday public spaces is important. Their portrayal as dangerous, oppressive and secretive carries a political charge, slotting into national debates and anxieties about what makes a modern society in the context of international development, human rights, and business. In Ghana, where a Neo-Pentecostalist Christian presence and worldview is strong in both the media and government, the shrines and ‘traditional’ religion are also enmeshed in religious contests. Non-Christian deities are often publicly represented as demonic agents, or at the very least emblematic of a ‘traditional’ past set in contrast to an understanding of what it means to be modern (which in Ghana has a particular historical association with Christianity).
The fiasidiwo, in particular, are central to these contests. Opponents of the practice of initiation claim that the fiasidiwo are abused or even enslaved, restricted from obtaining education or health care, and socially stigmatized in the larger community. Over the past two decades, Ghanaian NGOs launched a media campaign portraying the shrines as the initiates’ prison, as well as a series of educational workshops aimed at the shrine communities. They phrase their objections in the languages of both human rights and Christian precepts. In 1998, the practice of receiving these types of initiates was criminalized in Ghana. The government has shown no intention of actually charging priests or communities for continuing the practice, but the formal criminalization does lend political support and cover to interventions by religious and NGO groups. In addition to their public campaigns and educational efforts, some opponents (Ghanaian and international) have undertaken to negotiate with the shrines’ priests to “liberate” the initiates.
Yet the representation of danger, secrecy and enslavement is inaccurate in the context of the Klikor shrines. There, the fiasidiwo’s religious role is most prominent during the annual festival and whenever her family members may want to petition the deities. During much of the year, most initiates do not interact daily with the shrine priests, except for periodic visits to receive money or gifts. As ‘wives of the deity,’ these initiates have a unique social standing as ‘mothers’ and as
such have certain rights, including the ability to demand resources from the priest. Some fiasidi formally marry the Adzima priests, but most do not, and instead marry within the Klikor or neighboring communities. Few fiasidiwo reside in the shrines, with the exception of those the priests have formally married, and as priests’ wives they become a part of the shrines’ larger household activity and assist the priest with the visitors and petitioners. In contrast to the claim that the initiates are stigmatized or isolated, the fiasidiwo are embedded within the social fabric of Klikor as wives of the deities and mothers of the community. While their initiatory status is important to their social position in Klikor, their movements and activities are not overly restricted due to that status, though an initiatedoes have a duty to maintain at least an occasional presence in the community–if only through a designated house in Klikor where she can live when in the area.
Many fiasidi are also successful businesswomen, trading in the regional markets and owning drinking spots, provisioning stores, and hair salons. And many have initiatory status with other deities in the southern Volta Region and Togo: one(shown here) is a priestess of Yewe, the Thunder God. She, then, is empowerednarrat to take offerings from petitioners to her Yewe deity, in addition to petitioning the Adzima deities herself.
The idea of dangerous shrines and enslaved initiates is powerful both in terms of its imaginative power and the political action it enables, but it misrepresents the shrines, which in reality are dynamic spaces fully embedded in their communities. In our observation over the years in Klikor, the shrines and their rituals have remained important in the community, despite the ongoing debate that continues in the wider Ghanaian community and occasional conflicts with local Christian churches. In fact, members of the Klikor shrines understand the deities, and their relationship to them, to be essential in navigating the dangers and unseen forces of the economy and social relations, where the threat of poverty and illness are pressing concerns.
 To offer a very general characterization, Ghanaian Neo-Pentecostalism affirms the existence of deities, ancestors, etc., but as agents of the devil, whereas Ghanaian Pentecostalism tends to deny their existence altogether.
Julie Jenkins obtained her doctorate in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, UK. She is currently an Annual Instructor at Rutgers University. She specialises in religion, ‘ritual slavery’, gender, and international development in West Africa. Her first trip to Ghana was in 2001, where she came to know about the Adzima shrines and then decided to make it the topic of her doctoral research.
Dana Romanoff is an award-winning photographer and multimedia producer who creates compelling images and visual narratives for her editorial, commercial and humanitarian-aid clients. She made her first trip to Ghana in 1999 where she began the project “Wife of The God.” See more of Dana’s work on her website: www.danaromanoff.com.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs. Edited by Nora Connor.