Akloblessi took her first breath in the shadows of a voodoo shrine. Her parents met there and fell in love years earlier. When it was time to bring their baby girl into the world, the dark recesses of the temple seemed the perfect place. They didn’t know it yet, but in five years’ time voodoo would try to claim their daughter.
07 Apr, 2017
Nowhere else in the world is voodoo as widespread or visible as in Togo. The religion was born in West Africa, and ‘Vodoun’, as it is known there, is a part of everyday life for millions of people. In Akloblessi’s picturesque seaside village, a corner of almost every home has a shrine featuring stone deities with blank, staring eyes.
Nearby Lomé, the nation’s capital, houses the Akodessewa Fetish Market: an open air, macabre marketplace, which attracts customers from all over Africa. Hundreds of animal heads—leopards, gazelles, goats and monkeys—sit in neat rows in various states of decomposition. Talismans and human skulls sit on another table. The stench of rot and death hangs thickly in the air. But for locals, going to the fetish market to purchase a healing potion is as normal as popping to the pharmacy to get antibiotics is for us.
Akloblessi’s mother is so devoted to her local vodoun temple she assists the priestess for no pay. Her father, Lossou, used to work as an upholsterer but his work dwindled as he spent increasing amounts of time with his wife at the shrine. They serve each day partly out of devotion but also out of fear.
“If we dare to leave the idols, we don’t know how it will be,” Lossou explains. “Some of us tried it and they died. That’s why we are afraid, because we are intimidated every day.”
With little income to provide for their family of five, Lossou’s three young children grew weak and thin. When he heard about Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program being run by the local church, he took four-year-old Akloblessi by the hand to register her. Local staff were surprised. Children of all beliefs are welcomed into the program. Knowing Lossou’s devotion to vodoun, though, they didn’t expect him to allow his daughter to attend program activities at the local church. Other parents turned away, baulking at the gift of a Bible, but Lossou agreed without hesitation.
His decision would change the course of his daughter’s life.
The first indication something was wrong was when Akloblessi didn’t attend program activities just one month later. Staff were shocked at what they uncovered when they asked after the little girl’s whereabouts.
The temple priestess had kidnapped her, taking her to live at the vodoun shrine after learning she was part of the Child Sponsorship Program.
The director of the child development centre, Fernand Hloinvi, took immediate action. “When I heard the priestess commanded that the child should be brought back to her temple, I got infuriated and frustrated,” he says. “I rushed to the father’s house.”
A worried Lossou explained what took place. “The spirits said Akloblessi belonged to them.” The priestess had hurried through ceremonies that normally took weeks in order to immediately initiate the little girl as a vodoun apprentice. Though Akloblessi could have been sent to the shrine at any time her life, the priestess calculated she would not accept vodoun ceremonies if she grew up in the church. Even Akloblessi’s mother, dedicated to the temple, knew nothing of the plan. Choosing a time when they knew her father wouldn’t be home, temple workers took the little girl by force.
Her parents seemed powerless to fight the decision; vodoun priests and priestesses are revered in the community. But knowing the grim conditions Akloblessi would endure, Fernand and his team were determined to free her. While other children her age were attending school and playing with friends, she was expected to drink animal blood and consume raw meat for rituals.
Fernand quickly mobilised the Christian church community. Together, there were 11 Compassion church partners praying and fasting for Akloblessi’s freedom. Meanwhile, project staff began lobbying government social workers to intervene. Bracing themselves for the spiritual battle, they also reached out to the priestess to convince her to release the little girl. And every day, they lifted up prayers to the Lord.
“We were not afraid of the priestess and her team even though they intimidated us a lot,” says Fernand. Throughout their meetings, the priestess and her team chanted incantations and spat obscenities, but the church held firm.
“We know our God is above all those voodoos because some of us have the same background. Since we came to Christ, any incantations did not affect us. We trust God that their incantations will never destroy Akloblessi.”
Months went by with seemingly little progress. As Akloblessi’s fifth birthday approached, project staff asked for permission to visit her at the shrine. On her birthday, Fernand, the project workers, her parents and even the social services governor arrived at the temple armed with gifts and food to celebrate. It was a day she will never forget.
“I remember when Uncle Fernand and his people came in the shrine,” she recalls with a smile. “I was so happy because they brought gifts, toys, shoes, clothes and many other things to me. My friends in the project also sent greetings.”
The day was a reminder of the childhood Akloblessi was missing out upon, and it hit her hard. “When they were going back, I kept on crying because I wanted to follow them.” Afterwards, she couldn’t stop thinking of home. For days she had tears streaming down her face as she begged to leave. At last, moved by her distress, the priestess agreed to give the child her freedom. The church’s prayers were answered.
Usually the ceremonies required to be released from the temple’s service are time consuming and costly, but Akloblessi’s rituals were completed within a month. She joyfully returned home 11 months after she was taken.
Her arrival at the child development centre was met with cheers, hugs and congratulations.
“I am so happy to see my friends and have fun with them again,” she beamed. As she learns how to be a carefree child again, the project workers are providing the young girl with emotional and spiritual support to help her process the traumatic experience of the past year.
Fernand has also put plans in place to make sure the situation doesn’t happen again.
“We know that when times of annual ceremony come the [priestess] will try to bring her back to the shrine for days,” says Fernand. “We have arranged with her father to send Akloblessi to her aunt in Lomé. She will leave the village and enjoy the goodness of the Lord. Praise God, she will not end up as a voodoo priestess or follower like her mother.”
Words by Bernard Gbaga and Zoe Noakes; photos by Ben Adams