It was my great good fortune about 30 years ago to make the acquaintance of the late remarkable Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Bruce Trigger. The occasion followed my reading of his great book, The Children of Aataentsic, a 900-page epic dealing with the history of the Hurons up until the year 1660. This book had been published in 1976 in 1,500 copies, had been reviewed by only one non-academic paper, and had thereafter nestled on the shelves of public libraries, little read, but acknowledged by those who had read it as surely one of the greatest books ever written by a Canadian.
I wrote an article in Saturday Night magazine saying just that, and on the basis of that article the publisher reprinted the work and put it back into the circulation it so richly deserved. Trigger was so grateful for that small service that thereafter he often mentioned me in the references to whatever pamphlet or book he was publishing, a totally unnecessary but very thoughtful gesture, that was typical of his generosity of spirit. I have a special category in my mind of people I call Big Brains, and he was certainly one of them, a really amazing scholar. His central argument in relation to the indigenous people was that they had complex systems of social and cultural behaviour and governance, and there were no grounds for the great myth of the European settlers that their society was superior. I believe this is now a position of great influence among today’s anthropologists. (An extension of his argument held that the Eurocentric preconceptions of many anthropologists and academics had fatally contributed to the unfavorable non-native opinions held about indigenous people, and in his professional life he did his utmost to correct that imbalance, by supporting indigenous groups who protested, even going so far, unless my memory is betraying me, as to suggest on one occasion that the indigenous should control all anthropology conducted about them).
In addition, when he died in 2006 Trigger was widely regarded as the world’s leading expert in the history of archaeology, a fact attested to in a book of essays by archaeologists published not long before his death.
He told me once that he hoped to write a book that would explain from the archaeological record where the authoritarian impulse in human society originated. A few years later I asked him if he had written this book. He said he had tried but had never been able to discover what he was looking for. He had, however, written a book called Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study , in which he compared the similarities and differences between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Shang civilization of China, the Aztecs and Mayans of Middle America, the Inkas of the Andes and the Yoruba of Africa. I read this book, most of which was away out of my depth, but I did take one message from it: that even before there was a human civilization, the priests were already in charge, a self-appointed cult whose function was to mediate between the natural world and the super-natural --- the latter arising, I suppose, from such elements as thunder, lightning, storms, earthquakes, and so on, all of which were made to represent the anger of the Gods. The Gods must be propitiated at all cost. At times I think this has never changed: the priests are still in charge of large numbers of human beings, who accept what seem to me to be their outlandish prescriptions without question.
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What set me off on this whole line of thought was a fascinating half-hour programme I saw two days ago on Al Jazeera about a practice that has existed for more than 300 years in Ghana, called trokosi, that demonstrated the continuing power held in some parts of the world by these medieval priesthoods This is the practice of a family buying back any misfortune it might have suffered by giving away a child, whose banishment from the community is payment for the crimes of the family. The programme was built around a young woman called Brigitte Soussou Perenyi, originally from Togo, who, at the age of seven, was delivered by her parents to her uncle, who said he could offer her a better education, but instead dropped her off in neighbouring Ghana at what was referred to as The Shrine, run by a priesthood that can only be described as a cult.
Two professors from the University of Ghana said the practice was for the priests to sleep with these virgin girls, who lived a life of slavery, working, cleaning, carrying stuff far beyond their strength, not allowed to play, given no education, and held for years in total isolation. When the trokosi is slept with, a woman has to sacrifice a girl, or her family will get sick.
Fortune smiled on Brigitte: a visiting American TV crew visited the shrine when she was seven, and the reporter was so impressed by this lovely, shy little girl, held there in solation from her family, and facing all sorts of terrors, that he returned and negotiated to buy her from the priesthood. He adopted her and took her to America, where she was raised and educated. Nowadays she lives in Accra, the city she feels most at home in.
In 1987 an investigation of the practice indicated that there were 5,000 trokosi girls in Ghana. In 1998 the practice was banned, but it still continues to the present day, and no prosecutions have ever been brought. The programme recorded a visit made by Brigitte to the village where she was born, a place so remote along dirt roads as to be difficult to find. It showed a remarkable moment where she was greeted by her mother, a woman so overcome with emotion that she clung to her daughter for some time, without looking at her, and then scurried away into the house, so ashamed was she of what she had done. There was an interview with an unrepentant father, who said nothing good could come from this conversation with his daughter, if she wanted to blame someone, she should blame him, but that was all he wanted to say on the subject. Later, at her insistence, he relaxed, and they embraced. He claimed neither parent had known what was to happen to their daughter when the uncle took her away for what they thought would be a better life.
Brigitte, incarcerated in the Shrine at the age of seven, and then transferred to America, lost her native language and could not even speak French, the second language of her parents. The rupture from them seemed complete, except for her intense emotion, and that of her mother, on being re-connected.
She looked up a friend from the same village, Christiana, a young girl who wanted to become a doctor, but who was sent to the Shrine after the death of her father, when the education stopped. After five years as a virtual sexual slave of the priests, she was freed from the Shrine following a 1997 news report. The two young women clung to each other as Brigitte tried to get her friend to talk about something she evidently wanted to --- but never could --- forget. The programme --- it can be seen in the Al Jazeera World series on that network’s web site, and is called My Stolen Childhood --- ended with Brigitte saying that all the interviewing, the emotion, had upset her, and she had a splitting headache.
Just another triumph of religion, like the tens of thousands of sexual abuse cases now proceeding against the Catholic clergy world-wide.