Slavery’s Last Stronghold: Mauritania
In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery and it was not made a crime until 2007. However, an estimated 10% to 20% of the population, an estimated 340,000 to 680,000, continues to live as slaves. Only one slave holder has ever been successfully prosecuted while activists are arrested for protesting the practice and the government denies it even exists. According to the journalists of CNN, it’s a maddening and complicated place, an aspect of the country that is made all the more difficult for outsiders to understand because no one is allowed to talk about slavery. When confronted with the issue, the country’s minister of rural development, Brahim Ould M’Bareck Ould Med El Moctar stated that his country was among the freest in the world, saying “all people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon (of slavery) no longer exists.”
However, victim accounts tell an entirely separate story. Mulkheir Mint Yarba, after a day of tending her master’s goats out on the Sahara Desert, returned home to find her baby girl, barely old enough to crawl, had been left outdoors in the smoldering heat to die. The master, who had raped Moulkheir and conceived the child, told her she would work faster without the infant on her back. When Moulkheir asked if she could take a break to give her daughter a proper burial, her master said: “Her soul is a dog’s soul. Get back to work.”
The issue of slavery is so sensitive in Mauritania that the journalists had to conduct most of their interviews in secret, often in the middle of the night and in covert locations. The only other option afforded them was to conduct the interviews in the presence of a government minder, who was assigned to their group by the Ministry of Communications to ensure the topic was not mentioned. The official reason for entering the country was to report on the science of locust swarms; if they were caught talking with an escaped slave like Moulkheir, the journalists could have been arrested or thrown out of the country without their notebooks and footage. That point was made crystal clear in a meeting with the national director of audiovisual communications, Mohamed Yahya Ould Haye, who told them that journalists who attempted to report on such topics were either jailed or ejected from the country. More important, getting caught talking about slavery could have put their sources at risk. Anti-slavery activists report having been arrested and tortured for their work.
Slave masters in Mauritania exercise full ownership over their slaves. They can send them away at will, and it is common for a master to give away a young slave as a wedding present, a practice that tears families apart; Moulkheir never knew her mother and barely knew her father. Most slave families in Mauritania consist of dark-skinned people whose ancestors were captured by lighter-skinned Arab Berbers centuries ago. Unlike most countries, slaves in Mauritania are not bought and sold, merely given as gifts and bound for life. Their offspring automatically become slaves, as well. For example, all of Moulkheir’s children were born into slavery and all were the result of rape by her master.
Many of the workers in the villages exist in the continuum between slavery and freedom. Some are beaten while some aren’t. Some are held captive under threat of violence. Others, like Moulkheir once was, are chained by more complicated means, in which they are tricked into believing that their darker skin makes them less than human and their rightful place is to serve light-skinned masters. Some have escaped and live in fear they’ll be found and returned to the families that own them while others return voluntarily, unable to survive without assistance.
However, because slavery is so common in Mauritania, the experience of being a slave is remarkably varied. As Kevin Bales, president of the group Free the Slaves explains, “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people,” he said when asked about how slaves are usually treated in Mauritania. “The answer is all of the above.” For example, some masters who no longer need the assistance of a slave send them away to slave-only villages in the countryside, where they check on them occasionally or employ informants who make sure the slaves tend to the land a don’t leave it. Fences that surround these circular villages are often made of long twigs, stuck vertically into the ground so that they look like the horns of enormous bulls submerged in the sand. Nothing ties these skeletal posts together and nothing stops people from running, but they rarely do.
Within Mauritania, there are four ethnic groups that determine the overall standing within the community, the first of which are the White Moors, who are the elite class in Mauritania and control more wealth than any other group. They consist of lighter-skinned Berber people who speak Arabic and have traditionally owned slaves. The second ethnicity group is the Black Moors, a darker-skinned people who historically have been enslaved by the White Moors. Originally from sub-Saharan Africa, the Black Moors have adopted many aspects of the Arab culture of their master and many speak Hassaniya, an Arabic dialect. Mauritania’s other darker-skinned people, who make up the third group, come from several ethnic groups, including the Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof. Such groups can be found in Senegal, which shares Mauritania’s southern border. They look similar to Black Moors, but never were enslaved and differ in terms of culture and language. The Haratine are the fourth group, the word literally meaning “freed slaves”. However it can be used to describe people who are in slavery or who belong to the former slave class of Black Moors. Many of them exist somewhere on the spectrum between slavery and freedom and are the target of class- and race-based discrimination.
Why Does Slavery Still Exist
Like many others, you are probably wondering why slavery has continued in Mauritania long after it was abolished elsewhere? There are many factors that contribute to the complex situation. Here are a few:
|According to CNN journalists, Mauritania’s government has done little to combat slavery and in interviews denied that the practice exists.||Mauritania is an expansive and largely empty country within the Sahara Desert, a characteristic which makes it difficult to enforce any laws, including those against slavery.
|Local Islamic leaders, called imams, historically have spoken in favor of slavery. They make people believe that going to paradise depends on their submission.||Slavery in Mauritania is not entirely based on race, but lighter-skinned people historically have owned people with darker skin. Consequently, Mauritanians live by a rigid caste system. However, racism does run rampant in the country.||Many slaves in Mauritania do not understand that they are enslaved; they have been “brainwashed” to believe it is their place in the world to work as slaves, without pay, and without rights to their children.|
History of Slavery in Mauritania
|Circa 200 to 1900s||1905||1948||1961||1980 – 1981||1995||2005|
|According to Kevin Bales, CEO of Free the Slaves, “You can trace this back for 2,000 years.” Arab slave traders in the region that would become Mauritania capture darker-skinned people from sub-Saharan Africa and force them to work without pay.
|The colonial French administration declares an end to slavery in Mauritania, however, the abolition never takes hold.
|The United Nations adopts The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which abolishes slavery internationally||After gaining independence from France the year before, Mauritania adopts a new constitution abolishing slavery, however, the effort has little impact, according to written accounts.
|Mauritania’s government abolishes slavery and declares that it no longer exists, however, slavery still runs rampant.
|A former slave and a former slave owner start an anti-slavery organization called SOS Slaves.
|Mauritania passes a law criminalizing slavery. It allows for a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. To date, only one legal case against a slave owner has been successfully prosecuted.