Women laborers scrape for salt on the floor of an ancient lake in the remote Sahara Desert in Tichit, Mauritania, east of Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, Nov. 20, 2000. (Clement Ntaye/Associated Press)
Freedom's just another word
Contemporary slavery in Mauritania
Last Updated February 29, 2008
By David Gutnick, The Sunday Edition
Listen to David Gutnick's documentary for The Sunday Edition about modern-day slavery in Africa.
The night of Aug. 8, 2007, seemed like a night for celebration in Mauritania, a vast desert country on Africa's northwest coast.
Radio, television and newspapers all proclaimed the end of slavery. Slave-owning was criminalized, and overnight, half a million people — a fifth of the country's population — were officially freed from bondage.
But there was a problem. Those half-million newly free people didn't own radios. They didn't own televisions. They can't read either. And the news — if they heard it — meant little anyway.
In Mauritania, despite good intentions and high-minded words, slavery is still thriving, as it has for 800 years. It is just taking new forms.
Dark-skinned men, women and children known as Haratine carry out orders under the threat of being beaten. They work as labourers and shepherds, as servants and cooks, as nursemaids and security guards. They are penniless and uneducated. Their masters are pale-skinned, Arab-speaking Moors.
The relationship is ancient, confusing and deeply entrenched, and it defines much of what goes on in this iron-rich, sandy country. Even the most modern and sophisticated of Mauritanians is caught in the tangled web.
My guide and interpreter, Mohamed-Sidi-Ali-François, is a computer teacher at an elite, American, private school in the capital city of Nouakchott. He is a tall, thin Moor in his mid-40s who studied at universities in Scotland and the United States. He's full of energy on the morning in late November 2007 when we meet.
A visit to a Haratine slum
As we drive through the sandy streets of Nouakchott, Mohamed points out the Tiviski dairy, which bottles milk collected from nomadic camel herders. We pass by the high walls surrounding the central military barracks; generals ruled Mauritania until last year. Our destination is Sebra, one of Nouakchott's poorest neighbourhoods.
Excited crowds of children meet us. Mohamed scans the golden sand, frowns and points to my shoes.
"Be careful as you walk," he says, "because people here don't have toilets, so they usually go to the bathroom in the street. So, you have to watch your steps every time."
Mohamed is leading me through a labyrinth of shoulder-wide alleyways. The rows of one-room shacks are built from wood scraps and corrugated metal and arranged so that they block out the desert winds.
Mohamed's ankle-length shirt, called a bou-bou, billows out like a sheet, a brilliant patch of blue against the sand-scarred walls.
Mohamed drives his SUV by Sebra often — it is near the airport — but he rarely visits. In Mauritania, everyone knows his or her place.
From the time they are born, Mauritanians learn to whom they can talk and to whom they can't, whom they can marry and who's off limits.
The donkey-cart drivers, the street sweepers, the construction labourers are dark-skinned Haratine.
The bank managers, the lawyers and the private-school teachers, like Mohamed, are Moors, and their skin is close to white.
The social codes in Mauritania aren't subtle. You read them instantly in Mohamed's proud posture and the dutiful way the Haratine here in Sebra avert their eyes and step out of his path unless he gestures that it's OK.
A reality check
To Mohamed's face, the Sebra residents won't readily admit they used to be slaves. They are still afraid their former masters will come looking for them.
A man named Hussein tries to set the record straight.
"If you go outside in the countryside, you will see that slaves and freed slaves are doing all the work in the fields," he says, "and the land doesn't belong to them. It belongs to the master."
"They keep saying we are not their slaves, but it is the masters who are making them work and who decide how much to pay them. [The Haratine] still believe because the government says, you are not slaves, but in practice they are still slaves," says Hussein.
Last August when the Mauritanian National Assembly voted to criminalize slavery, masters were ordered to free their Haratine slaves or face 10 years in jail.
Anti-slavery organizations called it a giant step forward, and on paper it was.
But the free Haratine are landless, own nothing and almost all are illiterate. The law cannot change the colour of their skin.
So far, the end of slavery has been a mixed blessing, Hussein tells me. Freed slaves who were fed by their masters are now going hungry.
"Some of them who are freed now really like to stay with the master because now the relationship is so good they just don't want to say anything," he says. "White people, now, they say they are related to you, but they treat us as slaves. So, why do Haratine keep denying the fact?"
Mauritania is an Islamic republic governed by Shariah law. Imams preached for centuries that the Prophet Mohamed justified the comfort of the Moors and the suffering of the Haratine.
Hussein is among the lucky ones; he managed to become a teacher. He knows that it takes more than a law to break the shackles of slavery.
"There is a contradiction here," he says. "The religion of the country allows it whereas the government is trying to put an end to it. So should we follow the religion, or what the government says?"
A visit to a Muslim scholar
Ever since we left the slums of Sebra, Mohamed's been telling me about Mohameden Ould Tah. He's a religious star in Mauritania, a regular guest on state television and radio. Street vendors hawk piles of his books and cassettes. I tell him I would like to meet with him. Mohamed makes a phone call and tells me he can't believe we got an appointment. He says imams line up to get into his white-walled mansion.
We are met at the door by a Haratine and led through a flower-filled courtyard, through another set of doors and down a long, tiled hallway.
Mohameden Ould Tah is waiting in his palatial book-lined study. He's got a head of thick white hair, delicate pale skin and a gracious smile. He looks gentle, though Mohamed has warned me of his reputation as a fierce and tenacious debater.
A Haratine servant hands us small cups of sweet green tea. Mohameden Ould Tah waves him off with the flick of his wrist, and says he finds my interest in slavery puzzling.
"Nothing in Islam encourages slavery," he says. "If Muslims had applied the verses of the Qur'an that said that, there wouldn't have been any problem"
I say I cannot believe that because the Haratine I have seen in his own home open the doors, clean the floors and make the tea, so if there are no more slaves in Mauritania, who are these people taking care of him?
He says that I do not understand: he used to have slaves, but now they are free to come and go. They are, he says, just like his own children and even his own mother, "because when I was young, my mother didn't have enough milk so slaves gave me their milk."
"When some countries are not happy with Mauritania, they try to find something wrong," he says.
"There is no more problem with slavery. We should not be talking about this subject at all, because it's gone, finished," he says.
I ask whether it is true what the Haratine in Sebra told me — that their imams preached that God made their ancestors slaves and that they shouldn't desire freedom.
Mohameden Ould Tah raises his hand to stop my question; he's clearly exasperated.
"The prophet Mohammed said never say 'slave,' say 'my son' or 'my daughter.' Islam shut the doors of slavery and opened other doors to free slaves. If you commit a sin and you free one slave, half of your sins are forgiven. There is a deed called Zakahat, [meaning] if you are rich, you will take part of your wealth to give to the poor people."
A visit to the countryside
Mohamed and I have a day-long drive across the Sahara ahead of us. I want to meet with Haratine in the market city of Atar in the north of the country. We're listening to Mohamed's favorite singer, Malouma, a light-skinned Moor who champions the rights of the Haratine and the rights of women.
When we spoke with our eyes, it was heavenly
All smiles and reverent beginnings
We tried love, and it failed
Yet whatever we do, love catches up with us
A few years ago, Malouma's music was banned; now, she's an elected senator. But her struggle against injustice still has a long way to go because hundreds of thousands of Haratine live in communities scattered across the vast Sahara dessert that's flying by our window.
We arrive just after sundown. The air is already cool. Our SUV crawls through the dark, narrow streets on the edge of town and pulls up beside a clay wall.
Mohamed says this is the first time he's been in this neighbourhood. Here, the homes are made of pressed sand that's covered with clay. When it rains, Mohamed says, the clay washes off, and residents worry about their homes falling apart.
The only light is the full moon.
Mistrust and skepticism
We stumble through a door into a courtyard. I hear a dozen voices, but I can't make out any faces until my eyes adjust to the candlelight.
Mohamed's arranged for a representative of S.O.S. Slavery to be present, along with men and women who have recently been freed from their masters.
A young man takes me by the arm and leads me over to a group of women and children.
On old woman named Mohammeda — this is the only name she goes by — is sitting on a carpet. She smiles and takes my hand. Her eyes are clouded over. She's almost blind.
From the time she was a little girl, Mohammeda rose before sunrise to work. She lit the fire, milked the camels and prepared food. She spent her days carrying water, gathering firewood and caring for the master's children. Her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother served the same family.
When Mohammeda's eyes and knees began to fail, the master expelled her from the only home she had ever known. He said he was following the law, setting her free.
Mohammeda left on foot with nothing but the clothes on her back: a yellow and pink cloak called a malaffa that protects her from the heat and sting of sandstorms.
"My children are still enslaved," she says, "and the master regularly beats my daughter. She is not given enough clothes."
Mohammeda said she knows about the new law that criminalized slavery, but she doesn't trust the government to help free her daughter. She begins to laugh when I ask whether slavery can ever end. No, she says. She wants to know whether I can help free her daughter.
A visit to Mohamed's home
It's my last day in Mauritania, and Mohamed and I are back in Nouakchott.
We're driving around in his SUV, music blasting through the open windows and across the dunes, two guys on a hot afternoon with time to kill.
Mohamed is excited about the foreign oil and mining money now flooding into Mauritania. Much of it is Canadian. Mohamed says he used to dream about moving to the United States because Mauritania was caught in a time warp. But he's changed his mind, he says, because the country is catching up with the rest of the world.
He wants to show me the new home he's building in an upscale neighbourhood near the beach.
Mohamed and I have only been together for a couple of days, but I feel I'm getting to know him. I've pegged him as a progressive guy, a member of the educated elite who will help end the caste system that goes back to the dark ages. I'm looking forward to finally getting a peek into his day-to-day life.
Mohamed points to a two-story high cement walled house. There's a balcony and two-car garage. So far, he's spent $60,000 on it. There are two bathrooms, imported tiles and a computer room.
Just metres away, a tent covered with old bags and bits of plastic leans into the wind. A dozen children run in and out. A handicapped boy sits on the sand next to a goat and a pile of garbage. Inside the tent, a woman nurses a five-day-old baby. There are a few cooking pots, some plastic water containers and a pile of clothes. A pot of tea steams away on an open fire.
Mohamed tells me that these are his guards. They are Haratine. He pays them 15,000 ouguiya — $50 — a month. For that, Mohammed gets round-the-clock service. The father, a man in his 40s named Jeva, makes sure no one steals construction materials.
When I ask whether the family are his slaves, Mohamed says no. Because he pays them, they are simple employees. Slavery is over, he says. They will be free to go when his house is finished and he no longer needs them.
"You never told me about these people," I tell him.
"This is a surprise for you," he says. "I just want to show you that sometimes those that work for you are not really slaves. We pay them a little salary, but that is all we can afford."
Mohamed makes $3,000 a month teaching at the American school. That's 30 times the average salary in Mauritania.
"You know," he says, "life is unfair."
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