When reflecting upon slavery, we see it as an abominable affliction toward our natural rights as human beings. As much as we try to comprehend it, we can never truly grasp the reality of such a scenario because it hasn’t, and most likely never will, happen to us. Yet for some, slavery is as part of natural life as breathing and walking.
From the beginning days of African slavery, to sex trafficking of minors in Southeast Asia, many forms of slavery continue to exist in various parts of the world today. In Western Africa, nestled between Senegal and Western Sahara and bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, Mauritania is a dry, vast desert country with endless dunes and scorching temperatures.
It is here that slavery, the kind that “American plantation owners dreamed of,” exists. But it is much more complicated than that. Slavery in Mauritania is not a depiction of captured slaves in shackles and chains. Slavery has been long been ingrained into Mauritanian culture and accepted as a part of life for many centuries now.
Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery. However, the government has done little in prosecuting those who continue to own slaves and practice slavery.
In 1981, slavery
was officially banned in Mauritania, but it wasn’t until 2007 that parliament finally passed a law that criminalized slavery. In January 2011, Oumoulmoumnine Mint Bakar was found guilty of enslaving two girls and given a six month prison sentence for child labour. In November 2011, Ahmed Ould El Hassine was sentenced a 2-year imprisonment for slavery. These are the only two successful convictions on record.
Disturbingly, when questioned as to how they felt about being slaves, many were perplexed by the notion of slavery. As if stuck in time, Mauritania is as it always has been for centuries.The traditional slave-owning class is lighter-skinned Arabs— White Moors who enslave ethnic Hratine groups.
Centuries ago, lighter-skinned Arab Berbers (White Moors) captured the dark-skinned ancestors of the Hratine groups and enslaved them. Slavery has been so long ingrained and socially accepted that it has been “passed down” from generation to generation. If you are a slave, then your children will also become slaves, and so forth— it is never-ending cycle of slavery. The slave owners in Mauritanian exercise full ownership over their slaves to the point that they are merely possessions.
In one compelling testimony, Moulkheir Mint Yarba, an escaped slave, described her experience as being treated like an animal; constantly working without pay, being exploited and abused. A moment that hauntingly resonates is her account of finding her newborn baby left to die in the sun by the slave owner. Her newborn baby was a result of a rape by the very same slave owner.
Part of the reason why slavery is so deeply-rooted is because of the misuse of Islam. Slaves are led to believe that they are bounded to their masters, and by obeying their masters they would get into heaven. In actuality, Islam dictates that a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim.
The power of religion is such a significant factor in perpetuating slavery because of the control it exercises over those who are enslaved. Those enslaved accept their fates because they believe they will be forsaken otherwise. Even now, the Mauritanian government does little to enforce punishment and turns a partial eye to slavery. When CNN’s reporter John D. Sutter traveled to Mauritania, Sutter and his crew conducted the story
under the guise of locust research. The government does not prohibit the interrogation of the slavery issue.
There are organizations like Anti-Slavery International and SOS Esclaves dedicated to rescuing slaves and rehabilitating them into society as capable citizens. Due to the political instability in Mauritania, anti-slavery organizations face many obstacles due to how dominant slavery is in their society.
When I think of slavery, I remember the history books— the lectures from class— and the things that have taught me what slavery was in our history. Now when I think of slavery, I think of its relation to my life.
I am fortunate enough to have freedom and the right to exercise that freedom. I am not owned by anyone, nor does anyone have the right to say that I’m a thing. I am grateful, which makes it all the more saddening. Because everyone has the right to live their own lives. We only get one; no one else’s life should have to belong to someone else.
So when I think of slavery and its relation to my life, I imagine the faces from the photographs of slaves I have seen. But they aren’t merely slaves to me. They are people who are living in the same time as us, but in such an environment reminiscent to the ones we have read in our history books. These people have stories that need to be told, stories to be heard, and stories to be shared.
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