|Abdi and his master|
Mauritania – They Live In Slavery
AUTHOR: Garba Diallo,1996
Translated by Courtesy of the author
Abdi is not an ordinary name which free people choose for their children. Abdi means slave in Arabic and the name is typically reserved for black slaves. Even though slavery was officially abolished in 1980, for the third time in independent Mauritania, slavery and slave trade are still a living reality.
Because of the massive sexual exploitation of female slaves by white male masters, the slave population has increased to become the largest single ethnic group in the country.
Mauritania’s population consists of about two million inhabitants: 32 per cent free black Africans of Fulani, Soninke and Wolof ethnic origins, 28 per cent white Moors of Arab-Berber origin, and 40 percent black slaves known as Abid or Haratin. The slaves belong to the white Moors, who have monopolized the government in the country since the French colonial regime transferred political power to them in 1960. The white Moors have no intention or interest in abolishing slavery, because this may incite the slaves into challenging Moorish supremacy.
New dimension of slavery
In cultural clashes between the Moorish regime and free black Africans, slaves have been used by the regime as buffer and death squads against the Africans. Slaves like Abdi still identify with, and blindly obey their masters. Thus, slavery has assumed a new and deadly, dimension. The current military regime of colonel Taya is aware of this and is exploiting slave power to settle old scores with the free blacks who resist and challenge Moorish hegemony.
Since the Afro-Arab conflict exploded into violent clashes in 1989, slaves have been organized into militia groups, which the government uses to massacre and deport blacks to Senegal and Mali. Like in the apartheid days of South Africa, they are being manipulated into black-on-black mutual destruction.
I met Abdi in his master’s shop near Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar on August 3, 1994. Dakar is not just the capital of Senegal, but also one of the busiest urban centers in West Africa. Here, one can meet West African students, academics, elites and officials, who are there to study or to take part in endless regional forums. Dakar is also the meeting point for micro and macro business men and women coming to make or lose money. More colour is added to the urban chaos by all the foreign tourists who come by the thousands in their red, bare legs every year.
Established in 1958, the university is one of the oldest and most prestigious education centres in West Africa. Obviously Abdi did not end up here to learn in order to join the few elite of the region. He was brought here from Mauritania by his master, who was seeking profit. The master can work him to death with impunity and then send for another slave.
Shockingly, no one seems to notice that a black slave is still being kept in bondage, right in the heart of Dakar by his Moorish enslaver. The modern chaos brings certain freedoms to the rapidly growing informal business underworld.
Like in many other parts of the continent, the colonially created state of Mauritania is withering away. The role of the state has been reduced by the IMF and World Bank conditions that ensure the dictator’s protection from being lynched by the hungry and angry urban masses.
The Moorish master is not worried at all that this capital crime might be discovered, or that people passing by his shop might hang him in the tree growing just outside. Decidedly, the university students who are regular customers of the slave shop must have learned that slavery was abolished in the former French colonies already in 1905.
Prior to the 1980 abolition, slavery had been declared illegal in 1960 and 1966, but only on paper. The slave holders have become so accustomed to exploiting blacks as slaves for the last thousand years, that they cannot give up living on the backs of their slaves just like that. Both slaves and enslavers have internalized the slave-master status quo in such a way, that it would take more than just official decrees to eradicate slavery in the country.
The latest abolition was motivated by different factors. After a decade of catastrophic drought, most of the nomadic masters became so poor that they were no longer able even to feed themselves, not to mention to keep and feed a large number of slaves. Thousands of slaves were therefore released into the already overcrowded urban centres, where their masters hoped they would be able to collect a living for the masters’ households. Masters are not supposed to do manual labour. While some slaves were recruited as menial soldiers to fight in the West Sahara War from 1976 to 1979, others hung around and hustled, stealing or selling basics like water. When Mauritania withdrew from the Sahara War, the slave soldiers were demobilized and sent to the streets.
Aborted liberation struggle
Enlightened slaves organized themselves and established an emancipation movement called “El Hor” meaning freedom. El Hor’s aim was the total abolition of slavery and effective and concrete measures to help the slaves become economically independent.
This was the only way to cultivate self respect and psycho-social emancipation. Although the methods El Hor chose were peaceful and mild, this nevertheless created panic within the white Moorish community and its military regime. The organization was challenging both the traditional social order and the military dictatorship.
Their liberation campaign was about to paralyse the slave market and make it impossible for the masters to sell human beings on the open market. Outside Mauritania, El Hor managed to draw the attention of international media and human rights groups to the persistence of slavery in the country. The result was embarrassing pressures on the regime from abroad.
To prevent a full scale slave revolution leading to real emancipation and the demise of minority rule, the regime of colonel Ould Haidalla decreed on July 5, 1980 abolition and the imposition of the Islamic Sharia Law. Sharia gives masters the right to compensation for setting their slaves free. Thus, the abolition decree stipulated that slavery was abolished throughout Mauritania, and that a national commission composed of Muslim legal experts, economists and administrators would be established to assess how much the masters would be compensated for each slave lost by the abolition.
Nothing was done to free the slaves in any meaningful sense of the word. But the regime managed to achieve its objectives, which were to deflect both external and internal pressures, while satisfying the masters at the same time. The masters are the same white Moors who control the state machinery for their own exclusive benefit. In this way, real emancipation was aborted.
For Abdi it was safer to remain with his master, who is morally responsible for his household and animals. Abdi is not responsible, nor is he a human being with feelings or the right to make a family. He is a machine that works like hell without pay or rest. Like the machine, Abdi needs only to be fed to oil his black muscles from cracking. His master can take him anywhere and make him carry out any task. He can be legally sold, given away, used to pay a bride price, or castrated to avoid mating with the master’s harem.
The master’s right comes before that of God, and he has the right to sleep with any of Abdi’s female relatives, as they are by law his concubines. Abdi is not even allowed to go to the mosque if his master needs him. If he tries to escape, the master applies the dreaded camel torture on him. Abdi is mounted on a thirsty camel with his legs tied under the belly. Then the ship of the desert is allowed to drink. As the huge belly expands, Abdi’s legs crack and he will never be able to run away again.
If Abdi uses his head “too much”, the master sends insects down his ears. A large belt around his head blocks his ears, while both his hands are tied behind his back. As the insects struggle to get out, Abdi is driven to insanity. The vast majority of the slaves are so brain-washed, that they would consider it a sin to escape from their masters. Their ancestors were kidnapped into slavery long ago, and their offspring have been brought up to believe that Allah created two groups of people: slaves and masters, each playing specific and eternal roles in society.
Slave and master go to Dakar
Abdi, another slave and their master had come to Dakar some years ago. Perhaps the master intended to use his slaves as starting capital for his business. Small businesses thrive and bring quick profit, especially for a foreigner with free slave labourers who can melt in as Senegalese in Dakar.
There are no state controlled opening hours, so the two slaves work almost 24 hours a day, and eat and sleep inside the shop in shift. I coincidentally stopped by the shop to buy a drink. Abdi was busy selling basic items to customers from the university. There was another man helping Abdi. I recognized them as Mauritanian slaves, because they were black and spoke the Arabic dialect of the white Moor community of Mauritania.
This made me curious to want to talk with the two men about their business in Dakar. Without telling them that I was actually a black Mauritanian like them, we conversed across the counter of the shop. But they were hesitant to my inquiries concerning their life in Dakar and the situation in Mauritania. After a while though, they said that they were running the shop “together” with their master.
I wondered where the master was.
Abdi smiled and pointed behind the counter. There he was, a little shabby looking white Moor, sleeping while his two black slaves toiled for him. Before he woke up, I was able to steal a couple of shots of him and his two slaves.
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