Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Forgotten Slaves in Mauritania, Whites Still Have a Lock on Ethnic Blacks

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Forgotten Slaves in Mauritania, Whites Still Have a Lock on Ethnic Blacks

Article excerpt

MAURITANIA is a country that most people, even within Africa, know little about. Nothing else could explain why, 10 years after the "last" emancipation, slavery for blacks in Mauritania remains a pernicious reality.

Mauritania joins the descendants of Arabs and Berbers from the north, known as beydanes, (white men) and the black ethnic communities living in the south. Relations between the two have always been tense. Since independence in 1960, economic and political power have remained firmly in the hands of beydanes. Black slaves have been kept by beydane masters for centuries in the north. Slavery was first abolished in 1905 while Mauritania was a French protectorate, and again in the constitution adopted in 1961. But the life of slaves did not improve. A decree banning slavery was passed on July 5, 1980. But particularly in the north, servitude was abolished only on paper.

The 1980 abolition was a public-relations exercise prompted by external considerations. Haratines, free slaves, mainly the sons and grandsons of slaves who had been "contributed" to the French army by their masters, many of them well-educated, had created a pressure group, El Hor, which became active in '78-'79. Embarrassed by the negative publicity which El Hor's activities attracted, and anxious to forestall the possibility of political opponents using El Hor for other ends, the government rushed to abolish slavery. However, no concerted effort followed to implement needed economic, educational, and social policies.

In late May, I interviewed escaped slaves and haratines in neighboring Senegal. They were unanimous in their opinion that nothing has changed, particularly in the countryside. Although slaves are no longer sold on the open market, they reported sales continue through discreet arrangements, such as "exchanges" or they are given as lifelong "presents." Slaves remain the property of the master's family, without any legal rights. Generally, slaves are still not permitted to marry, have a family, attend school, or go to mosque. The slightest fault is punished savagely. It is clear that the majority are still not aware that slavery has been abolished. …

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