Where African Slavery Still Exists in the Eyes of Many Mauritania's Ex-Slaves Provide Unpaid Work, Although Slavery Is Illegal

By David Hecht, | The Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

Where African Slavery Still Exists in the Eyes of Many Mauritania's Ex-Slaves Provide Unpaid Work, Although Slavery Is Illegal


David Hecht,, The Christian Science Monitor


Slavery obsesses this desert nation. In parliament, in mosques, lying in tents sipping sweet, green tea, people discuss - and often argue - over whether the Haratin, meaning "former slaves," are in fact free.

Officially, slavery has been illegal in this West African nation almost as long as it has in the United States. Yet many Haratin still provide unpaid services, such as tending livestock and cleaning house. In return, their masters feed and clothe them and are expected to treat them like their own children.

In a society where bartering is still common, is this slavery? The US Congress says it is. In September, it imposed a ban on all economic and military assistance to the government of Mauritania until the practice is "eliminated." But according to the US State Department and the US Embassy in Mauritania, slavery has "virtually disappeared." US antislavery lobbyists, many of whom had never been to Mauritania, testified before two congressional subcommittees, telling of Arab slave raids, women and children being sold for about $15 a head, and exotic tortures for disobedient slaves. Evidence included a receipt for a sale that stated that the buyer "accepts the slave in spite of her insubmissiveness." But Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs William Twaddel disputed this, and much of the testimony. Embassy staff in Mauritania investigated allegations of the slave sale, he told Congress, and concluded that the signatures on the receipt were forged. And his staff couldn't confirm a single case of "involuntary servitude," he said. Arab-Berber Maurs enslaved black Africans in the 8th century. But Mohammed ould Hamidy, Mauritania's former representative to the UN and himself a Haratin, claims slavery was never like it was in the US. "Intermarriage {between slaves and other classes} has always been common and acceptable," Mr. Hamidy says. "The enslaved are a class with mobility." His own father was the chief of a powerful Maurish clan. But other Haratin argue that thousands of their people are not yet free. Messoud ould Boulkheir, head of Action pour le Changement, a political party for the Haratin, says that "many {illiterate slaves} don't even know that slavery has been abolished." In the "slave section" of Boutilimit, a town in the south-west Sahara desert, Haratin complain that they do not have control over their own lives. …

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