In 1981, Mauritania’s government abolished slavery, becoming the last country in the world to do so. But the presidential decree offered no legal provision to punish slave owners. In 2007, under international pressure, the government passed a law that allowed slaveholders to be prosecuted. Yet slavery persisted, even as the government and religious leaders denied it. In 2013, the Global Slavery Index estimated that at least 140,000 people were enslaved in Mauritania, out of a population of 3.8 million. Women and children make up most of Mauritania’s slave class. When boys come of age, they sometimes manage to leave their masters’ families. Adult women are considered minors by Mauritanian custom, and female slaves face greater difficulty escaping. In the countryside, entire communities of slaves live in the service of their masters, on call for labor whenever they are needed....
Over the course of centuries, Berbers from North Africa and Arabs came to inhabit what is now Mauritania. They took black African slaves, creating an entrenched racial hierarchy. Over time, the bloodlines of the masters and the slaves mixed and they came to share a language—Arabic or an Arabic dialect—and cultural practices: As the masters imposed their traditions, the slaves lost their own. As a result, and disturbingly, slave owners often referred to their slaves as family. In modern Mauritania, people speak of the mingled Arab-Berbers as White Moors and the slaves as Haratin. White Moors, a minority, hold most of the country’s wealth and political power. Haratin, who have dark skin, are a permanent underclass, even after they are freed. Haby and Biram, the activist who freed her, were Haratin. Somewhere between these two castes are Afro-Mauritanians, ethnic groups also found in Senegal that have never been enslaved. People endured slavelike conditions in nearby countries, but slavery in Mauritania was unusually severe and persistent. Because of those extreme conditions, the antislavery movement in Mauritania had become among the most radical activist movements in Africa....
I arrived in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, in late January 2014 from my home base in Lagos, Nigeria. I wanted to see the place where, almost unbelievably, widespread slavery still existed, and to meet the man who was fighting back. It took two flights: one to Senegal, which lies just under Mauritania, and its seaside capital city, Dakar, where I stayed for a night with a photographer friend in her apartment that faced the sea. After a quick pancake breakfast the next morning, I boarded a Senegal Air flight to Nouakchott.
I was a little uneasy before going. I had been to North Africa just once, to Egypt, and, even though Mauritania was not considered wholly North African, the racism and xenophobia I had seen in Egypt against black immigrants made me wary.
20 August 2018
Slavery in Mauritania
From A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, by Alexis Okeowo (Hachette Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 33, 38-39, 40: