Sunday, July 21, 2013

Slaves by any other name

"Slavery is alive and well in Mauritania" - Messaoud ould Boulkheir, President of Mauritania's Parliament, May 2013.

Are there still slaves in Mauritania? Legally, no. Are large numbers of ex-slaves and their descendants still trapped in exploitative systems? Yes.

Mauritania, like its Sahelian neighbours Senegal and Mali, has a long history of slavery. In the Sahara 'household slavery' was seen as an integral cultural element. In this Muslim society, slave marriage and reproduction was widely encouraged; slave children belonged to masters and ensured future generations of slaves. Additionally, there was a formally recognised category of 'freed slaves': haratin.

In Mauritania, all former slaves and their descendants are haratin. When manumission (freeing a slave) followed Islamic law, the resulting relationship (wala) created an ongoing interdependence: former masters owed material, moral and legal assistance, while haratin shared in familial social obligations and religious payments.

Real change came in the wake of the Sahelian drought (1968-74) that drove thousands from the desert into urban centres like Nouadhibou, the Atlantic port, and Nouakchott, the new capital. Most were haratin or slaves whose masters could no longer support them. In the late 1970s, the political group El Hor ('The Freeman') argued for improved conditions for these groups. Its success in publicising their plight internationally forced the government to formally abolish slavery in 1980.

But religiously-sanctioned relationships such as slavery and wala were not jettisoned so easily, especially as few amongst slaves, haratin and masters found sufficient material compensation in the new reforms to risk leaving/rejecting the traditional security of slavery. The institution thus continued.

Today, haratin are the poorest cultivators, fishermen, and herders; they are the urban street people, domestics, semi-employed manual labourers, and poorly-salaried workers (for example, the recently-striking Nouadhibou dock-workers). However, while still a minority, haratin also account for some prominent middle-class professionals (teachers, nurses, journalists, lawyers, architects, professors) and wealthy businessmen.

What constitutes slavery and what determines who is 'slave' in post-abolitionist Mauritania are not straightforward. What the government says about eradicating the 'vestiges of slavery' and what its agents (legal, police and military) do, seldom overlap. It is local experience - rural and urban, private and public - not statutes and laws that defines 'Mauritanian slavery' today.

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