Thursday, November 08, 2018

Mauritania's slavery endures

Slavery is a word spoken in whispers in Mauritania. But no one will admit to owning slaves anymore, and no slave will admit to being one.

Day after day, Aminetou Mint Yarg and her fellow villagers in southern Mauritania haul water from the river and tend to their crops under a burning desert sun. In good years, they grow fields of corn, millet and beans. But the profits are not theirs to reap.
"The land belongs to our masters," says Yarg, referring to members of the light-skinned elite, known as white Moors. When the harvest is good, they come from the city to take their part.
Yarg is descended from a family of slaves that have for decades served a family of masters. This is the predominant structure of society in Mauritania, an Islamic republic on the Sahara's western edge that straddles Arab and black Africa.
Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, the last country to do so, and criminalised it in 2007. There have been just four prosecutions of slave-owners. The government rejects international figures, saying cases of slavery exist, but the practice is not widespread.
Most are hidden in plain sight, rights groups say. While some are housemaids who pass as employees, many live without their masters, bound by a lack of options and a belief that slavery is their fate, activists say.
"Of course if you're expecting to see people in chains then you won't see that," said Karine Penrose-Theis, Africa programme coordinator for British-based group Anti-Slavery International. "The dependency relationship can be much more subtle, much more invisible than that."
The distinction between slave and former slave is blurred here, as it is rarely more than a generation past, said Brahim Bilal Ramdhane, who was born into slavery and is now a leading activist. Today many descendants of slaves live freely because their labour is not needed, he said. But they or their children will be sent for when the master's family wants a herder or a maid.
"Everyone knows who has a master that still comes often, or who has a daughter with the master in the city," Ramdhane said.

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