Mauritania has outlawed slavery; it has yet to end
Nouakchott, Mauritania — Sidi Muhammad, a high-school student in this West African desert country, said he is emphatically opposed to slavery. "Slavery is a social scourge," he said without hesitation.
For Sidi Muhammad, as for most Mauritanians, slavery is not an abstract entity. For traditional law holds that this son of a noble family will one day inherit about 25 slaves who now belong to his grandfather.
Sidi Muhammad said he will liberate them all when they come under his control.
Ahmad, another Mauritanian high-school student of noble birth, is also against slavery. In 1875, he liberated the slave given him by his family. "Because I am a young Mauritanian for democracy," he explained.
But there are still slaves attached to Ahmad's family. In fact, as Ahmad spoke, a girl of about 10, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, entered the room. She was introduced as one of the family's slaves.
Homad, about 25, is an ex-slave who fled his master about 10 years ago. Burly and energetic, he first found work in Mali as a porter and then as a shepherd.
Today he is a domestic servant for Ahmad's family in Nouakchott, earning about $50 a month -- a salary that puts him above the average annual income of $ 465. Homad said he sends part of his salary to his former master each month in the hope it will be distributed to his parents, who remained behind.
Despite the July 5, 1980, declaraton by the Mauritanian government that banned slavery "for good," meeting with Mauritanians -- like those recounted above -- make it evident that the institution of slavery still exists and will continue to exist for some time to come in this former French colony.
"You want to know the effect of the declaration? Nothing," said Egyptian sociologist Mona Fikry, who has been studying Mauritanian society for two years for the Rural Assessment and Manpower Survey (RAMS), a project funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Fikry and others familiar with Mauritania's socioeconomic structure hasten to point out that slavery here is not based on the same type of brutality as that which governed the relationship of the American slave and his master.
A slave here is part of the family, and slavery part of an indigenous tradition in a society that has been rigidly stratified for at leat 300 years. According to Ms. Fikry, being a master implies a series of financial responsibilities toward those in one's charge, including the providing of food and clothing.
"The physically inhuman conditions linked to the Western form of slavery are inconceivable here," reported Abdul Wedoud Ould Cheikr, a Mauritanian sociologist at the Mauritanian Scientific Institute, in July 1980.
In general, observers say pressures are mounting toward the eradication of the institution of slavery. Under increasing public and legal scrutiny its practitioners are no longer so flagrant as they were 20 years ago. Slaves cannot be openly bought or sold (though there is little doubt among the experts that with a sufficient amount of cash and discretion a purchase could be arranged in one of the country's remoter regions).
Groups demanding rights for slaves and ex-slaves are emerging even if not yet officially recognized. Moreover, the continuing economic hard times -- aggrevated by 10 years of drought -- are making the system more onerous for both master and slave.
Still, despite the evolution, slavery continues to be one of the fundamental facts of daily life in Mauritania, in its hinterland as well as in its capital. "The institution [of slavery] exists and in spite of definite changes it is perpetuated by a strong atavistic sense of tradition," said Cheikr, whose study was commissioned by the USAID-funded RAMS project.
And in its essential aspect, slavery remains the same as it has always been. "Slaves are traditionally never in complete control of their destiny and are in a permanent state of dependency," said Cheikr.
There are two types of slaves in Mauritania: abd and haratin. The former are domestic slaves occupied with household tasks; the latter field workers or herdsmen who live in a feudal relationship to their master. In the case of his grandfather, explained Sidi Muhammad, the haratin keep one-third of their harvest and return two-thirds to the master. For his part, the master allows the haratin the use of land that legally belongs to the master's family.
There are no reliable figures for the number of slaves in Mauritania, but "it would not be an exaggeration to say that the bulk of the traditional agricultural labor force . . . of Mauritania is composed of slaves and ex-slaves ," said Cheikr. Almost 50 percent of the workforce in a country of about 2 million people is estimated to work in the agricultural sector, according to the 1977 census.
Mauritania is not alone in having a heritage of slavery. In most of traditional Africa, society was divided into a three-tiered hierarchy: nobles on top, artisans in the middle, and slaves on the bottom.
With the increase in education and the advance of wage labor, these divisions have become less important in other African countries. But in Mauritania, where the economy is still largely nonmonetized, class distinctions remain institutionalized.
For the Mauritanian government the legal abolition of slavery may be the least thorny of the problems it faces. In fact, slavery had already been banned twice in Mauritania -- by the French in 1905 and again when the country gained independence in 1960. The far more important problems are the economic ones.
The government has tried, in part, to attack these problems by promising to compensate the masters against the loss of their slaves. Though this intention was made public last July, no further details have been issued on how it is to be implemented.
Some observers, such as Fikry, criticize the government for not taking measures to help economically integrate the freed slave. After all, continues this vein of criticism, of what practical value is liberty in a society where, according to the 1977 census, 24 percent of the urban population is unemployed, where 10 years of drought in a cuntry already four-fifths desert have severely limited the agricultural possibilities, and where less than half the population's food needs can be met by national production?
"It's not the legal system, but the economic system that keeps the slave enslaved. The question is: What are the alternatives? Where are they going to go?" said John Grayzel, an anthropologist-lawyer with USAID in Nouakchott.
To integrate the ex-slave into the country's economic circuit, the government must grant the right of ownership to the slaves who have worked the land for years and not to the noble family who has held the legal title, said Fikry. A land reform commission is studying the problem but has not yet issued a report.
Beyond the legal and economic measures, the abolition of slavery will require a change in some of the deeply imbedded attitudes of Mauritanians. In the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, something as basic as the will of Allah will have to be rethought. For example, Moctar, a nobleman and the proprietor of many slaves in his lifetime, explained that the institution of slavery is divinely sanctioned. It is God's will that slaves are ignorant and masters intelligent, he said.
He recounted that 15 years ago he had freed a slave who went to Nouadhibou, the country's economic capital, where he was hired to work in an iron mine. "There are always problems and it is always the master who must resolve them," said Moctar. First, the slave, lacking identification papers, could not cash his paycheck. Second, the slave lied about his origins and took a Mauritanian wife of noble descent.
"They can cut your throat for that. That is very dangerous in Mauritania," explained Ahmad, who was interpreting from Arab to French.
The wife, who suspected that she had been lied to, brought the slave before an Islamic priest in order to settle the matter. The priest called Moctor, who divorced the couple on the spot, a right accorded the master by traditional law.
Even for the educated, successful ex-slave it is difficult to overcome the traditional mentality. "It is impossible to integrate being an ex-slave. They [ the ex-slaves] use different means. They will say they are something else," reported Fikry. "No one is proud of having been a slave."