Boubacar Messaoud, the son of slaves who toiled in the fields of Mauritanian landowners, remembered stopping one day when he was 7 to see what was going on. Local children being signed up for school. He asked a cousin of his family's owner to help him enroll.
"I can't," the man replied. "What will your master say?" Messaoud put down the watermelon he was carrying and cried.
The ancient tradition of slavery endures in the West African nation today, although it was officially abolished in the 1980s. There are roughly half a million slaves among a population of 3.3 million, and at least 80 percent do not have access to a formal education, Messaoud said during recent visit here.
Messaoud founded the antislavery group SOS Slaves in 1995. He has waged many battles on behalf of slaves since that day more than 50 years ago when he faced his first obstacle to breaking the shackles.
A French principal, who found the young Messaoud sobbing, shamed the slave master's cousin into registering him. Messaoud became the first in his family to go to school. He went to college and became an architect.
Messaoud remembered the promise of possibility on his first day of school. But he also remembered being bullied by classmates as inferior. "When you go out in mixed society, life is hard," he said.
Slavery has been perpetuated in Mauritania by the persistence of tradition, distorted notions of religious obligation, and a reluctance by some law enforcement agents to apply the law, especially in rural areas. Slaves are unaware that they are entitled to equal rights and don't know how to seek justice, so their bondage continues, Messaoud said.
In March 2007, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi was elected president of Mauritania after negotiating with a bloc of freed slaves and pledging to enforce new legislation criminalizing slavery. It became law in August 2007.
Messaoud welcomed the president's "courageous act" but continues to urge further changes. Slaves freed by their proprietors still suffer discrimination long after their days of bondage. Though most slaves are black, owners are black or white, Messaoud said, emphasizing that slavery persists because of tradition and a socialized mind-set, not race.
No regulations prohibit slaves from going to school, voting or running for office, but few do. Messaoud, who has been jailed three times for his activism, said slavery also persists in Niger, Senegal, Mali, and other sub-Saharan African countries.
He has been threatened for tarnishing his country's image. But he continues to speak out. "I am convinced that a society that does not look at itself in the face is condemned," he said.