The burden of being black–Mauritania

Slavery, genocide and disenfranchisement

How is it not to know what it is like to be free? To have your every waking, sleeping and living moment and your whole life and destiny in the hands of another that owns you? Yes! OWNS YOU, body and soul, you and your children, and your chidlren’s children. In exactly the same way as any piece of property – land, livestock, furniture, fabric (See ‘The dark side of motherhood’. Link below). For you and I who have never experienced it, we can only wonder, for we can never know. And this is not about history or a hypothetical question, but the here and now: Mauritania in 2012, where African Mauritanians are enslaved by their Arab compatriots.

I read a piece recently via a friend’s post on Facebook that has haunted me since. Sadly, since that post went up, not a single comment other than his own has there been. NOT ONE! Yet, his other status updates are almost all a veritable buzz of conversation. Is it that we don’t care and couldn’t care? An afghanistanisation (in the old news sense before Afghanistan became a hotspot) of the news from a corner (Mauritania)  we cannot find on the world map? Or is it that those who read it are still reeling with shock? Experiencing a sense of the surreal? Well, I cannot of course answer for them, and will not ponder on the whys. Time to move from feelings to chilling and shocking facts on Mauritania today.

  • FACT: Although Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 — the last country in the world to do so — an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the population are still enslaved.
  • FACT: Slavery was only criminalised in 2007, and since then, there has been only one conviction against an enslaver.

And slavery is not all: apartheid is alive and well in Mauritania, with the Arab-dominated government progressively expropriating land owned by Africans, through violent expulsions in flagrant disregard of the law, as well as outright dispossession: the Movement for Justice and Equality in Mauritania reports: “Perhaps the most common method was confiscation through registration. Blacks were prevented from establishing or enforcing their legal claims to land, which were instead allotted to beydanes [Arabs] who were able to use their influence in the bureaucracy to obtain documents for land registration.” Ironically, the country’s name ‘Mauritania’ means ‘Land of the Blacks’!

Mauritania exemplifies what happens when there is external indifference and internally, a wicked cocktail of poverty, ignorance and disenfranchisement, mixed with, and reinforced by, retrogressive tradition and entrenched racism, political dictatorship and religious leaders who condone, nay commend, slavery, that is based on nothing else but ethnic origin. Islam is the official religion, and the population is reportedly 99% Muslim, meaning slaves and enslavers alike are Muslim.

The glaring questions screaming for answers from this grim picture:

  1. What is Islam’s position on enslaving fellow Muslims?
  2. Mauritania is a member of the League of Arab States. What does the League say or do on the atrocities in Mauritania?
  3. Mauritania neighbours Senegal, and ‘shares’ crossborder communities such as the Wolof and the Fula (Peulh). Although Mauritania is not an ECOWAS member (but is an African Union member), where are you, Senegal, Mali, ECOWAS and the African Union on this outrage at your doorstep? Or is Mali in no position to throw stones?
  4. Where is the United Nations?
  5. Where is the rest of the world and the international media? Or is it that Mauritania is of no strategic importance or news value, so you couldn’t care less? Why does the activism against the abuses in Mauritania fail to capture — and retain –your attention? Why won’t you ‘stay with the story’, as one international media house touts itself as doing?

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About Njeri Okono

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6 Responses to The burden of being black–Mauritania

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  3. Taylor says:

    I’m confused by your questions. Are you suggesting with #1 that slavery of other relationships are okay? Your question is narrow as you are only questioning the Muslim to Muslim slavery. It’s okay for Muslims to have Christian slaves, etc.? With all the other questions, you suggest that only external actors can make change, but what of the people. If they care enough, they will make change, or at least attempt to show some effort. Until the oppressed themselves start to act, why would anyone come to their aid, there is no one to aid. What would they help them with? This is a situation where if external actors were to remove something, someone, there would be a vacuum, no one or nothing to fill it. The truth is that Arabs are still enslaving blacks and Asians all over the world. Mauritania is not unique in this way. Perhaps the Arab League prefers to stay out of it b/c many of them have slaves at home. The horror stories coming from wealth middle eastern houses by Asian house help is horrific. The numbers vary widely (like yours 10-20%) about the slaves held in rural/bush areas of Sudan. Most of them are ethnic black Africans held by Arabs. I agree this is an issue that should be addressed, and their are private non-profit organizations who have been for many decades, but to narrow this down to Muslims enslaving Muslims is to devalue the lives of the rest (Christians, Animists, Asians, etc) and you will find little support for your cause, starting with me.

    • Njeri Okono says:

      Thank you for your insightful comment, and I must first start with an explanation: I’m guilty of narrowing the subject but this was purely for focus since I can only say so much comprehensively in a few carefully chosen words and still hope to sustain reader interest to the end. 1) No, I am not at all condoning other types of slavery: it is abhorrent and abominable anywhere and everywhere. Rather, my point is the horror of slavery by people who purport to profess the same faith, worshiping the same deity and supposedly bound by common sacred values, where the sense of ‘other’ does not — or should not — exist. 2) The Mauritanians ARE taking action themselves (subject of another blog currently in process), and getting jailed by their government for their troubles (see for instance). If you follow the link at the bottom of the story, ‘Slavery’s last stronghold’, you will see more examples of local action, as well as the deep tragedy of inaction where indoctrination has been so deep, so severe and so thorough, the enslaved believe this is the natural order of things, knowing no other way, and no other life — a deeper and deadly dimension. These slaves are not even restricted or bound in chains because they are bound in mind! The most evil and insidious slavery of all! My previous blogpost ‘The dark side of Motherhood’, also has links at the bottom to the Movement for Justice and Equality in Mauritania, and the action and arrest of Mauritanian activists against slavery. Nodding with you that indeed, Mauritania is not unique, and that in Africa alone, the belt runs from there through Mali (hence the ‘throw no stones’ observation), Niger, Chad, Sudan and on to Somalia — one and all, members of the League of Arab States, and whether this be termed slavery or human trafficking, it is still about the arrogant sheer audacity and horror of human beings claiming ownership over others. This too is the subject for another blog to come. And nodding with you on the horrifying stories on slavery coming from the Arab world, not restricted to Asians but also to peoples from other parts of the world including Africa. But I had to start somewhere, and Mauritania’s case (where the Arab Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa so violently collide within the same boundaries) is compounded by full and open government complicity, coupled with collusion by the Imams (Islamic leaders), as you will see in the links I have mentioned, hence also the focus on Islam and its values in a country that is reportedly 99% Muslim, and a faith that preaches no separation between the sacred and the profane, holding that Islam is a way of life. The dictatorial and unjust government of Mauritania where Islam is the official religion has massacred and visited genocide on its own citizenry of African descent, on top of the continuing evils of race-based slavery and apartheid. Since this is turning out to be a blogpost rather than a reply, I’ve posted a corollary that expands on Islam and slavery at

    • Saidou Wane says:

      I think the 1st question is pertinent because slave owners in Mauritania have used Islam for centuries to justify this ignoble practice. They’ve interpreted the texts to make it fit, which is, by the way, the subject of a raging debate right now, following the book burning incident (see www

      Speaking of the involvement of the locals, your take illustrate ourfrustration when it comes to international coverage: Very few outsiders know what is going on, let alone be aware that we re fightingback.
      I am an activist, member of an anti aparthei’d movement that is being harshly repressed by the Mauritanian authorities. Taylor

    • Saidou Wane says:

      I apologize my comment was cut off (using a phone).
      I just wanted to let Taylor know that Mauritanians have been fighting this since for decades, unbeknownst to the international opinion. Black African Activists from the previous generations were all sent to death camps in the mid 80’s. Many lost their lives. My generation has taken over. We would love to have international pressure on our government. But even without such help, we read determined to see this through.

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