The system of trokosi (“wife of the gods”) has existed in the Volta region of rural Ghana for centuries. During the late 1990s, numbers reached to around 6000 trokosi, most native to Ghana. It also exists in Togo, Benin, and southwestern Nigeria. Fetish priests who run shrines insist that only by handing over a virgin daughter—typically aged between eight and 15—can families atone for alleged offences committed by their relatives or ancestors. These offences range from murder to petty theft. Once the girls are handed over, priests turn them into slaves and impregnate them repeatedly. They are beaten when they try to escape, and are denied education, food, and basic health services. Most remain in slavery for between three and ten years, some for their whole lives. If they die, the family must offer another virgin daughter, and if they are ever released, former trokosis are considered unmarriageable. Any children born to trokosi become slaves, and trokosi are passed on to the next priest upon one priest’s death. Until July 2002, Patience was a trokosi, brought from Togo to a shrine in Ghana at the age of ten. She was released by International Needs-Ghana, which has liberated several thousand trokosi from shrines across southeastern Ghana since 1996. The trokosi practice was banned in Ghana in 1998, but enforcement of the ban has been ineffective: officials are hesitant to restrict the practice because they view it as an integral part of their religious beliefs, and fetish priests claim the right to preserve their forefathers’ culture. Togo and Benin have done little to stop the practice, and practitioners in Ghana bring girls from these countries. Several former trokosis now campaign against the practice.
Salma was born into slavery in Mauritania, one of the last places on earth where hereditary chattel slavery is practiced. She smuggled herself across the Atlantic on a cargo ship to freedom, arriving in the US in 1999. The following year, she sought legal asylum through the New York Association for New Americans. An immigration judge ruled that Salma was a slave entitled to US protection.Salma first told her story in 2003, and updated it here in 2009.
Evelyn Chumbow was taken from her family in Cameroon at age 10 by a man who convinced her parents that she would get a better education in the United States. Instead, she was forced to work as a slave in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, doing manual labor for her captor and being verbally and physically abused.In her narrative, which she delivered before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she asked Congress to address labor trafficking as well as sex trafficking, and referenced a House bill that addresses only sex trafficking.
The vast majority of domestic slaves are girls aged between 12 and 17. Globally, domestic work is rarely scrutinized or legislated, and statistics are hard to obtain. But the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that at least ten million children, some as young as eight, are trapped in domestic labor around the world. There are two million child domestics in South Africa, 700,000 in Indonesia, 559,000 in Brazil, 200,000 in Kenya, millions more in India and Pakistan. The trafficking into domestic labor of children—mainly girls—is estimated to be worth $7 billion per year. Seba was one of these domestic slaves. She left her home country of Mali for France at the age of eight: a couple took her to Paris, promising her parents that they would educate and care for her, in return for work as a nanny. But Seba was enslaved as a household servant, beaten, tortured, and forced to do domestic chores. She was freed when a neighbor heard the sounds of abuse and beating, and managed to talk to her. Seeing her scars, the neighbor called the police and the French Committee against Modern Slavery (CCEM). Medical examinations confirmed that Seba had been tortured. In her narrative, which she told at the age of 22, Seba focuses on her mistreatment at the hands of a “mistress.” Though she does describe an occasion when the husband joined in a beating, most of the narrative is devoted to the starvation, beatings and torture by the wife. As well, while Seba terms the woman “mistress,” she never refers to the man as “master,” only as “[the mistress’] husband.” Showing a woman wholly invested in the institution of slavery, this narrative challenges the equation of mastery and manhood. The image is a drawing by Seba, which she completed while telling her narrative. It was the first time she had ever tried to draw a person.
Tamada was born into slavery in Niger, home to some 43,000 hereditary slaves. Found among four of the country’s eight ethnic groups, slavery is a centuries-old practice in Niger. Slaves are controlled through violence and indoctrination, and are separated from their parents at a young age. Women and girls perform domestic duties, men tend herds of cattle and goats, and children are often passed from one owner to another. Individuals are also born into slavery in Mauritania, Mali, and Chad. Slavery was outlawed in Niger in 1960, when the country claimed independence from France, but this remained a theoretical ban. In May 2003 slavery was made punishable by up to 30 years in prison, and that same year, Tamada learnt that her mother and grandmother had escaped from their master. She decided to do the same. But her turning-point took several months: she waited, worried, and thought about running away, before seizing her children one evening and beginning her escape. Leaving Mali, she crossed the border back into Niger with her two children—the first born when Tamada was 12 years old. She was assisted by Timidria, a human rights organization founded in 1991. Tamada concludes with an acknowledgement that life after bondage remains hard. And the 2003 law seems to have made little difference for other slaves. In September 2004, the Tuareg chief Arissal Ag Amdague made a written promise that he would release 7000 slaves owned by his people. Claiming that his religious beliefs as a Muslim were incompatible with slaveholding, he said he wanted to release the slaves he had inherited. The date was set for this first ever release of slaves in Niger: March 5, 2005, at a ceremony in the village of Inates, near the border with Mali. But no mass emancipation took place. Instead, on March 5, just a month after Tamada had narrated her story, Amdague stood before the crowd and denied that he owned any slaves.
Like her mother and grandmother before her, Salma Mint Saloum was born into slavery in Mauritania. Slavery was first abolished in Mauritania in 1905, by colonial French rulers, and again when Mauritania joined the UN in October 1961. It was abolished for the third time in 1981 by the Military Committee of National Salvation. But the situation didn’t fundamentally change: masters don’t have to pay their slaves or provide any sort of social security; the ban did not address how masters were to be compensated or how slaves were to gain property; and there was no provision for enforcement. This arrangement allows the legal fiction of slavery’s abolition to continue. In 2003 Mauritania passed a law that made slaveholding punishable by fines and imprisonment but no slaveholder has been prosecuted. As Salma explains in her narrative, “[i]t doesn’t matter what the laws say there, because there they don’t apply the laws.” In 1997 Salma decided not to wait any longer, and liberated herself. She crossed the river border into Senegal, but still didn’t feel free. As she notes, “I was free. I still wasn’t free.” She felt that to be “truly free,” beyond the danger of re-enslavement, meant going to the US, and so began a journey that retraced the route of the transatlantic middle passage, though with a very different outcome. In the US, Salma observes, she experienced “total liberty.” Her narrative includes a long section that compares her life as a slave with her life as a free person, and Salma defines this new freedom. She focuses on freedom of expression, and being able “to talk with people I choose to talk to…to be free to go where I want, to eat what I want, to sleep where I want.” Freedom also means being able to “make decisions concerning my own children,” for in Mauritania she “never had the right” had to “watch the children of the master’s wife” instead of her own. Most importantly, however, freedom means being paid for her work. This, she emphasizes, is “really liberty.”Salma first told her story, as printed here, in 2003, and updated it in 2009.
Selek’ha Mint Ahmed Lebeid was born into slavery in Mauritania. She escaped in 2000 at the age of 20 after she reached a turning-point and realized she was a slave: “I felt my situation was wrong. I saw how others lived.” One day she started walking and didn’t stop until she was free. Then, with the human rights organization SOS Slaves, Selek’ha returned to seek the release of her mother, Oumoulkhér. Virtually all extended families of the dominant White Moor caste in Mauritania have owned slaves for generations: slaves are the property of a male family member and children of slave women become property too. Slave families usually live within their master’s household, are not paid for their work, and generally have no freedom of movement. They work as herders of livestock, agricultural workers, and domestic servants. As in the 19th-century American South, race matters intensely: most slaveholders are Arab Berbers and most slaves are descendents of black Africans. Estimates of the number of black Africans enslaved in Mauritania range from 100,000 to one million, a vast proportion of the country’s three million population.
In 1999, Roseline Odine reached the turning-point where she could be a slave no longer: “That’s it. That’s it,” she said. Roseline’s narrative features a long escape sequence as she moved through the turning-point from slavery to freedom. Roseline spent two and a half years as a domestic slave in Washington DC. Promised an American education and a babysitting jobs, she was tricked into leaving her family in Cameroon at the ages of 14. Upon arrival in the US she worked long hours for no money, was not sent to school, and was beaten and verbally abused. Roseline was also sexually harassed. She recounts a process of indoctrination and mind-control that eventually meant she “didn’t want to talk to the cop because of what she [her enslaver] had told me in the house—that America’s no good.” After escaping, Roseline met Louis Etongwe, a cousin of the man who drove her to safety. She told him that there were two more Cameroonian slaves in the area. Louis helped them to escape, then took tapes of all three girls to Cameroon to show their parents and gather evidence against the traffickers. Roseline’s captors, Louisa and Kevin, were eventually convicted, sentenced to nine years in prison, and told to pay her $100,000 in restitution. Kevin was also convicted of attempted sexual assault.
Oumoulkhér Mint Mahmoud was born into slavery in Mauritania. Her daughter Selek’ha escaped and returned with the human rights organization SOS Slaves, to seek the release of Oumoulkhér. But Oumoulkhér initially refused to leave her master, and it was only when Selek’ha began to cry, in response to insults from the master’s wives, that she got “angry and…decided to leave.” Oumoulkhér’s narrative oscillates between assertions that freedom remains out of reach (“I am still a slave”) and acknowledgements that she is now free (“I was a good slave”). Oumoulkhér’s initial reluctance to accept her freedom because she is “an old lady” symbolizes the ancient and deeply-rooted form of slavery practiced in Mauritania: chattel slavery, more difficult to dislodge than the new slavery of the global economy. The practice of buying, selling, and breeding Africans hasn’t stopped in Mauritania since the 13th century, when Arab invaders entered the country to convert the Africans to Islam, abducted women and children, and bred a new caste of slaves. Slaves are raised to believe that serving their Arabo-Berber masters is a religious duty and most remain in bondage their whole lives.
Jean-Robert Cadet, a former child slave in Haiti, confronts the problem of freedom. The slave experience is not over for him: “nightmares…haunt me well into my adulthood…the trauma lasts a lifetime.” His childhood can “never be recovered,” and he will “feel its absence for the rest of my life.” The narrative quotes his wife’s observation that sometimes the “reality from decades ago is up on us again."As a restavek (Creole for “stay with”), Jean-Robert was one of thousands of Haitian children who are sent by their poor rural families to stay with wealthier families. Supposedly they will be treated like one of the family and enrolled in school, in exchange for domestic labor. But this rarely happens. Instead they work 14 hours a day for no compensation and are frequently abused. Slavery was supposedly abolished in Haiti after the revolt of 1794-1804, when African slaves fought and overthrew their French masters, and declared the colony of Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola an independent republic. But as Haiti’s economy collapsed, and the country became the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, the restavek system exploded. The Haitian government estimates that 90,000-120,000 children are enslaved as restaveks, but the UN puts this number at 300,000—or one in ten children in Haiti. Some are as young as four years old, and 75 percent are girls, many of whom are sexually exploited.
Christina Elangwe spent five years as a domestic slave in Washington DC, held by Cameroonians. Promised an American education and a babysitting job, she was tricked into leaving her family in Cameroon at the age of 17. Upon arrival in the US, she worked long hours for no money, was not sent to school, and were beaten and verbally abused.A man called Louis Etongwe helped Christina and two other women to escape, then took tapes of all three to Cameroon to show their parents and gather evidence against the traffickers. Christina’s captors received five years probation and were ordered to pay her $180,000 in back wages. So far she has received about $2000.
Maria Suarez marks the turning-point in her decades-long journey from slavery to freedom as the moment when a bird knocked at her window. She had no idea she about to be freed, but when the bird came she knew that she “was going to have some good news.” She waited, and minutes later officials told her she was going to be free. At the age of 15, in 1976, Maria immigrated legally to the US from Michoacan, Mexico, with her father. She was soon approached on the street in Los Angeles by a woman offering work as a cleaner. But instead the woman sold her to 68-year-old Anselmo Covarrubias for $200, and Covarrubias made her his domestic slave. For five years he held her in bondage in his house in the Los Angeles suburb of Azusa, raped and beat her, and threatened her with black arts wizardry. Maria believed that he read her mind, possessed her soul, and would hurt her family if she told anyone about the abuse. In August 1981, Covarrubias was bludgeoned to death with a table leg by Pedro Soto, who was renting a converted garage on the property. Maria washed the weapon and hid it under the house, as directed by Soto. She was arrested, along with Soto and his wife. Soto was convicted of first-degree murder, and his wife was convicted of soliciting murder and being an accessory to a felony. Maria was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, sentenced to 25 years to life, and incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in Corona. Officials eventually confirmed that she suffered from battered woman’s syndrome — allowed as a legal defense in California after in 1992 — and she was paroled in 2003, after five years in slavery, and 22.5 years in prison. But Maria still wasn’t free: according to federal law, non-citizens convicted of violent crimes must be deported upon their release, and she was taken directly to a federal detention facility. She spent more than five months fighting deportation, then was certified as a trafficking victim eligible for a T-visa—a new status for victims of slavery and trafficking in the US. She was freed in May 2004.
Kavita’s psychological turning-point from slavery to freedom came some months after her escape from domestic slavery. As she explains, there was no turning-point upon her initial arrival at a shelter: “I was very scared. I refused to speak for the first two days. I just cried and cried.” It was only when she reversed the most traumatic aspect of her experience in slavery that Kavita reached a turning-point. Trafficked with her younger sister into domestic servitude within India in 2002, at the age of 12, Kavita was forced to watch her sister “beaten up, tortured, made to work every day.” She recalls “sitting in a corner, tied, a witness to the beating of my younger sister…unable to protect her…Each time I think about that, I just stagnate.” But when she was encouraged her to “help out the tiny ones” at the shelter, Kavita was able to counter this trauma. She began to gain confidence to “start my life afresh.” There are millions of enslaved domestics in India, and a further 264,000 child domestics in Pakistan. Children are often sent away from their villages to work in order to clear a family debt. These loans have immensely high rates of interest, and in many cases no remuneration is given at all. The debt is often passed onto a younger sibling or onto the domestic’s own children. The children work 15 or more hours a day, seven days a week, for little or no pay under abusive conditions, generally have little or no freedom of movement, are denied schooling, and are often sexually exploited. Consequently, domestic work is often a precursor to commercial sex work. Many domestics in India—some as young as seven or eight—are on duty around the clock, sleep on the kitchen floor, eat leftovers, and have no holidays or rest breaks.
After several months in slavery, Beatrice Fernando reached the point of no return. Standing on a fourth-floor balcony in Beirut, Lebanon, she realized there was “no other way to get home” but to “dive backwards.” In a recent interview she explained of her decision to step off the balcony: “When we take a step against slavery, the world will take another step.”In 1980, at the age of 23, Beatrice had responded to an advertisement for work as a housemaid in Lebanon. She left her home country of Sri Lanka, intending to send money to her parents and her three-year-old son. But in Beirut she became a domestic slave. She was locked inside a home, starved, beaten, never paid, and forbidden from communicating with the outside world. Guards were instructed to shoot her if she tried to leave. After she reached a turning-point and escaped by jumping from the apartment’s fourth floor, she spent 21 days in a coma. Doctors told her that she was paralyzed. After 14 months in hospital she recovered from the paralysis and returned to Sri Lanka. In 1989 she came to live and work in the US.