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.
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.