There are an estimated 90,000 people living in modern slavey in Mauritania (GSI 2018). Mauritania is one of the last countries in the world where people are still born into hereditary slavery, which means they are literally owned by other people, and forced to work for masters their entire lives. People in slavery come from the Haratine ethnic group, historically enslaved by White Moors. They can be bought and sold, or given as gifts, and face a lifetime of exploitation and abuse. Rape of female slaves is common and their children also become slaves. They are Muslims, and many believe that it is Allah’s wish for them to be enslaved because they are told that their paradise is bound to their Master. In reality, Islam dictates that a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim. Since 2007 slavery has been criminalised in Mauritania but the law is not enforced and the government is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of the problem.
Mbareck ould Mahmoud was born into inherited slavery in 1970. Shared among different families, Mbareck was forced to live as a nomadic shepherd as well as performing domestic work. Mbareck and his sister were subjected to physical violence and often had their food restricted. He notes how some families were more lenient than others, some allowing him and his sister to go to Qoranic school while others threatened him if he ever went again. Mbareck notes how his life changed when someone who had previously escaped slavery visited the village and told him and his sister that they could do the same. After escaping and returning to their father, Mbareck began working odd jobs at a cinema for a small sum of money. Mbarek later became an Islamic preacher.
I was born around 1970 in the area surrounding the village of Afjayjir also called Ngaday, about fifty kilometers from Nouakchott. My earliest memories start at the age of 7 or 8 years old. I lived in slavery of a particular genre: my family was dispersed between several masters. We inherited the slavery status from my mother and my brothers and sisters and I belonged to several different families. My eldest sister and I simultaneously belonged to four families that exploited us at each turn. We would spend a trimester with every family at their home. Since people were nomads back then, we used to travel as shepherds. We performed also all the domestic work. I have the memory of extreme child abuse and above all a lack of sufficient food. I could barely find something to eat. I was always starving. We had only a little to eat. I remember that I was very exhausted at night and that I fell asleep literally at once upon getting home. Therefore, I never ate at night: in the morning I searched for the remaining food. I have a very clear memory of one of my masters giving me the rest of some tea leaves that had already been used and that they normally give to the animals. I rummaged at an early hour in the morning in search of the leftovers following the slave women who could have saved a variety of leftovers from the diner of the night before. I was mistreated and hit for the smallest prank. While we were exploited at each turn by the three families, certain families were more lenient than others. Naturally, I had never been to school. I remember that my sister met a village woman who had kindly welcomed me into her Qoranic school as a student. She was willing to teach me the Qoran, the Arab alphabet...I have a vague memory of this, but what I do remember is that one of the women to whom we belonged saw me several times taking the same path early in the morning to go to the Qoranic school. She called me and asked me, “Where do you go like that every morning for several days?” As a child I told her candidly, with the innocence of a child, “I am going to learn my Qoranic lessons.” She was offended and said to me, “you are not allowed to learn the Qoran. Who are you to learn the Qoran? It is forbidden to you to return there.” She even threatened me if ever she saw me again taking that direction. Of course, I no longer went to Qoranic school after that day...
The true change occurred in our lives when a hartani, a runaway slave, who had fled his masters in the north of the country came to our village. He was an extraordinary person. He had run from his masters who were from the famous tribe of R’gaybat. He recounted the various forms of ill-treatment and torture he had suffered at their hands, such as the ‘torture of camels’ etc. It was impressive, but he had fled and was free. He had married my sister and he advised us to run as well. He convinced my sister and one day at the end of a family’s exploitation period (ghilla) while we were expected to rejoin the second family she decided to seize the opportunity for fleeing to Nouakchott. I recall vaguely that we came to take refuge at the place of some people in the fifth district and that we searched to rejoin our father who used to leave live in Nouakchott back then. However, we did not really know where he lived. We found him finally on the opposite side of the town.
My father received us warmly indeed and we stayed with him. He was so poor and had numerous other people to take care of. My sister had some clothes still at the village and asked how she could recover her possessions. My father proposed that he would go back to see our masters in order to collect her belongings. He went and negotiated the recuperation of her things...It was not easy. They had a huge argument indeed. Finally, the masters understood that my sister and I would never come back.
I started to work as a donkey-carter as a boy. I was only eleven years old. The salary was almost insignificant between paying the debts of my father; the food for the donkey etc. there was a little left over for me. As a child, they never sent me to school. My family was very poor and everybody had to work. I started to frequent the neighboring cinemas and to go to downtown. I was passionate about the cinema. I realized that the work did not help me in any way; I remember that I had done other jobs, but I was always obsessed with the cinema and downtown. I therefore went towards the Grand Hospital next to the former bus stop. This would have been the end of 1984 because I remember that there was the coup d’Etat in which President Haidalla was overthrown ... At the bus stop, I met a lot of people; I worked in a shop there. I met a lot of police officers because there was a police station not far from there. The police asked me to work for them in the commissariat to make tea and these sorts of things; they exploited me during several months. I started to claim my salary and they told me that they were going to pay me “with the fines’ money,” but in fact they never paid me. I started to insist and protest. One of their chiefs dealt me a memorable slap. I changed neighborhoods. I started to sell small things before the Lansar Cinema which was located not far from there. I had a small table with small products: unites of cigarettes, hot coffee and bread etc. Afterwards, I became extremely familiar with the Cinema people and they trusted me with small jobs; I swept the rooms. Things started to get truly better for
me financially. Then, they proposed that I become a “billposter” of the films. A new projection person called “Ali” had been recruited. We got along well, he taught me to use the projection machine. After that, I learned the first letters of the French alphabet. I even started to read the titles of programmed films. I remember around 1988, the Cinema owner changed; a French man bought the Cinema. This Frenchman started to appreciate me. He promoted me as the person in charge of scheduling the film screenings. He said that the films I put on the daily program always worked, that they were the most popular and attracted the most people, while Ali the projection person, his programs were too intellectual. I became the vice-programmer, which created a lot of problems between me and the projectionist who was a good friend of mine and who I appreciated a lot, but there was some jealousy... This bothered me a lot. When the Cinema owner proposed that I open and run the Cinema at Boghe, I jumped at the occasion to get myself far from the tense atmosphere at work in Nouakchott; it was around 1989-90. I spent seven months not far from Boghe, but down there in Boghe the mosque that was located nearby the cinema was greatly disturbed by our business...They protested strongly against our presence... We closed and returned to Nouakchott... It is necessary to say that the period when I turned twenty was very formational for me, not only during work but outside the workplace as well. I remember that the same questions came to my head without end: why did Islam tolerate slavery? How did it happen that it accepts inequality and this exploitation against us the Blacks (sudan)? These questions always ran in my head. My reflection in this sense never stopped. For me, these questions were incomprehensible. However, I equally believed that it was like this and that this was a sort of unjust and intolerable fatality.
Extract of interview as told to a researcher for CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa) ‘Former Slaves Becoming Imams Citizenship, Islam and Ethnicity in Contemporary Mauritania