Slavery Lives on in Mauritania
Tradition Thrives Thanks to a Confluence of Cultures

Start streaming audio Listen to Ivan Watson's report.

Aug. 28, 2001 -- The government of Mauritania abolished slavery more than 20 years ago. But despite the government's persistent denials, the practice continues in one form or another.

slave girls carry water
Slave girls carry water for their master.
Photo: The American Anti-Slavery Group
The former French colony is a meeting point of two very different cultures. For centuries, the light-skinned Moors have dominated people from the rim of sub-Saharan black Africa. That domination has often taken the form of enslavement. In his report for All Things Considered Ivan Watson talks to former slaves, activists and refugees to get a sense of what's happening in Mauritania.

Slavery in the northwest African country is more of a private tradition than an public institution. The government isn't directly involved, and it even refuses to publicly admit that slavery exists in Mauritania. Individuals and families have been practicing slavery for centuries. Some slaves are treated well by their masters, others are abused. "There are different levels to it," says Franklin Graham, an American aid worker.

Some black Moors, he says, feel they simply can't leave their masters. "They look at it as…'Well, if I lose my relationship with this family, what am I going to do?' They do not have education, regretfully, and the opportunity to go off and do something else is just not provided for them."

map of Mauritania
Map: Erik Dunham, NPR

The government goes to great lengths to deny the problem. It has banned the word "slave" from use by the media, and foreign journalists risk arrest and deportation for investigating the issue.

Activists are quick to point out that slavery is not practiced only by white Moors. Both blacks and whites continue to own slaves, they say, and some of Mauritania's most powerful families are black. In fact, the president of the national senate -- the country's second-ranking leader -- is a black Moor.

Still, the government has a history of instituting racist policies. In 1987, black officers were purged from the army and the police force. Two years later, more than 60,000 blacks were deported at gunpoint to neighboring Senegal. At least 20,000 black
A slave works in the fields
A slave works in the fields.
Photo: The American Anti-Slavery Group
Mauritanians still live in refugee camps in Senegal along Mauritania's southern frontier.

Many black Mauritanians are convinced that the government is trying to consolidate power in the hands of the white Moor elite. As evidence, they point to the decision to declare Arabic the country's official language.

Some activists disagree. They say the current regime is a dictatorship that oppresses both blacks and whites. Last spring, the government arrested a popular white Moor opposition leader and presidential candidate on charges of sabotage and terrorism. He has since been sentenced to five years in prison. The group Human Rights Watch recently condemned what it calls the government's ongoing repression of opposition political parties and rights activists.

Web Resources:

The American Anti-Slavery Group

Human Rights Watch

The CIA World Factbook entry for Mauritania

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