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In the Nigerian village of Tajaé, a woman named Rakany (with her great-grandson) says she was given as a slave to her owner when she was an infant. She is now 80 years old. (Paul Raffaele)

Born into Bondage

Despite denials by government officials, slavery remains a way of life in the African nation of Niger

Lightning and thunder split the Saharan night. In northern Niger, heavy rain and wind smashed into the commodious goatskin tent of a Tuareg tribesman named Tafan and his family, snapping a tent pole and tumbling the tent to the ground.

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Huddling in a small, tattered tent nearby was a second family, a man, a woman and their four children. Tafan ordered the woman, Asibit, to go outside and stand in the full face of the storm while holding the pole steady, keeping his tent upright until the rain and wind ceased.

Asibit obeyed because, like tens of thousands of other Nigeriens, she was born into a slave caste that goes back hundreds of years. As she tells it, Tafan’s family treated her not as a human, but as chattel, a beast of burden like their goats, sheep and camels. Her eldest daughter, Asibit says, was born after Tafan raped her, and when the child turned 6, he gave her as a present to his brother—a common practice among Niger’s slave owners. Asibit, fearful of a whipping, watched in silence as her daughter was taken away.

“From childhood, I toiled from early morning until late at night,” she recalls matter-of-factly. She pounded millet, prepared breakfast for Tafan and his family and ate the leftovers with her own. While her husband and children herded Tafan’s livestock, she did his household chores and milked his camels. She had to move his tent, open-fronted to catch any breeze, four times a day so his family would always be in shade. Now 51, she seems to bear an extra two decades in her lined and leathery face. “I never received a single coin during the 50 years,” she says.

Asibit bore these indignities without complaint. On that storm-tossed night in the desert, she says, she struggled for hours to keep the tent upright, knowing she’d be beaten if she failed. But then, like the tent pole, something inside her snapped: she threw the pole aside and ran into the night, making a dash for freedom to the nearest town, 20 miles across the desert.

History resonates with countless verified accounts of human bondage, but Asibit escaped only in June of last year.

Disturbing as it may seem in the 21st century, there may be more forced labor in the world now than ever. About 12.3 million people toil in the global economy on every continent save Antarctica, according to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization, held in various forms of captivity, including those under the rubric of human trafficking.

The U.S. State Department’s annual report on trafficking in persons, released in June, spotlighted 150 countries where more than a hundred people were trafficked in the past year. Bonded laborers are entrapped by low wages in never-ending debt; illegal immigrants are coerced by criminal syndicates to pay off their clandestine passage with work at subminimum wages; girls are kidnapped for prostitution, boys for unpaid labor.

The State Department’s report notes that “Niger is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced domestic and commercial labor.” But there is also something else going on in Niger—and in Chad, Mali and Mauritania. Across western Africa, hundreds of thousands of people are being held in what is known as “chattel slavery,” which Americans may associate only with the transatlantic slave trade and the Old South.

In parts of rural West Africa dominated by traditional tribal chieftains, human beings are born into slavery, and they live every minute of their lives at the whim of their owners. They toil day and night without pay. Many are whipped or beaten when disobedient or slow, or for whatever reasons their masters concoct. Couples are separated when one partner is sold or given away; infants and children are passed from one owner to another as gifts or dowry; girls as young as 10 are sometimes raped by their owners or, more commonly, sold off as concubines.

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