Born into Bondage- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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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

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The families of such slaves have been held for generations, and their captivity is immutable: the one thing they can be sure of passing on to their children is their enslavement.

One of the earliest records of enslaved Africans goes back to the seventh century, but the practice existed long before. It sprang largely from warfare, with victors forcing the vanquished into bondage. (Many current slave owners in Niger are Tuareg, the legendary warlords of the Sahara.) The winners kept slaves to serve their own households and sold off the others. In Niger, slave markets traded humans for centuries, with countless thousands bound and marched to ports north or south, for sale to Europe and Arabia or America.

As they began exercising influence over Niger in the late 19th century, the French promised to end slavery there—the practice had been abolished under French law since 1848—but they found it difficult to eradicate a social system that had endured for so long, especially given the reluctance of the country’s chieftains, the major slave owners, to cooperate. Slavery was still thriving at the turn of the century, and the chances of abolition all but disappeared during World War I, when France pressed its colonies to join the battle. “In order to fulfill their quotas each administrator [in Niger] relied on traditional chiefs who preferred to supply slaves to serve as cannon fodder,” writes Nigerien social scientist Galy Kadir Abdelkader.

During the war, when rebellions broke out against the French in Niger, the chieftains once again came to the rescue; in return, French administrators turned a blind eye to slavery. Following independence in 1960, successive Nigerien governments have kept their silence. In 2003, a law banning and punishing slavery was passed, but it has not been widely enforced.

Organizations outside Niger, most persistently the London-based Anti-Slavery International, are still pushing to end slavery there. The country’s constitution recognizes the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 4: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”), but the U.N. has done little to ensure Niger’s compliance. Neither has France, which still has immense influence in the country because of its large aid program and cultural ties.

And neither has the United States. While releasing this year’s trafficking report, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reminded Americans of President Bush’s plea in a 2004 speech for an end to human trafficking, but the U.S. Embassy in Niger professes little on-the-ground knowledge of chattel slavery there. In Washington, Ambassador John Miller, a senior adviser to Rice who heads the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons section, says, “We’re just becoming aware of transgenerational slavery in Niger.”

The Nigerien government, for its part, does not acknowledge the problem: it has consistently said that there are no slaves in Niger. Troubled by the government’s denials, a group of young civil servants in 1991 set up the Timidria Association, which has become the most prominent nongovernmental organization fighting slavery in Niger. Timidria (“fraternity-solidarity” in Tamacheq, the Tuareg language) has since set up 682 branches across the country to monitor slavery, help protect escaped slaves and guide them in their new, free lives.

The group faces a constant battle. Last March, Timidria persuaded a Tuareg chief to free his tribe’s 7,000 slaves in a public ceremony. The mass manumission was widely publicized prior to the planned release, but just days before it was to happen, the government prevailed upon the chief to abandon his plan.

“The government was caught in a quandary,” a European ambassador to Niger told me. “How could it allow the release when it claimed there were no slaves in Niger?”

The flight from paris to Niamey, Niger’s capital city, takes five hours, much of it above the dun-hued sweep of the Sahara in northern Africa. We land in a sandstorm, and when the jet’s door opens, the 115-degree heat hits like a furnace’s fiery blast. Niamey is a sprawl of mud huts, ragtag markets and sandy streets marked by a few motley skyscrapers. I pass a street named after Martin Luther King Jr., but the signpost has been knocked askew and left unrepaired.

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