Born into Bondage- page 3 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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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(Continued from page 2)

Nigeriens walk with the graceful lope of desert dwellers. The city reflects the country, a jumble of tribes. Tall, slim Tuareg men conceal all but their hands, feet and dark eyes in a swath of cotton robes and veils; some flaunt swords buckled to their waists. Tribesmen called Fulanis clad in conical hats and long robes herd donkeys through the streets. The majority Hausa, stocky and broad-faced, resemble their tribal cousins in neighboring Nigeria.

Apart from the rare Mercedes Benz, there is hardly any sign of wealth. Niger is three times bigger than California, but two-thirds of it is desert, and its standard of living ranks 176th on the United Nations’ human development index of 177 countries, just ahead of Sierra Leone. About 60 percent of its 12 million people live on less than $1 a day, and most of the others not much more. It’s a landlocked country with little to sell to the world other than uranium. (Intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger have proved “highly dubious,” according to the State Department.) A2004 U.S. State Department report on Niger noted that it suffers from “drought, locust infestation, deforestation, soil degradation, high population growth rates [3.3%], and exceedingly low literacy rates.” In recent months, 2.5 million of Niger’s people have been on the verge of famine.

A Nigerien is lucky to reach the age of 50. The child mortality rate is the world’s second worst, with a quarter of all children dying under the age of 5. “Niger is so poor that many people perish daily of starvation,” Jeremy Lester, the European Union’s head of delegation in Niamey, tells me.

And Niger’s slaves are the poorest of the poor, excluded totally from the meager cash economy.

Clad in a flowing robe, Soli Abdourahmane, a former minister of justice and state prosecutor, greets me in his shady mud-house compound in Niamey. “There are many, many slaves in Niger, and the same families have often been held captive by their owners’ families for centuries,” he tells me, speaking French, the country’s official language, though Hausa is spoken more widely. “The slave masters are mostly from the nomadic tribes—the Tuareg, Fulani, Toubou and Arabs.”

A wry grin spreads across his handsome face. “The government claims there are no slaves in Niger, and yet two years ago it legislated to outlaw slavery, with penalties from 10 to 30 years. It’s a contradiction, no?”

Moussa Zangaou, a 41-year-old member of Parliament, says he opposes slavery. He belongs to a party whose leaders say it does not exist in Niger, but he says he is working behind the scenes toward abolition. “There are more than 100,000 slaves in Niger, and they suffer terribly with no say in their destiny,” he tells me. “Their masters treat them like livestock, they don’t believe they are truly human.”

I’m puzzled. Why does the government deny there is slavery in Niger, and yet, in the shadows, allow it to continue? “It’s woven into our traditional culture,” Zangaou explains, “and many tribal chieftains, who still wield great power, are slave owners and bring significant voting blocs of their people to the government at election time.”

Also, the government fears international condemnation. Eighty percent of the country’s capital budget comes from overseas donors, mostly European countries. “The president is currently the head of the Economic Community of West African States,” Zangaou adds, “and he fears being embarrassed by slavery still existing in Niger.”

In the meantime, slaves are risking terrible beatings or whippings to escape and hide in far-off towns—especially in Niamey, with a population of 774,000, where they can disappear.

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