Born into Bondage- page 4 | 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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One afternoon, a Timidria worker takes me to Niamey’s outskirts to meet a woman he says is a runaway slave. With us is the BBC’s Niger correspondent, Idy Baraou, who is acting as my interpreter and sounding board.

We enter a maze of mud huts whose walls form twisting channels that lead deep into a settlement that would not appear out of place in the Bible. It houses several thousand people. As camels loaded with straw amble by, children stare wide-eyed at me while their parents, sprawled in the shade, throw me hard glances. Many have fled here from rural areas, and strangers can mean trouble in a place like this.

A woman comes out from a mud house, carrying a baby and with a 4-year-old girl trailing behind. Her name is Timizgida. She says she is about 30, looks 40, and has a smile that seems as fresh as her recent good fortune. She says she was born to slaves owned by fair-skinned Tuaregs out in the countryside but never knew her parents, never even knew their names; she was given as a baby to her owner, a civil servant. She was allowed to play with his children until she was 8, when she was yanked into the stark reality of captivity.

Her fate from then on was much the same as Asibit’s; she rose before dawn to fetch water from a distant well for her owner’s thirsty herds and his family, and then toiled all day and late into the night, cooking, doing chores and eating scraps. “I was only allowed to rest for two or three days each year, during religious festivals, and was never paid,” she tells me. “My master didn’t pay his donkeys, and so he thought why should he pay me and his other slaves?”

The spark in Timizgida’s eye signals a rebellious nature, and she says her owner and his family beat her many times with sticks and whips, sometimes so hard that the pain lingered for months. After one such beating three years ago, she decided to run away. She says a soldier took pity on her and paid her and her children’s bus fares to Niamey. “With freedom, I became a human being,” she tells me with a smile. “It’s the sweetest of feelings.”

Her smile grows wider as she points to her kids. “My children were also my master’s slaves, but now they’re free.”

Timizgida’s account echoes those I will hear from other slaves in far-off regions in a country where communications among the poor are almost nonexistent. But the president of Niger’s Human Rights Commission, Lompo Garba, tells me that Timizgida—and all other Nigeriens who claim they were or are slaves—is lying.

“Niger has no slaves,” Lompo says, leaning across his desk and glaring. “Have you seen anyone in Niger blindfolded and tied up?”

Niger’s prime minister, Hama Amadou, is equally insistent when we meet at his Niamey office, not far from the U.S. Embassy. He is Fulani and has a prominent tribal scar, an X, carved into his right cheek. “Niger has no slaves,” he tells me emphatically.

And yet in July 2003, he wrote a confidential letter to the minister of internal affairs stating that slavery existed in Niger and was immoral, and listing 32 places around the
country where slaves could be found. When I tell him I know about the letter—I even have a copy of it—the prime minister at first looks astonished and then steadies himself and confirms that he wrote it.

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