Born into Bondage- page 5 | 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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But still he denies that his country has slaves. “Try and find slaves in Niger,” he says. “You won’t find even one.”

As I leave for Niger’s interior to take up the prime minister’s challenge, I am accompanied by Moustapha Kadi Oumani, the firstborn son of a powerful Tuareg chieftain and known among Nigeriens as the Prince of Illéla, the capital of his father’s domain. Elegant, sharp-minded and with the graceful command that comes from generations of unchallenged authority, he guides us by SUV to Azarori, about 300 miles northeast of Niamey and one of more than 100 villages under his father’s feudal command.

Moustapha in boyhood was steeped in his tribal traditions, with slaves to wait on him hand and foot, but his exposure to their condition, and a few years studying in Italy and Switzerland, convinced him that no person should belong to another. Moustapha now works in the Department of Civil Aviation in Niamey, but he devotes much of his spare time working to end slavery in Niger and improve the living conditions of ordinary Nigeriens. In December 2003, he freed all ten of the slaves he had inherited in a public ceremony at Tahoua, about 110 miles from Azarori. On the government’s orders, police seized the audio- and videotapes of reporters and cameramen who were covering the event. “They didn’t want people to know,” says Idy, who was there for the BBC.

The number of slaves in Niger is unknown. Moustapha scoffs at a widely quoted Timidria survey in 2002 that put it at 870,363. “There was double counting, and the survey’s definition of a slave was loose,” he says. Anti-Slavery International, using the same data, counted at least 43,000 slaves, but that figure has also been questioned—as both too high and too low.

The countryside, facing a famine, looks sickly, and when the SUV pulls to the side of the road for a comfort stop, a blur of locusts clatter into the air from a stunted tree nearby. We arrive at Azarori (pop. 9,000) at midmorning as several men and children—all slaves, Moustapha says—herd goats to pasture.

A stooped old man in a conical hat and purple robe tells me that he has worked hard for his owner for no pay since he was a child. Another man, Ahmed, who is 49, says that Allah ordained that he and his family are to be slaves through the generations. (Niger is 95 percent Muslim.) When I ask him to quote that command from the Koran, he shrugs. “I can’t read or write, and so my master, Boudal, told me,” he says.

Like most of the slaves I would meet, Ahmed looks well fed and healthy. “Aslave master feeds his donkeys and camels well so they can work hard, and it’s the same with his slaves,” Moustapha says.

This may explain the extraordinary devotion many slaves insist they offer their masters in this impoverished nation, especially if they are not mistreated. I ask Ahmed how he would feel if his owner gave away his daughter. “If my master asked me to throw my daughter down the well, I’d do it immediately,” he replies.
Truly?
“Truly,” he replies.

Moustapha shakes his head as we sip the highly sugared bitter tea favored by the Tuareg. “Ahmed has the fatalistic mindset of many slaves,” he says. “They accept it’s their destiny to be a bellah, the slave caste, and obey their masters without question.”

We journey to another village along dirt roads, framed by a sandy landscape with few trees but many mud villages. At one of them, Tajaé, an 80-year-old woman named Takany sits at Moustapha’s feet by her own choice and tells how she was given to her owner as an infant. Her great-grandson, who looks to be about 6 years old, sits by her side. Like many other child slaves I see, he is naked, while the village’s free children wear bright robes and even jeans. The naked children I see stay close to their relatives, their eyes wary and their step cautious, while the clothed children stroll about or play chase.

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