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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

The village chief, wearing a gold robe and gripping a string of prayer beads, asks Moustapha, as the son of his feudal lord, for advice. A man had recently purchased a “fifth wife” from a slave owner in the village, the chief says, but returned her after discovering she was two months pregnant. He wanted a new slave girl or his money back. Although Islam limits a man to four wives, a slave girl taken as a concubine is known as a “fifth wife” in Niger, and men take as many fifth wives as they can afford.

Moustapha’s face tightens in barely concealed anger. “Tell him he’ll get neither, and if he causes trouble, let me know.”

In late afternoon, we reach the outskirts of Illéla and enter wide, sandy streets lined with mud-house compounds. About 12,000 people live here, ruled by Moustapha’s father, Kadi Oumani, a hereditary tribal chieftain with more than a quarter of a million people offering fealty to him. “My ancestor Agaba conquered Illéla in 1678 and enslaved the families of warriors who opposed him,” Moustapha tells me. “Many of their descendants are still slaves.”

Moustapha has surveyed the families of the 220 traditional chieftains in Niger, known as royal families, and found that they collectively own more than 8,500 slaves whose status has not changed since their ancestors were conquered. “When a princess marries, she brings slaves as part of her dowry,” he tells me. He has caused trouble for his highborn family by opposing slavery, but shrugs when I ask if this worries him. “What worries me is that there are still slaves in Niger.”

Moustapha’s father sits on a chair in a mud-wall compound with a dozen chiefs perched cross-legged on the ground around him. Two dozen longhorn cattle, sheep and goats mill about, there for the Tuareg aristocrats to enjoy as a reminder of their nomadic origins. Kadi Oumani is 74 years old and wears a heavy robe and an open veil that reveals his dark, bluff face. Moustapha greets him with a smile and then leads me to the compound set aside for us during our visit.

For the next hour Moustapha sits serenely on a chair at the compound’s far end, greeting clan leaders who have come to pay their respects. A special visitor is Abdou Nayoussa, one of the ten slaves Moustapha freed 20 months ago. Abdou’s broad face marks him as a member of the local tribe conquered by Moustapha’s ancestor.

“As a boy I was chosen to look after the chieftain’s horses, feeding, exercising and grooming them,” he tells me. “I worked hard every day for no pay, was beaten many times and could never leave Illéla because I belonged to Moustapha’s family.” His eyes—which never once meet Moustapha’s—are dim with what I take to be pain. “At night I cried myself to sleep, thinking about my fate and especially the fate of the children I’d have one day.”

Abdou still works as the chieftain’s horse handler, for which he is given little pay, but he is now free to do what he wants. “The difference is like that between heaven and hell,” he tells me. “When I get enough money, I’m going to Niamey
and never coming back.”

As the sky darkens, we eat grilled lamb and millet. Nearby a courtier sings an ancient desert tune. Moustapha’s cousin Oumarou Marafa, a burly, middle-aged secondary school teacher, joins us. “He’s a slave owner and not ashamed of it,” Moustapha informs me.

“When I was younger, I desired one of my mother’s slaves, a beautiful 12-year-old girl, and she gave her to me as a fifth wife,” Oumarou tells me. “There was no marriage ceremony; she was mine to do with her as I wished.”

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