Born into Bondage- page 8 | 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 7)

Six children are unloading water containers from donkeys. The younger children are naked. When they see us, they scream and bury their heads in the donkey’s flanks and necks. Shivering in apparent fear, they refuse to lift their heads or talk. Three women arrive balancing water containers on their heads, having walked the three miles from Halilou’s tents. They turn their faces away from us.

Soon a middle-aged man appears with a naked child by his side. His face clouds when he sees us. “My master said he’ll beat me if I talk to strangers,” he says. He warns the others not to tell their master about us.

With some coaxing he says their master’s name is Halilou and adds that they are all slaves in his camp. He says he has toiled for Halilou’s family since he was a child and has never received any money. Halilou has beaten him many times, but the man shrugs off more talk of punishment and refuses to give his name.

Another man arrives, and the two of them begin drawing water from the well, helped by five donkeys hauling on a rope attached to a canvas bucket. They pour the water into troughs for the thirsty cows, sheep and goats and then fill the containers. As the women lead thewater-laden donkeys back to their master’s tents, the two men and children herd the livestock out into the desert to graze on the shriveled grass and plants that grow there.

At Tamaya, a small village hemmed in by desert, we find Asibit at her usual spot in the bustling marketplace where robed Tuareg, Fulani, Hausa and Arabs buy and sell livestock, foodstuffs and swords. “Many of these men own slaves,” Foungoutan says. “I’ve reported them to the police, but they take no action against them.”

When Asibit reached Tamaya on the morning after the thunderstorm, she was led to Foungoutan, who took her to the police. She made a formal complaint that Tafan was a slave owner, and the police responded by rescuing her children, including the daughter presented to Halilou. But Asibit says they left her husband with Tafan.

Asibit squats in the shade, making a drink from millet and selling it for the equivalent of 10 cents. She smiles easily now. “You can’t understand what freedom is until you’ve been a slave,” she says. “Now, I can go to sleep when I want and get up any time I want. No one can beat me or call me bad names every day. My children and grandchildren are free.”

Freedom, however, is relative. For former slaves, the search for a place in Nigerien society is harsh. “Former slaves suffer extreme discrimination in getting a job, government services, or finding marriage partners for their children,” says Romana Cacchioli, the Africa expert for Anti-Slavery International, speaking by telephone from the group’s London headquarters.

The government is not likely to come forward to help exslaves on its own; to acknowledge ex-slaves would be to acknowledge slavery. And the government, lacking the power to confront the chieftains and fearing condemnation from the outside world, gives no signs of doing that.

Within Niger, Timidria remains the most visible force for change, but it, too, faces a long road: many Nigeriens say they do not support the antislavery cause because they believe the group’s president, Ilguilas Weila, has profited from his association with Western aid organizations. (Both he and Anti-Slavery International insist he has not.)

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