Reflections on sunday: Slavery in the 21st century?

If you were not paying much attention last Monday, you may have missed a flitting news report on BBC Radio: a woman is suing the government of Niger for being forced into slavery for twelve years!

If you were not paying much attention last Monday, you may have missed a flitting news report on BBC Radio: a woman is suing the government of Niger for being forced into slavery for twelve years!

You may dismiss me as an old babbler who likes to run at the mouth, but slaves exist in countries that are as advanced as USA and as shattered as Somalia.

There are people still living in bondage in Australia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay.

In Europe, France and Romania have slaves. In the Middle East and Asia, slaves abound in the United Arab Emirates, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar (which you know as Burma, if your father fought in World War II).

Today’s slavery takes many forms. There is chattel slavery, where a slave is the property of the master and answers to his every whim. In debt bondage, or bonded labour, parents offer themselves or their children as collateral against a loan.

Sex slaves are women or children who are forced into prostitution while, in forced labour, individuals are made to work without pay.

They are not familiar, so these forms of slavery don’t take place in Africa, right? Wrong! As I said, Hadijatou Mani is suing the government of Niger for not protecting her.

She was sold for an equivalent of $500 (Frw276,000) when she was 12 years old. For ten years, she was not only forced to carry out domestic and agricultural work but also to bear children for her master, Souleyman Naroua. 

Reserve your pity, however, because you’ll need it in taxing quantities: worse has happened and is happening to many men, women and children on the African continent.

For being a free soul here in Rwanda, you should be thankful for today’s focused leadership. Poor people are languishing in slavery in Sudan, Ghana, Mauritania, Benin and Mali.

There was also the story, in November 2005 again in Niger, of Assibit who managed to escape from her mistress when she was 50 years old. She had been born into slavery to a slave family of a father, mother and five siblings.

Fortunately, she succeeded in making the whole family escape. She recounted how they used to start work at 5.30am, pounding millet, fetching water and firewood, and milking camels for a Touareg family.

But, remember, I asked you to reserve your sympathy. That’s because this work is child’s play when you consider the hammering that was endured by yours truly.

In the refugee camps of Bambo, eastern D. R. Congo, and Nshungerezi, south-western Uganda, we used to wake up with the first bird’s song, which would be about three in the morning.

Soon as you woke up, you dipped a finger in the cold clay pot of water and touched your eyes with the finger, to chase away sleep. Then you’d tiptoe to the door, and carefully pierce the wall of darkness with a sharp eye.

When you’d made sure there was no night-prowling beast of prey (hippo, lion, leopard, hyena, warthog, wild-dog, snake, et al), you’d step out and whistle your own bird’s song, which the others recognised as a call to come out and join you.

As a formidable force, we’d thus start our day by running to fetch water, adeptly balancing clay pots on our heads. Then we’d go to till the land, then to fetch firewood, to water the cattle, to grind sorghum, millet or wheat and then to pound cassava or ground nuts.

We built our grass-thatched huts and granaries, did our hunting and our washing, dug our latrines and prepared our banana juice or alcoholic banana or sorghum drinks. We smelted our iron and forged our, our spears, our pangas (long African knife) and our hoes.

Name it, we did it! We were not slaves, no, but we definitely worked hard – for no pay at all!

Contact: ingina2@yahoo.co.uk