A former slave and former slave owner from Mauritania urged Harvard students Tuesday night (Nov. 13) to fight the slavery that, though outlawed, still keeps more than 100,000 people in bondage in the West African nation.
Ahmeimidi Ould El Khaliva, who escaped 20 years ago from a lifetime of tending his master’s herds, told an audience of about 60 gathered in Sever Hall that he was born a slave and grew up herding his master’s cows. Khaliva, who spoke through an interpreter, said he began to wake up to his status when he was about five years old and was only able to take his mother’s name, since slave marriages weren’t recognized.
At age 16, he asked why he had to take care of the animals every day. He was told that he was a slave and that was how he was going to spend his life.
After that, Khaliva began thinking of escape. He escaped twice and was beaten and thrown in jail after being caught. Finally, in 1979, he escaped for good, leaving behind his wife and son.
“You can see him talking at Harvard today,” said Moktar Chien, North American director of SOS Slaves, an organization founded in 1995 and focused on ending slavery in Mauritania. “If he went back to Mauritania tomorrow, he’d be a slave.”
Khaliva and Chien were part of a panel brought together by Harvard Students Against Slavery, a newly formed student group that is trying to educate students and enlist them in letter-writing campaigns and other efforts to get the U.S. government to take stronger action against slavery around the world.
Jay Williams ’03, who last year traveled to Sudan as part of a contingent buying the freedom of 4,400 slaves there, said one estimate is that there are 27 million people enslaved worldwide. Not only are there countries with widespread slavery like Sudan and Mauritania, but some estimates say there’s 50,000 slaves here in the United States, either employed in the sex trade or brought here by wealthy foreigners as servants.
“The stark reality is slavery exists and no one knows about it,” Williams said. “We’re trying to raise awareness so we can begin some activism efforts on campus.”
Other members of the panel included Jesse Sage, associate director of the American Anti-Slavery Group, and Nassar Sid Ahmed Yessa, who was born into a slave-owning family and who now works to abolish slavery in Mauritania.
As a counterpoint to Khaliva’s story, Yessa, also speaking through an interpreter, told of his own childhood, where his memory of slavery is in the person of the family slave. He remembers her rising early to fetch water; cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner; bringing in the cattle; and fending off wild animals.
“And when she falls asleep at 2 a.m., anyone in the family can wake her up at any time just by hitting her,” Yessa said.
Yessa said he also underwent a transformation as a teenager. He began studying the ideals of freedom espoused in the French revolution and eventually decided he wouldn’t be served by the family slaves anymore. When he insisted on serving himself, his family told him it wasn’t noble to use his hands, he said. Even the slaves, when he told them they should seek their freedom, laughed and said that their master was very funny.
As he continued to speak out against slavery, Yessa’s family ultimately decided to send him abroad for his own safety. He went to France, where he still lives and works against Mauritanian slavery.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 1999 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, government-sanctioned slavery – along with the open trading in slaves as property – has ended in the country. Reports of continued forced slavery vary, depending on who is reporting it, though economic, psychological, and religious bondage to former masters appears to still be widespread, the State Department reported.
Slavery in Mauritania has deep roots, stretching back 800 years when Arab invaders entered the country to convert the African residents to Islam. The ruling class is largely made up of the descendants of those Arabs, called “bidanes.” The descendants of the black African slaves are called “haratines.”
Slavery has officially been banned in Mauritania three times, once by the colonial French rulers in 1905, a second time in Mauritania’s first post-colonial constitution, in 1960, and a third time, in 1981, by the military government.
Despite these efforts, Tuesday’s speakers insisted that slavery not only still exists in Mauritania, it is widespread, affecting a large percentage of the black African population.
Slavery is intertwined in the nation’s culture. The country’s social system still has a “slave” caste and religious teachings there reinforce that slaves will find paradise by serving their masters, the speakers said.
Sage urged students to first inform themselves and then take action, even by traveling to Mauritania to see the situation for themselves and bring the news back to the United States.
“You can make a difference around the world. You can come back as a witness,” Sage said.