Posted on September 9, 2004

Slavery Lives On

Liesl Louw,, Sep. 2

Everyone knows it exists, but nobody talks about it.

Except journalist Souleymane Cisse, who spends his time and energy in the struggle against slavery in his home country, Niger.

In this complicated society, where social relationships date back to antiquity and some nomadic Tuareg groups still look down upon black Africans in the south, slavery is still practiced on several levels.

Before and even long after the colonial area, no legislation existed that prohibited slavery.

“The colonial rulers preferred to ignore it because they wanted to co-operate with the aristocracy who kept these slaves,” Cisse explains.

He comes from the northern city of Agadez and did his master’s degree on slavery in Niger.

In his thesis, he described in detail the places and tribal groups where slavery is still practiced.

Last year, the Niger government eventually passed a law banning slavery outright. Under this law, a slavery conviction caries a ten-year prison term or a 1m CFA franc (about R10 000) fine.

But tremendous poverty, illiteracy and desperate circumstances in which many people live make it virtually impossible to eradicate slavery.

Cisse refers to three categories of slaves:

Those who live with their masters, do heavy work, are often abused and receive no wage.

In one case he encountered, a woman was only five years old when the family of her owner’s wife gave her away as wedding gift.

In another case, a slave was castrated because his owner’s son wanted the slave’s wife.

“These people are exposed to terrible suffering,” Cisse says.

Secondly, young girls are still sold in Niger as dowry.

Under Muslim tradition, a man may have four wives, but he may take a fifth wife if she is a slave.

Cisse says there is a “slavery triangle” that stretches from the southern town of Maradi in Niger to Kano in Nigeria. Girls from poor families in Niger are sent away to become the wives of rich sultans in the northern states of Nigeria where shariah laws prevail.

“The girls are sold on markets for between R4 000 and R5 000.”

The last category is former slaves who have won their freedom but are still seen as slaves by the community. Cisse works with the organisation Timidria (“brotherhood”) that was formed in 1991 to fight slavery.

The organisation is part of an international network that campaigns against slavery and child labour.

Because the issue is still largely taboo in Niger, it remains very difficult to change the situation, Cisse says.