Posted on December 17, 2004

Slavery: Mauritania’s Best Kept Secret

Pascale Harter, BBC News, Dec. 13

Skyra is a runaway Mauritanian slave. Her earliest childhood memories are of fetching water, tending animals and cooking and cleaning.

“I was tied up all night and all day. They only untied me so I could do my chores. In the end I could barely move my limbs.”

She never earnt a single penny.

“All those years,” she told me, “and I don’t even own a goat”.

Mohamed could not tell me his surname or his age.

As a slave he didn’t own the right to either.

But in a candlelit shack in the sandy outskirts of the capital, Nouakchott, he told me the story of his life.

“I don’t know how I became a slave,” he told me.

“I was just born one. My family were slaves. We did all the hard work for our master and all we received in return was beatings.”


After three attempts at making slavery illegal, the latest as recently as 1981, Mauritania has finally enacted a law which goes further than ever before, making slave ownership punishable with a fine or prison sentence.

But a year on, and no-one has yet been prosecuted under the new law. “We enacted it just to meet international standards,” says Bamariam Koita, director of the government’s Human Rights Commission.

Mr Koita maintains that no-one has been prosecuted because slavery was abolished long ago in Mauritania.

“Have you seen a slave? Have you seen a slave market? Of course you haven’t,” he puffed, confidently answering his own question.

He has a point. Human beings in chains are not bought and sold in the full glare of Nouakchott’s market. It’s even worse than that, according to Boubakar Messaoud, founder of the local association SOS Slaves.

“A captured slave knows freedom, so to keep him you have to chain him,” says Mr Messaoud.

“But a Mauritanian slave, whose parents and grandparents before him were slaves, doesn’t need chains. He has been brought up as a domesticated animal.”


Skyra was born to a slave mother so there was never any question she would be anything else. She remembers the years she spent treated like an animal.

“They raped me often,” she says shaking with anger.

“At night, when everyone was asleep, they came for me and I couldn’t stop them. If I had been free I would never have let this happen to me”.

A living reminder of her slavery nestles in Skyra’s lap, another sleeps at her feet, on the floor of her corrugated iron shack.

“My master is the father of my first child, my master’s son is the father of my second child and my baby girl’s father was my master’s nephew”.

In this way says Boubakar Messaoud, “We have achieved what the American plantation owners dreamed of — the breeding of perfectly submissive slaves”.

Count the slaves

Skyra was not perfectly submissive. Her small insurrections earned her beatings until she found the strength — and the opportunity — to run away. She was determined that her children would not be born into slavery as she had been.

Mohamed escaped his master when soldiers passed by his isolated village in the desert. “When my master demanded the soldiers hand me over, I told them I would rather they shot me dead and buried me right there than return with my master.”

In answer to the Mauritanian government’s assertion that slavery no longer exists in Mauritania, Mohamed recites the names of the family members he left behind in slavery. “If I tell you their names, can you count them?” he asked shyly. “I was never taught”. There are eight members of his immediate family still living as slaves, and Mohamed tells me there are many more in Mauritania.

It is difficult to know how many though. International human rights organisations such as Amnesty International are prevented from entering the country to conduct research.

“Not only has the government denied the existence of slavery and failed to respond to cases brought to its attention,” says Amnesty, “it has hampered the activities of organisations which are working on the issue, including by refusing to grant such organisations official recognition.”

Boubakar Messaoud and other members of SOS Slaves have been imprisoned and harassed by the authorities for their anti-slavery campaigning.

It seems the government has little interest in really wiping out slavery. Meanwhile slavery remains Mauritania’s best kept open secret.

“Everyone knew we were slaves,” said Mohamed. “It’s a normal thing, to have slaves in Mauritania.”