Thousands Still Live in Slavery in Northern Mali

Iddar Ag Ogazide escaped his masters after 35 years of slavery and now works on a building site in Gao. (Photo: Celeste Hicks/IRIN)

People continue to be enslaved in northern Mali, according to Malian human rights organization Temedt, despite a widespread belief that slavery no longer exists in the country.

"The government believes slavery ended with independence, when many of the people who had been living as slaves in the colonial period were freed," said Temedt president Mohammed Ag Akeratane, "but I would estimate there are still several thousand people living in slavery or slavery-like conditions in modern Mali."

According to Temedt, which means "solidarity" in the Touareg language Tamasheq, slavery continues in the north in the region of Gao 1,200 kilometers (744 miles) north of the capital, Bamako, and around the town of Menaka 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) north of Bamako.

Most of the slavery takes place between the Berber-descended Touaregs and the indigenous Bella people who live in this region, although the Peul and Songhai communities have also been known to use slaves in the past, according to Temedt.

Iddar Ag Ogazide, a Bella, said he lived as a slave in Ansongo, 80 kilometers (49.6 miles) south of Gao, where he worked for the Touareg Ag Baye family for 35 years without receiving a salary or an education. The Ag Bayes bought his great-grandmother and inherited his family members from one generation to the next. In March 2008 Iddar finally could not take any more and hatched a successful escape plan—he is currently living in Gao.

Iddar Ag Ogazide with his son Ahmed, in Gao where they now live. (Photo: Celeste Hicks/IRIN)

His wife Takwalet, who escaped with him, told IRIN: "Life was hard there. Everything I did was against my will. I did all the cooking, pounding [of millet], getting water, fetching the wood, and sweeping the house. I never received money; I didn't even get any clothes."

Murky Definitions

But discussions on slavery are complex in Mali, with many people arguing it does not exist. Some Gao residents said individuals might stay with their "masters" more out of economic necessity than anything.

Today the Bella have become largely assimilated into Touareg culture, keeping similar cultural traditions and speaking the same language (Tamasheq), and many of the Bella are known as black Tamasheq. The Touareg masters and the Bella people have lived in a complex caste system for many decades and some say little has changed in this power relationship—much of the northern region's property and livestock remains in the Touareg hands.

'They Like to Enslave the Children Early'

Iddar Ag Ogazide, a black Tamasheq, was born in 1973 at Tinahamma near Ansongo in northern Mali, 1,350 kilometers (837 miles) north of Bamako. His family has been owned by the Touareg Ag Baye family at Intakabarte for several generations. In March, Iddar finally decided he had had enough and made a dramatic escape.

"I was born into slavery because my mother was a slave. My owner's family had bought her grandmother, so that made our whole family inheritable slaves.

"It is not a real life, the work is very hard. I had to do everything in my master's house. I looked after the large flock of sheep alone, collected the water, and did all the heavy domestic work. I worked day and night and I never received any money.

"I never went to school. As I got older I got used to the beating. In particular I remember one horrible day when the sons of my masters, who were younger than me, hit me three times with a stick, on the pretext that I had lost one of the flock. I was scared that if I reacted I might kill someone.

"Every year we were listed on the religious tax inventory like other goods that the master owned.

"Slavery by inheritance means my children are also slaves. My son Ahmed was barely 3 years old when a niece of the master got married. They took Ahmed away from me to work in her service. They thought he could do little jobs like make the fires. They like to enslave the children early so that they grow up understanding their place.

"Ahmed belonged to the family so there was nothing I could do. I was so sad. I spent 50 days pleading with them to give me my son back, but they refused. I was so shocked; I worried so much I could not sleep.

"Finally I decided I would have to go and get him so I hatched a plan. I told my master that I needed to take Ahmed with my wife Takwalet to her parents' home. I said we would both return the next day, but we never went back. It was hard to persuade them to let me go [to Takwalet's parents' home], but I managed. It was so frightening to leave, thinking they might come after me. Fortunately, when I got to Gao there were many people here to help me.

"I was really unhappy because I had to leave my two brothers in slavery—they are still there and I can't get them out.

"Life is not easy now, but at least I am a free man. I am among men who are the same color as me who consider me as a man. I don't suffer any discrimination here in Gao. I am proud to use my full name these days—before I used to only use the name Iddar but now I use my father's name too.

"People respect me—I earn my own money and that brings respect. I start work as a builder every day at 7 a.m., and earn $2. But I know that in today's world if you are poor you are not given the same consideration as people who have money.

"Sometimes escaped slaves when they come to Gao change their names to become unknown. Perhaps I might change my name, so that if my master comes looking for me he won't be able to find me.

"My dream is that I will one day have justice. I have worked since the day I was born but I have never been paid. I am more than 35 years old now. I want compensation for that. If I got some money I could build myself a house in Gao and live in peace. I could go and get my brothers and we could all live together as a family."

The towns of Menaka and Ansongo are harsh and isolated, with few jobs and economic opportunities. "Conditions are tough in the north, but the Bella people are free to leave their masters if they wish," said an unnamed source in the Malian government's Territorial Administration department. "There is not an obligation, or formalized slavery," he said.

The implication is that some Bella people may feel unable to strike out on their own and leave the protection of their rich master, who feeds them but does not pay them. "If people came out to declare openly that they were slaves, then of course the state would do something," said the source.

But for Anti-Slavery International the situation is more clear-cut.

"Like his parents before him, Iddar was born a slave, a status ascribed to him at birth, and [he] grew up under the total control of a master who exacted labor from him for no remuneration," said Romana Cacchioli, Africa program coordinator with Anti-Slavery International. "In my view Iddar's case is a clear case of slavery."

Murky Legal Framework

It is not clear what the state could do in cases such as Iddar's, as Mali has no law formally forbidding slavery. Although Mali's constitution states all people are equal, and the country has signed up to the major international conventions banning slavery, including the United Nations International Declaration on Human Rights, officially the practice was never criminalized in Mali, which makes it difficult to seek legal redress in cases such as Iddar Ag Ogazide's.

Nevertheless, Temedt has instructed a lawyer to work with Iddar and another escaped female slave in Gao. "We would like to see if they can take a case to court for compensation," said Temedt's Akeratane. At the time of writing Temedt was also exploring the possibility of bringing forward a case for child abduction for his son, Ahmed.

"The difficulty of constructing a case for Iddar demonstrates the need for a law criminalizing slavery in Mali," said Romana Cacchioli from Anti-Slavery International, a London-based human rights organization that is supporting Temedt's efforts.

But according to Akeratane, when interviewed in April in Malian paper Nouvelle Republique, there are currently many cases awaiting judgment and going nowhere fast, which sets an unpromising precedent for future ex-slaves who wish to pursue justice.

Shifting Attitudes

One of Temedt's principal goals is to instill a sense of pride in ex-slaves for their ethnic and cultural identity, which Akeratane hopes will help them to demand equal rights. The organization runs human rights awareness sessions for groups vulnerable to slavery to make them aware they do not have to accept the tradition.

Support for the organization is growing. Temedt has been in operation for just over two years and now has 18,000 members across eight regions of the country. It has also started to work with anti-slavery groups across the borders in Niger and Mauritania. Akeratane believes this is the first time the sensitive issue of continuing slavery is being tackled head-on in the country.

Shelter just outside the town of Gao in northern Mali. (Photo: Celeste Hicks/IRIN)

He is confident that attitudes will shift and slavery will one day be eradicated in Mali. Gamer Dicko, a Bamako-based journalist who comes from a black Tamasheq family, agrees: "Things are changing today, but very slowly. There are some black Tamasheq who say, 'OK, our fathers were slaves but we are not.' They are proud of their dress and speaking their own language." © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.