Schweida was born a slave in Mauritania’s northeastern Sahara along with her brother Matallah. Schwedeh and her 9 children we freed from slavery in March 2013 after her brother overcame insurmountable odds.
25 years of drought have transformed Mauritania from a nomadic to urban society. Making this transition is not easy, and with an unemployment rate of 40%, many Mauritanians survive on less than a dollar a day.
Shantytowns have sprung up on the outskirts of Nouakchott where many former slaves, and those who left the draught ridden countryside in search of opportunity build homes from scrap metal and other found items.
Slavery in Mauritania is not unique to the countryside. Mbarka was born into slavery and lived her life serving a wealthy family in Nouakchott. She was freed through the assistance of Biram Abeid and his organization IRA in 2011.
Messaoud Boubacar (L) of the anti-slavery NGO SOS Esclaves was instrumentable in Matallah’s (R) path to freedom, and the subsequent liberation of his sister and her children. Both are members of a ‘slave caste’ known as the Hratine, and are descended from black African ethnic groups along the Senegal river who have historically been raided by White Arab Moors.
The Hratine often suffer from discrimination as they are considered at the very bottom of the social and economic ladder. Recent government census figures are unavailable making it near impossible to judge the true extent of the Hratine population. Human rights NGO’s estimate there are roughly half a million currently enslaved Mauritanians.
“In slavery fathers are irrelevant, their presence is not a factor. There is no role for the father, because the master owns the women, and when the women give birth the master owns the children which he might sell or do with as he pleases,” – Massaoud Boubacar SOS Esclaves.
Yarg, 11, is one of the only former slaves in Mauritania to have successfully managed to have his former master convicted for the crimes committed against him. In 2011 Yarg’s former master was sentenced to 2 years in prison for a crime that should have resulted in a 5-10 sentence at minimum.
Mauritania is one of the richest countries in West Africa in terms of fish stocks and mineral wealth, but the successful exploitation, and riches achieved from these resources has not been shared by the general population.
Matallah’s wife and children face the grinding poverty experienced by many Hratine, or former slave class individuals, but their dignity and uncommon positivity are a sign, despite the challenges, a brighter future may be in Mauritania’s future.