Mauritania: Freed slave turns to farming to rebuild life

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A better life is always possible, even after untold suffering. Ms. Zeynabou cuts weeds near a soft drink bottling plant in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. She says, “The father of my daughters left us, so I have been the one fighting to take care of them.”

The 42-year-old mother used to be the slave of an influential Mauritanian family. Now freed, Ms. Zeynabou finds comfort in farming. She grows and sells a variety of plants, exotic flowers, herbs and bananas. She is providing for her family herself.

Mauritania officially abolished slavery in 1981 and criminalized the practice in 2007. But slavery still exists. There are an estimated 155,000 slaves in Mauritania.

Members of the dark-skinned Haratine ethnic minority were traditionally enslaved by the lighter-skinned Moorish peoples. The Haratine continue to be victims of discrimination, violence and social injustice.

Sheikh Saad Bouh Kamara is a Mauritanian Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He estimates that about 85 per cent of Haratines are illiterate because they are barred from going to school. And 90 per cent are not paid for their manual labour.

Haratine women are especially oppressed. According to the rights group, Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille, Haratine women were the victims of more than 80 per cent of rapes in Mauritania in 2014.

But thanks to their courage and the help of local human rights associations, women like Ms. Zeynabou are building a new life.

Oumoul Khayri suffered discrimination, beatings and rape. The 52-year-old woman was released from bondage only five years ago and considers her freedom as a new lease on life. She explains: “Every day I go to work in Arafat, where I sweep and do the dishes. Then I go home and I relax with my children, without anyone to insult me ​​or give me orders […] I make tea when I want and my children now go to school. They are no longer beaten.”

Ms. Wehbah is another Haratine woman who is empowering herself through paid work after years of abuse. Before she was freed from slavery, the 44-year-old and her sister had absolutely nothing. Now they have started their own business, after learning how to sew and dye sails for boats.

Ms. Wehbah says: “[My sister, my children and I] used to live in a wooden shed … Now, thanks to a small loan […] we set up a small business […] and I can feed, clothe and provide decent housing for my family.”

While these women are free, many still fight for acceptance. Ms. Zeynabou says that people are often “embarrassed” to see a woman heading a household, especially if she is doing well. But she is starting to see signs of improvement. Ms. Zeynabou says, “Things change. Freedom is about fighting for your own responsibilities—and relying only on yourself.”

To read the full photo essay on which this story was based, Forty Years a Slave: Women start new lives in Mauritania, and to access the photos, go to:

Photo credit: Mamoudou Lamine Kane