Africana Plus

No39 March 2000.2



"The governor of North Kordofan recently set up a commission of enquiry about the slaves discovered in his state. The decision was taken after the arrest of some twenty Pakistanis who were rounding up slaves in Hamarat El Sheick. They were accused of trafficking in slaves and transferred to Khartoum before being handed over to the Pakistan embassy. UNICEF has suggested that the other states of Northern Sudan should set up similar commissions." (According to MISNA, Italy, 15 November 1999)

It may be hard to believe, but there is still slavery in our world. There are a number of examples in Africa :
The situation is particularly dramatic in the Sudan. According to Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid, more than 3,000 children, boys and girls, became slaves in the first few months of 1998, taken by the nomadic, pastoral Arab tribesmen of Baffara. These tribesmen are armed by the Khartoum government to plunder the Dinka villages of the South in Bahr El Ghazal, as well as the Nuba. The slave-children become servants in the families of the Baggara or are sold to other Arab tribes. The young girls become concubines, or "pleasure slaves", for the armed forces and the Muslim militia. The boys are confined in what are called "peace camps" but are in fact simply concentration camps and military training centres, set up to arabise and Islamise the blacks of the South and enrol them in the Muslim militia.

The police in Benin announced that in 1997 alone it had rescued 900 children who were about to be transported abroad. Their destitute parents had entrusted them to "travellers" from Nigeria, Gabon, Congo and Ivory Coast. The slave-traders then acquired them for two hundred francs and resold them to estate-owners who used them as workers on their cocoa plantations.

In Kenya there are "salt slaves". Hundreds of children are compelled to work in the salt mines of Malindi for more than eight hours a day to extract, refine and packet the salt. The salary for a day's work is supposed to be $1.2, but some of the children receive as little as $0.8. Many of them have eye-problems through long exposure to the glare of the sun reflected on the salt crystals. Boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 17 work for hours in the sun, in the suffocating heat of the dry season which is the best period for this kind of work. It is then that the salt mines are opened and workers enrolled, including children, although it is also examination time in the primary and secondary schools. The small amounts of money earned by the children are often essential for the numerous families of the region.

Africa has of course known the slave-trade from the days of the Egyptian Pharaohs to modern Mauretania. Historically it took essentially two forms: the eastern and trans-Saharan trade run by Arabs, and the transatlantic trade operated by Europeans. They seem to have been both on more or less the same scale, and it has been calculated that each was responsible for between twelve and fourteen million victims. The slave-trade was the naked exploitation of man by man, and for three hundred and fifty years it bled the continent of Africa of its youngest, strongest and healthiest people. The slaves were disposed of in the markets of the Mediterranean basin and, after the discovery of the New World and the organization of plantations, of the American Atlantic coast. During the period of the slave-trade, millions of people died in atrocious conditions before eventually consciences were stirred and voices raised against this monstrous traffic.

Anti-slavery associations gradually became more influential. Treaties, petitions, drafts of laws, campaigns, publications, orders and decrees, eventually led to the abolition of the trade in "Black Ivory". Denmark was the first country to enact anti-slavery legislation, in 1804. Then came England (1807), Sweden (1813), Holland (1814), Spain and France (1820), and Portugal (1830).

The official abolition of the slave-trade did not however mean that it ceased to exist. Cardinal Lavigerie, the Founder of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers and White Sisters), vigorously denounced the hypocrisy which allowed the slave-trade to continue to flourish in secret, calling it an unacceptable crime against humanity. He used the occasion of the priestly Golden Jubilee of Pope Leo XIII to launch his anti-slavery campaign on 24 May 1888. Lavigerie understood the power of the press and he used it to awaken public opinion and to compel governments to act. He issued from Rome his call to arms: "I am a man, and my heart revolts at the sight of injustice towards other men. I am a man, and the cruelty of men fills me with horror. I am a man, and I value my freedom, my honour, the sacred bonds of family; I wish to restore the same benefits of family, honour and freedom to the sons of this unfortunate race." (Sermon preached in the church of the Gesu, Rome, 22 December 1888) The Cardinal contributed to the rise of a powerful movement which mobilised men of good will and finally forced governments, whether they liked it or not, to take responsibility for a vital humanitarian cause.

In 1998 the words of Cardinal Lavigerie were echoed in a speech of Laurent Fabius, president of the French National Assembly: "The real target of slavery is the human person in himself or herself who is deprived of freedom and identity and ceases to exist as a separate man or a woman. If this is not a crime against humanity, then there is no crime against humanity."

Natural phenomena are governed by "laws" which it is the business of science to uncover. There are also other laws planted deep in human consciousness which have to be discovered by the light of the God who planted them. One of these fundamental laws is respect for life. It is disregarded by the world-wide slave-traffickers, who in this way betray their own humanity. How can any man bring himself in good conscience systematically to despise his brothers and sisters, to bring them under control, to trample on them, to murder them? There can be no denying that for thousands of years human beings have been bought and sold and used like animals. This same crime is still going unpunished, in spite of all the talk about the Rights of Man. It seems impossible to explain how this can be so, but we must try and explain it.

Slavery exists still. Individuals and even whole communities are being terrorised and exploited, their ignorance and weakness rendering them defenceless. This is especially the case in states which lack the means of interfering, or where mediaeval practices persist and individual rights can be simply trampled on. It is the remoteness and secrecy which often leads to the worst abuses. No one knows or cares about things that are done in the dark.

Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, spoke of the problem of slavery in a communique published on 2 December 1999, which was kept as a Day for the Abolition of Slavery. "The persistence of slavery," he said, " in an era of progress in respect for human rights is an absurdity." He noted that in spite of all the laws, slavery continues in a variety of forms. "There is the traditional slavery of possessing another human being; forced labour; domestic servitude; the employment of children; the exploitation of migrant workers; and the slavery bound up with ritual or religious practices."

On 3 September 1999 Amnesty International published the following in its journal: "In various countries, children are used to pull wagons in underground mines which have no systems of security. There are places where children work on farms where they are exposed to poisonous substances...Children from the age of four work long hours in tiny, windowless rooms...At least 300,000 young people under eighteen are at present involved in armed conflicts. Hundreds of thousands of others are conscripted and liable to be sent to fight...To fight our wars, we sacrifice their lives...The biggest danger to young people is our own indifference...There are countries in which a rifle costs less and is easier to buy than a book."

And what are we to say about all the nameless young girls who year after year are forced into prostitution? From the moment they are captured they become nothing more than consumer products, without identity, without a past, destined to end their life in brothels. You might say, Why do they not escape? But escape to where, and to what? Very often it is the destitution of the parents that has led them to sell their daughters into this trade. They will die unknown, as they have lived unknown.

Clearly slavery still exists at the end of the twentieth century. It is a subject which concerns us as we are celebrating a Jubilee Year in which we demand the liberation of captives. Let us not forget our debt towards black people. The American economy was built with the forced labour of millions of slaves transported from Africa over a period of centuries. We must also admit with bitterness that much of this was done in the name of Christian faith. We have corrupted the family of God. Abolishing slavery in the year 2000 is one way of accepting our historical responsibilities and seeking to make good the injustices of the past.

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.

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