Haratin: Social Exclusion and Poverty Facing Those Who Escape Life of Slavery in Mauritania
Photo Courtesy of Luca Catalano Gonzaga
Despite claims by the Mauritanian state government that this practice no longer exists, 1 percent of the country’s total population remain in slavery. The majority of those enslaved belong to the Haratin community. Freedom from this enslavement however, does not yet mean access to ‘freedom’. Many emancipated Haratin face a life of poverty and discrimination as many do not hold the necessary identification documents, leaving them without access to work, education or the ability to provide for their families. They face marginalisation due to the stigma attached to their identity as Haratin and this social exclusion is systemic in the country. The government of Mauritania fails to adequately address the poor socio-economic conditions faced by the Haratin people. The continued official denial of the existence of slavery in Mauritania further compounds the difficulties faced by this minority.
The article below was published by World Politics Review:
Maatalla Mboirick’s home sits a few hundred meters off the main road of this desert city, past high mounds of orange sand. It is little more than a collection of tarps affixed to wooden beams and scrap metal. Thin mattresses and sturdy pillows line the interior of a tent at the back of the property, one of several spots where as many as a dozen people sleep on any given night.
While the home may be modest, even by Mauritanian standards, its most important feature is that it belongs indisputably to Mboirick and his family. For a man who was born into slavery, that’s the only thing that really matters.
A member of the Haratine class—the term generally refers to Mauritanians who are descendants of enslaved people or were enslaved themselves—as a child Mboirick was considered to be the property of his master, as were his mother and siblings. They all worked around the clock without pay in the border region where Mauritania meets Western Sahara and Algeria. Mboirick did housework and spent days in the sand dunes, keeping an eye on herds of camels. “We were isolated, we lived alone, we didn’t study [and] we did all the work,” says Mboirick, who is now in his 30s. “So it was clear that we weren’t like the others.”
On top of arduous labor, Mboirick’s family endured regular abuse. He recalls, for example, being forced to watch as his master beat his mother and sisters in front of him.
For most of Mboirick’s childhood, this was all he knew. But his life was forever changed one day when, while out watching the camels, he came across a jeep full of gendarmes, or military police, who were lost. The gendarmes’ commander, a man named Suleiman, asked if Mboirick knew the way to a nearby military encampment. Mboirick said yes, but added that he couldn’t direct them himself because his master would punish him if he left his post.
“You have a master?” Suleiman asked.
Mboirick nodded and told the soldier that he wanted to flee, but only with a guarantee that his master wouldn’t come after him. “If they catch me,” he told the gendarmes, “they will kill me.”
Skeptical of Mboirick’s story, the gendarmes decided to stay until the slave owner arrived. When he did, the commander asked him about his relationship to Mboirick. The slave owner, knowing that slavery was officially illegal in Mauritania, grew visibly nervous and lied, telling the gendarmes that Mboirick was his cousin.
Suleiman explained to the slave owner that he was lost and needed Mboirick’s help to find the military encampment. Since Mboirick was not enslaved, Suleiman reasoned, he could decide on his own if he wanted to help. Mboirick left with the gendarmes.
So began Mboirick’s life as a free man. Eventually, he made his way to the capital, Nouakchott, to establish himself, working odd jobs and later joining up with SOS-Esclaves, a local abolitionist group. He also made plans to free his mother and sisters, whom he’d left behind. After a decade of appealing to abolitionist activists and authorities in various parts of Mauritania, he was finally able to get them out as well. “I was so happy,” he says, recalling that day in 2013. “It was like someone brought me to paradise.”
Mauritania was the last country in the world to outlaw slavery. The practice was officially banned in 1981, but punishments weren’t enshrined in law until 2007. In 2015, the government went a step further, making slavery a “crime against humanity” punishable by up to 20 years in prison, double the previous punishment. The government also established three special tribunals to prosecute slave owners.
Yet so far, only three people have been convicted for slavery or slavery-related activities. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Mauritanians still live in some form of slavery, according to abolitionist activists and the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index.
In the face of the state’s intransigence, a Haratine-led movement for equal rights is getting louder. Experts say greater access to education—due in a large part to the urbanization of many Haratine—and the visibility of prominent Haratine abolitionist activists have helped push this movement to the forefront of Mauritanian society. But so far, the government of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has been slow to react, raising fears that the social exclusion of Haratine, especially young people, could lead to their radicalization.
Slavery in Mauritania dates back to the 8th century, when Arab-Berbers traded enslaved West Africans across the greater Sahara region. In the centuries that followed, enslaved people were bought, sold and traded along routes that crisscrossed the desert from Morocco to Mali.
But while slave markets have previously existed in Mauritania, the domestic system of slavery that persists today looks little like the chattel slavery prevalent in the United States up until the Civil War. Instead, the Mauritanian system is in many ways a product of what’s referred to locally as “extreme dependence,” in which enslaved people and their families, deprived of education and paid work, maintain ties to their masters in order to survive.
The practice reflects Mauritania’s stratified social hierarchy. The country’s Arab-Berber elite, also known as the White Moors or Bidhan, historically held the most influential government posts and economic power—just as they do today, even though they are believed to be an ethnic minority in Mauritania. They were, for the most part, the slave-owning class.
Meanwhile, most enslaved people belonged to the Haratine. Sometimes referred to as Black Moors, the Haratine are the lowest class of citizens in Mauritania. Like the Bidhan, they speak the local Hassaniya dialect of Arabic, but they are generally darker-skinned.
Today, no one knows how many people are enslaved in Mauritania. Conservative estimates say just over 1 percent of the population of 4.3 million lives in some form of slavery.
Part of the difficulty in pinning down a total lies in the fact that slavery is not always clear-cut. Terms like “extreme dependence” or “conditions of slavery” are often used as stand-ins, says Mariem Mint Baba, an anthropologist who studies social inequalities in Mauritania.
But to activists like Boubacar Messaoud, president of the Mauritanian abolitionist group SOS-Esclaves, any amount of slavery, in any form, is unacceptable. “Whatever the number of slaves,” he says, “slavery must be fought.”
As a general rule, the Mauritanian government refuses to acknowledge the continued existence of slavery on its territory. Instead, ministers talk about the “vestiges of slavery”—the lingering evidence of the centuries-old practice.
“The subject [of slavery] is highly flammable,” says Mint Baba. The state’s position, she explains, is that “there is no slavery in Mauritania at all” anymore and that “it’s a thing of the past.”
In 2013, the government established an office known as Tadamon, which means “solidarity” in Arabic, to address the socioeconomic conditions that keep Haratine communities marginalized. While the government has made a show of this and other efforts to improve the lives of the Haratine, Messaoud says such steps, much like the establishment of the anti-slavery tribunals, are for appearances only. “All that is to fool the international community,” he says.
The deputy commissioner for human rights in Mauritania did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In 2013, Mohamed Said Ould Hamody, an abolitionist activist, presided over a committee that produced a document titled “Manifesto for the Rights of the Haratine.” Distributed online, it described and condemned Haratine exclusion from various sectors of Mauritanian society—education, public service, land ownership—and called for an end to their social marginalization. “In everyday life, Haratine marginalization is both obvious and systemic,” the document reads. “The general condition for this community remains marked by slavery and its vestiges: exclusion, ignorance and poverty prevail amidst the complete indifference of the public powers that be.”
Since then, annual rallies organized by the committee behind the manifesto calling for equal rights and opportunities for the Haratine have drawn hundreds of people to the streets of Nouakchott.
The committee’s work is part of a broader pattern of abolitionist activism carried out in Mauritania in recent years. In 2008, the anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid founded The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, known by its French acronym, IRA. Since then, he has emerged as a political force, denouncing slavery in speeches and protests and challenging claims from Islamic clerics that slavery is justified under religious doctrine.
His work has not escaped the government’s attention. In 2015, he and two other activists were arrested during an anti-slavery march and accused of “belonging to an illegal organization, leading an unauthorized rally, and violence against the police.” He was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, but released after serving 20 months of his sentence when the Mauritanian Supreme Court overturned his conviction. This episode has not deterred him. The following year, he challenged President Abdel Aziz in an election, earning just under 9 percent of the vote.
The rising prominence of voices like Dah Abeid’s is helping to chip away at any lingering slavery-related stigma the Haratine might feel, says Erin Pettigrew, a professor of history at New York University in Abu Dhabi who has studied social activism in Mauritania.
Up until about 15 years ago, even the word Haratine “was a term that people didn’t like to say out loud,” she says. Today , though, it is being reclaimed by members of the community as a point of pride.
Along with social activism, greater access to education is also helping reduce the stigma against the Haratine. But these gains are highly uneven.
When it comes to closing Mauritania’s sizable education gap, Haratine women are an especially challenging demographic to reach. “They have a particular status as submissive,” says Salimata Lam, national coordinator at SOS-Esclaves. To help empower Haratine women, some of SOS-Esclaves’ programming is intended to provide them with vocational training.
During a recent visit to the organization’s office, Lemine Mint Hajji, a 33-year-old Haratine mother of two, was seated on the floor of a narrow room, her legs covered in reams of brightly colored fabric. Her infant daughter was lying on the floor next to her as she ran the thread back and forth, making small knots in what would soon become a bright “mulafa,” a long garment that Mauritanian women wear to cover their heads and bodies. “We’ve learned a profession that allows us to live and eat,” Mint Hajji said.
Many of the women with whom she’d studied sewing had been practicing and experimenting with new designs on scraps of material at home. Some had even begun selling their own veils.
In the next room, Haratine women in their late teens and early 20s were learning how to braid hair. On plastic chairs, they practiced on mannequin heads. A few said they wanted to open their own beauty salons one day.
Lam says this type of program helps women build confidence while also providing them with some measure of financial independence. “The main thing,” she says, “is that the person can live from what she has learned.”
Outside of Nouakchott, however, it can be difficult to reach Haratine women, says Cedric Jourde, a professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa who has studied slavery in Mauritania. This lack of access to education, he says, makes slavery much more prevalent in rural regions. In some places, he says, “You still see a lot of villages and semi-nomadic camps where it’s literally slavery—where young Haratine women have no clue how old they are, what year their children were born. They have no identity cards and no mobility.”
Even in the capital, life is far from easy for formerly enslaved people and their descendants, regardless of gender, making education an impractical luxury. The status of slave is passed down at birth and prevents Haratine from being formally registered as citizens of Mauritania. Without formal status, or national ID cards, they cannot send their children to school or gain access to some public services, including hospitals.
Though some Haratine have achieved high levels of success, including holding government posts, this is not the norm. Most Haratine hold low-level jobs and work domestically in private homes, cooking meals and serving tea to guests, or selling food and other goods in local markets, Mint Baba says.
Housing is also precarious for Haratine families in the city. In some cases, Haratine live in shacks or rudimentary tents that stand quite literally in the shadow of sprawling villas or foreign embassies. These tents spring up in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods of the capital, like Tevragh-Zeina.
Canadian academic Ann McDougall, who has studied Haratine communities extensively, calls these clusters of tents “niche-settlements,” whose inhabitants “are rendered socially invisible to their Bidhan neighbors.” They are, she writes, “the ‘most invisible of the invisible’ of Nouakchott’s poor.”
Few in Mauritania dispute the idea that political consciousness is growing among members of the Haratine community. But whether a sustained resistance movement will emerge, to press the government to uphold their rights and end slavery once and for all, remains to be seen.
Some wonder what chances a disenfranchised and unorganized group has in a country that has been effectively ruled by a military dictatorship for nearly 60 years. Mauritania didn’t hold parliamentary elections for the first time until 2006, after a military coup ousted longtime leader Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya the previous year. The current government is accused of an array of strong-arm tactics, including muscling through a constitutional referendum that, among other things, abolished the Senate, part of what critics contend is an attempt by Abdel Aziz to cling to power.
While slavery abolitionists are vocal and visible in Mauritania, turning that mobilization into a large-scale movement will be difficult, Jourde says. “Mauritania is an authoritarian regime—we should never forget that.”
The challenge is compounded by the fact that Haratine are among the poorest people in one of the poorest countries on earth. “When you survive on a budget of less than one dollar a day, participating in a fully organized social movement is not something you can easily do,” Jourde adds.
Nevertheless, Messaoud, from SOS-Esclaves, says people are waking up. And the fact that liberated Haratine families “are living in misery” in many places could spell trouble for the government.
Messaoud worries, though, that the state’s outright denial of slavery could push the Haratine toward not activism, but extremism. “People will continue to fight,” Messaoud says. “And you are sending them into the hands of extremists because you’re telling them that slavery doesn’t exist.”
Radicalization is a real possibility, agrees Zekeria Ahmed Salem, a Mauritanian professor of political science at Northwestern University and an expert on the Haratine. “If they remain marginalized, they will be the victims of all [types of] extremism, whether it’s political or religious extremism,” he says.
Back in the fresh air outside her home in Nouakchott, Shadde, the sister of Maatalla Mboirick, speaks slowly, weighing each word as the late afternoon sky turns to dusk over the city.
She recalls how, before her brother fled with the gendarmes, she had tried to run away one night herself. She walked through the desert until sunrise, only stopping at a well to drink water. But her master and his children followed her footsteps in the sand. They eventually caught up to her and brought her back to their encampment.
“They tied me up like a goat, and they hit me,” Shadde recalls.
After Mboirick disappeared, she asked about him constantly. Her master told her that her brother was dead. “I never thought he would come back,” she says.
Shadde never believed that one day, she and her children would be free. But when that day came, freedom brought new problems. She does not have identification papers, so her children can’t attend school and she can’t work or afford to buy her own house.
For now, she and her children live on Mboirick’s property. “We just want the means to live in dignity,” she says.
Mboirick is lucky to have an ID card, and he supports himself with his work at SOS-Esclaves. But he says there is “nothing worse” than seeing Haratine children, including his sister’s children, who can’t get an education.
“For us, we are not yet free,” Maatalla says, his voice rising. “The day we will have papers—our children will be able to go to school—is the day we will be free. As long as my family is not free, I’m a slave.”