by David Hecht
DAKAR, Senagal -- Charles Jacobs, of the American Anti-Slavery Group, attempts to defame me (The Washington Post, Saturday, January 24, 1998 Page A23) when he says "David Hecht, a man who interviewed slaves in the presence of their masters and concluded that slavery was not so terrible." Except for the fact that I did also interview slaves when they were not in the presence of their masters, he is correct: While I think the trans-Atlantic slave trade is perhaps the most horrific event in the history of Western civilization, the sort of slavery that still exists in many parts of Africa is not the same thing.
Jacobs is referring to my dispatch in The New Republic (May 12, 1997) called "Virtual slavery" from the impoverished desert nation of Mauritania. Here many people have never used money. So they don't want to exchange their labor for a wage. Rather, they expect those they call their 'masters' to feed them and take care of them and not to fire them as soon as they are no longer needed.
That's one reason they still call themselves 'Haratan' or slaves. Another is it has become part of their Moorish heritage. The slave/master relationship is a form of kinship. Though slaves are mostly black Africans and masters or "Bidan" have more Arab Berber blood in them, they are all members of the same clans and in some cases the blacks are the chiefs.
Furthermore today there are slaves who are in fact richer than their masters. While others say they are slaves but have never been owned by anyone. Haratin are in the minority but they are well represented in the government. One is a former UN Representative to Mauritania at the UN.
Clearly, when people say they are 'Haratin' it doesn't mean they are not free, and yet it's the reason the US Congress has blocked aid to Mauritania.
The interviews that I made, which Jacobs refers to, was in the poorest section of the desert town of Bootilimit where Haratin and Bidan live together, often in the same raggedy old tents in the sand. They reminded me of impoverished whites and blacks living together the US, only of course much poorer.
I later went to a slightly wealthier part of town, where I was invited to the home of a local businessmen which consisted of a larger, more colorful tent in the sand. We lay on mats and were served traditional green tea by a woman who said the businessmen in French was his 'esclave'. It turned out she was also his wife. Haratin and Bidan often intermarry and it's not an issue.
There are, in fact, other castes amongst the Moors of Mauritania who are worse off than the Haratin such as the 'Znaga' or shepherd caste. And there has been terrible persecution of non-Moor ethnic minorities from the south, such as the Hal-Pulaar. But, as no one can say these people are enslaved, their plight gets little international attention.
Mauritania is not an easy society to understand but what is simply, despite the misinformation of Jacobs and his anti-slavery group, is that there is not the kind of slavery here that existed in the Americas a hundred or so years ago. To claim there is, is to deny the uniquely dehumanizing experience that African Americans suffered.
Even in the Hollywood version of American slavery that Steven Spielberg paints in his latest film the Amistad, one evil character argues that enslaving Africans is acceptable because Africans enslave each other. The reason this argument is wrong, we learn, is because slavery in Africa is not the same thing.
In Mauritania there are no plantations, no big mansions on top of the hill. If Americans are still finding it hard to get beyond their own historical experience of slavery, maybe they are not yet in the best position to judge others.
[David Hecht is a BBC Correspondent based in Dakar, Senegal, and the author of a book on government in Africa. The preceding article is his Letter on "Slavery" in Mauritania to The Washington Post - the Post declined publication.]
©1998 David Hecht