Examining The Heart of African Slavery
By Will Millet
Ahmadou, was a friend of mine. To many, the probability of a genius arising from his humble roots would seem nearly impossible. He is a man of exceptional intelligence, as evidenced by his language ability. While he is fluent in five languages, including a dialect of Arabic, the tribal languages Soninke, Peular, and Bambara as well as French, Ahmadou is however, illiterate. He neither reads nor writes any of the languages he speaks.
An affable character, filled with warmth and good humor, Ahmadou loves to converse, explore ideas, consider the world beyond his own. I first met him when buying lumber to build window screens for the house we had rented in Nioro du Sahel, a town of 15000 people in Mali, West Africa, about twenty kilometers off the southeastern border of Mauritania. My wife and I were engaged in linguistic and cultural studies, primarily among a group of people known as "The White Moors," the dominate group of Mauritania. Ahmadou was also Mauritanian, of a group westerners refer to as "Black Moors," which is a reference in part to their skin color, but primarily to their caste. Known among the Islamic community as "haratine" meaning unclean, they are the people who make up the working class, the day laborers in Mauritania. It was they who do the dirty work, tasks considered unholy among the warrior and priestly class which constitute the ruling minority known as the White Moors. The entire population of the Moors, are a subset of Berber/Arabs mixed to varying degrees with Black Africans.
In those days, the borders of the area known as the Sahel, the region where the Sahara Desert meets the grasslands, were quite fluid. Historically dominated by nomadic peoples, even those settled in the towns and villages still identify themselves in large part, as nomads. With the borders often vague and ungoverned, and the traditional presence of trans-nationals of various tribal and ethnic backgrounds, the opportunities for unregulated trade abounded. Thus the strong presence of Moors in the border towns of Mali/Mauritania.
To purchase lumber one would go to the single lumber warehouse and select huge pieces of wood brought in by truck, some from the southern region of Mali, but more often from the Ivory Coast. On my first visit to the warehouse, I purchased several large pieces of raw lumber, sold in planks 12 to 16 inches in width and 2-3 inches thick. I then had the wood transported to a man who would plane the pieces smooth, as well as cut them into the sizes needed to build the press frames for the several windows in our home.
Throughout Nioro, there were workers knows as "pus pus," who spent their days pushing heavy loads of material from place to place on two wheel carts through the sand filled streets. As I completed my purchase, Ahmadou was there waiting outside the gate with his cart. He loaded the cart, after which we proceeded to the shaded spot where the "raboteur," Bakary, would plane the lumber. In this atmosphere with no electricity, Bakary, having marked the wood with chalk, proceeded to saw it by hand into 2 inch strips 10-12ft long.
The next day I sought out Ahmadou to retrieve the wood from Bakary's. I found him once again outside the lumber warehouse. As we were greeting one another, a harsh voice broke into the moment. Within seconds, I saw a change, unlike anything I had previously witnessed in anyone, come over Ahmadou. This physically powerful, honorable man, of admirable, gregarious, spirit, was suddenly reduced to something less than human, robotic. His muscular shoulders turned inward, head lowered, his steps reduced to a shuffle as he turned from me in response to the voice of Mohammed, the White Moor who I previously thought to be his employer. I now realized that their relationship was quite different than assumed. Ahmadou was Mohammed's slave.
I quietly entered the warehouse behind Ahmadou to witness the unfolding of what I would learn to be an ongoing reality, but which a part of me struggled to accept. Not intimidated by my entry, Mohammed seemed to intensify his verbal abuse at my presence. As if to affirm his mastery, this man of meager stature, ripped into the spirit of Ahmadou with unchecked vigor. Ahmadou spoke not a word.
In the next year and a half, I would become aware of several master slave relationships. Some were benevolent, others more like the character of the lumber yard owner, Mohammed. I became familiar with Arab on Arab as well as Arab on Black African slavery, and Black African upon Black African slavery. One friend's father held an entire village of Black Moors under his tutelage. Fortunately , he was a kind man, a benevolent master, however the brother of my friend, the heir apparent, is a cruel person. I have often wondered after the fate of those under his rule.
In that same period a political officer from the U.S. Embassy came to Nioro du Sahel, representing the American Ambassador. Meeting him at a ceremony honoring fallen soldiers, we invited him to our home. As we sat drinking coffee that afternoon, he asked us of our lives in this remote town more related to the middle ages than to the late twentieth century. We spoke of many things that day, one of which was slavery. He said, "that's not possible, slavery no longer exits here!" We offered to introduce him to some of our friends. At that point, both the U.S. and the United Nations did not officially recognize the existence of slavery in West Africa. Two years later, sitting in my office back in the states, I read an article within which the U.S. and the U.N. were noted as having acknowledged the resurgence of slavery, not only in West Africa, but in many and diverse locales across the world.
Later we moved to Mauritania, where slavery had recently been outlawed for a third time. There I became acquainted with a local social activist who was laboring to expose the structure of slavery, which in spite of laws, continues to be an ongoing element in society.
The more I observed and learned about our host society, the more parallels I began to perceive relative to other cultures where slavery has played a major historical role. In reading an essay by American historian Daniel Boorstin entitled "The Young Virginians" which examined the life of Thomas Jefferson and his companions, the similarities to White Moor culture were startling. One evening, having the opportunity to work with some wealthy friends who were desirous of improving their English, I read Boorstin's essay to them as a point of discussion. Their immediate response was to observe the same characteristics which I had noted, leading one to remark, "They sound just like us!"
Interestingly, these friends were social progressives. Like Jefferson, they promoted social progress, justice and modernization in their society. One of them had even been sentenced to jail for opposing a government sanctioned ethnic cleansing in the late eighties. Yet they would admit to still having client relationships with some of those traditionally subjugated to their family. As Jefferson, who purchased slaves until the day he died, they had deep personal ties to the people who had been their slaves, to the degree that the relationships were intimate in nature. In spite of their intellectual affinity for social reform and progress, when push came to shove, they would return to the familiar, the structures closest to their hearts.
It is these experiences, some deeply personal, some born of historical curiosity, friendship with slaves, former slaves, sons and daughters of slaves as well slave owners, which quickened my heart to explore "Intimate Betrayal, Examining the Heart of Slavery."