The swell of support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the US has thrown a spotlight not only on police brutality but also on the prevalence of systemic racism. Protests in support of #BLM have taken place in many Western countries whose populations are pointing out the same ingrained racism in their own societies. Racism has been, at least in part, historically rooted in slavery and the failure to face up to the legacy of a slave owning past has contributed greatly to ongoing racial inequality. Alongside this failure to deal honestly with an historical injustice, slavery itself still exists in some parts of the world.
RNW Media’s Benbere platform in Mali has been highlighting the situation in the Kayes region where ‘slavery by descent’ has become an increasingly volatile issue. Although slavery is a crime against humanity in Mali’s constitution, it remains deeply ingrained in the culture and is still prevalent in some areas.
Mali is on the dividing line between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa and has a community of Tuareg and Arabic people (approximately 10 percent of Mali’s total population) who regard themselves as ‘white’ and other Malians as ‘black’. Tuaregs and Arabic people historically participated in the trans-Saharan slave trade, sometimes selling and enslaving ‘blacks’ when they could. For centuries, descent-based slavery – where slavery is passed down through the bloodline – has resulted in ‘Black Tamasheq’ (the Tuareg language) families in Mali’s north being used as slaves by nomadic Tuareg communities.
Lifetime of exploitation
People born into descent-based slavery face a lifetime of exploitation, working without pay and are treated as property. They can be inherited, sold or given away as gifts or wedding presents while women and girls typically face sexual abuse and rape, and their children in turn will also be slaves. Children start work at a young age and never have the chance to attend school.
The situation on the ground though is complex, as Benbere reports, and ‘a thorn in the side of the authorities’, with tradition, culture and religion all playing a role in the conflicts around the issue. Since 2018, increasing numbers of people in the Kayes region with the status of ‘jon’ (‘slave’ or ‘captive’) are rejecting that status and demanding an end to the practice. This has provoked violent opposition from those who defend the status quo as an essential element of Mali’s social structure. The homes of anti-slavery activists have been burned and thousands of ‘jons’ have fled their villages in the face of verbal and physical violence from ‘horons’ (‘nobles’ or slave owners).
Dialogue or confrontation?
There are a number of local anti-slavery organisations such as Temedt, Ganbanaaxu (meaning “all equal” in Soninké) and the Malian Rally for Fraternity and Progress (RMFP). But despite the constitution, slavery is still not illegal in Mali, making it difficult for such groups to bring about real change. And there are different opinions about the best way forward. Gambanaaxu, for instance, favours direct confrontation and encourages those enslaved to declare their independence while Temedt works to promote a greater understanding of the injustice of slavery among both people of slave descent and key stakeholders such as government officials and religious leaders.
The differences in approach and attitudes were clearly visible at an offline debate on the topic organised by Benbere in early June that took place at the office of the Kayes Youth Circle Council. The first speaker was Dama Sacko, a traditionalist, who said “there is no slavery in Kayes, but djonya”. He defined ‘djonya’ as a link in social organisation based on mutual aid governing the relationship between people in society. ”Society is made in such a way that each family is specialised in a specific field: The djons have their role to play and that is how it is”, according to Sacko.
Modibo Dalla, president of Ganbanaaxu , disagreed forcefully saying: “But, the fact of forcing a person to cultivate his field, of being forced to accept that someone has sex with your wife or your mother, is this also part of this social organisation based on mutual aid? No. It is the exploitation of man by man.”
What Islam says about it
The predominant religion in the Kayes region is Islam, and the issue of slavery is a divisive one for Muslims. While some say it belongs in the past others defend it, citing the Koranic verse:
God has favoured some of you more than others in the distribution of his gifts. Let not those who have been favoured pay what has been given to them to their slaves to the extent that the slaves become their equals. Will they deny the favours of Allah?
But Oumar Barrou, imam in the town of Kayes, who was present at the debate, takes a different view: “The Muslim religion is for the abandonment of slavery, for human dignity. At no time does she recommend slavery”. He interprets the same Koranic verse as meaning “certain sins are only expiated if you give freedom to a slave”.
“A false problem”
Others present claimed the issue is being worsened by external parties. It is difficult to examine the system of slavery by descent in Kayes outside the lens of the impact of colonialism both in the past and, as some would argue, its current forms.
Aly Dougnon, president of the Regional Youth Council of Kayes, believes “Other forces are manipulating this situation to destabilise the region and undermine social cohesion and living together in the region.” Another participant said, “This is a false problem, everything is engineered from France “, adding that demonising the practice of slavery was “just to raise funding”.
Writing after the event, Benbere blogger Aliou Diallo warns that there is another factor which must be tackled by the authorities:
The Kayes region is on the verge of being a powder keg with the progressive installation of jihadist groups. The latter never miss an opportunity to turn local conflicts into opportunities . The state must use the carrot and the stick to put out the fire of the conflict born of the practice of slavery by descent in the region.
Benbere has published a number of articles on this issue which you can find in the dossier #MaliSansEsclaves (Mali Without Slaves). Posts with the hashtag have attracted over 13,700 interactions (likes, comments and shares) on the Benbere Facebook page.