One Man's Personal Mission To End Slavery in Mauritania

Founder of SOS Slaves, Boubacar Messaoud
Founder of SOS Slaves, Boubacar Messaoud (Heidi Fancher)
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By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 23, 2008

Boubacar Messaoud remembered strolling from the flatlands of Mauritania toward the southern town of Rosso, a watermelon poised on his head. Beyond a riverbank, he could see a row of children in a yard. Messaoud, then 7, stopped to find out what was going on, with the pure curiosity of a child.

He found out that the children were being signed up for school. Messaoud, the son of slaves who toiled in the fields of landowners, recalled that he was still unaware of the privations separating him from others.

Among a knot of parents, Messaoud noticed the cousin of his family's owner and asked him to help him enroll, too. "I can't," the man replied. "What will your master say?"

Messaoud put down his watermelon and cried.

The ancient tradition of slavery endures in Mauritania, although it was officially abolished in the 1980s. There are roughly half a million slaves among the country's population of 3.3 million, and at least 80 percent do not have access to a formal education, Messaoud said. Many remain illiterate.

Messaoud was in Washington this month to speak at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and to lobby legislators on the issue, with assistance from the Open Society Institute, which promotes civil society and democratic institutions, and London-based Anti-Slavery International.

Messaoud, who founded the anti-slavery group SOS Slaves in 1995, has waged many battles on behalf of slaves since that day more than 50 years ago when he faced his first obstacle to breaking the shackles.

The French principal inspecting the clutch of eager students outside the school asked why young Messaoud was sobbing. The principal shamed the slave master's cousin into registering Messaoud, who became the first in his family to go to school. He went on to college and became an architect with the help of scholarships and an uncle who ran a butchering business on the side after his farming chores were finished.

Messaoud, 63, remembered the thrill and promise of possibility on his first day of school. "I relished the change from laboring in the fields, sowing seeds and tearing off acacia branches to build barriers fencing in the land," he said. Until then, rare childhood joys had included flopping around in the water to fish by hand. Unlike Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, which is ringed by ribbons of desert and sand dunes, Rosso has a river running through it, cornfields and rice paddies.

But Messaoud also remembered being bullied and dismissed by classmates as inferior. "When you go out in mixed society, life is hard," he said.

Slavery has been perpetuated in Mauritania by the persistence of tradition, distorted notions of religious obligation and a reluctance by some law enforcement agents to apply the law, especially in rural areas. Slaves are unaware that they are entitled to equal rights and don't know how to seek justice, so their bondage continues, Messaoud said.

"A slave guiding a blind beggar in the streets of Nouakchott does it as an act of piety. He will not run away, believing his subjugation will secure him a place in paradise," he said. In fact, Islam prohibits a Muslim from enslaving other Muslims.

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