Niger: A slave's perspective
Despite its 'official' abolition in 2003, slavery still exists in Niger. Girls are sold as 'Fifth Wives', a form of physical and sexual slavery. They are denied basic rights and essentially owned by their master; some are fitted with heavy bronze ankle bracelets to prevent escape. Other Nigeriens with slave ancestry suffer discrimination throughout their lives. Tom Rowe meets them.
The concept of slavery is a slippery one. Slavery was once to be the property of a master. It was where a human being could be bought and sold, inherited, given as a gift, chained up, never paid for endless work, unable to escape. Many would imagine that this type of slavery no longer exists in the world; a historic anachronism from a less enlightened era. Yet in the West African country of Niger, this type of hereditary slavery persists, a 'tradition' carried on without interruption from the time of slave ships crossing the Atlantic and even before that. Generations of people have toiled in the sorghum fields, carried water from the well for the goats, cattle and camels, cooked, cleaned and pounded millet, all for the benefit of the master and his family. Men, women and children born to slave parents continue to live these lives today.
Within this reality of slavery in Niger, there are many apparent contradictions. Males, sold as children or simply born to slave parents within a master's house or compound, will often become too big to control past adolescence, and will simply leave. Women have less opportunity to do so, but it is not just physical barriers like heavy bronze anklets that prevent them from escape. In many cases they have been denied education, and all semblance of a normal life. They have no land, and are often cut off from family ties, having been sold to a master in a distant village, or even into a neighbouring country like Nigeria or Mali. They have no skills apart from the ones learned doing domestic chores, have never been paid, and have been abused physically and mentally. Women will often be sexual slaves to their masters, frequently bearing them several children.
The case of Hadijatou Mani
I traveled several hours southeast of the capital of Niger to meet a woman whose story was reported in the media worldwide a few years ago. She has met Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama and travelled the globe to talk about her experiences, but little of this seems to have fazed Hadijatou Mani, and she lives a quiet life in rural Africa.
She covers her head in the manner of most Nigerien women, the cloth framing her face, like a nun's habit but for the bright colours of the material. Through an interpreter, she answers my questions as if she has been asked them many times before, and is no longer surprised that people from different countries arrive in her village of Dograba with detailed knowledge of the years she spent as a slave, wanting to know more.
Hadijatou (pictured above) is now aged 30, although it is difficult to tell. In 1996, aged 15, she was sold by her family's master as a Fifth Wife for less than $500. 'Wahira' or 'Fifth Wife' is a tradition in this part of the world, whereby a man who has reached the limit of four wives as prescribed by Islam can buy a fifth wife, who is a slave. Hadijatou was actually number eight in the list of fifth wives her slave owner had.
She tells me that due to the abuse she suffered in the household of her master she ran away many times to her parents' house, but her master would always bring her back. Her parents were powerless to prevent him, both of them being slaves themselves.
For nine years she toiled for her master, carrying water, pounding millet, working in the fields, for no pay, suffering regular beatings and sexual violence. She bore him two children. When he heard about the new law in Niger banning slavery (introduced in 2003), he tried to legalise the situation by offering her a dowry and the option to marry him. The master gave her a certificate of liberation. She took it and left. She returned to the village of her parents, and tried to begin a new life.
The ex-owner took a case to a local court, claiming that Hadijatou was his wife and must return to him. The case dragged on for years, during which time she became pregnant with a child by a new husband. This led the ex-owner to bring a charge of bigamy against her, and to also claim her unborn child as his own. Remarkably, the local court agreed with him, and imprisoned Hadijatou for two months, while pregnant, for bigamy. When I press her for an explanation as to how the court could find in his favour, I am told that the ex-slave owner was a "sorcerer" for the late President of Niger. As a rich and powerful man, he could corrupt the court.
At this point, Timidria enter the story. They are a Nigerien organisation that helps slaves escape and start new lives, and also to take court cases for compensation against former slave owners. Funded by the UK based Anti-Slavery International, who are in turn funded by Irish Aid, Timidria's lawyers secured Hadijatou's release from jail and took her case to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice on the grounds that the government of Niger had failed to implement laws against slavery. Taking a case to the ECOWAS court is roughly equivalent to an Irish person taking a case to Europe.
Hadijatou won her case, and was free to return to her life with her husband. She also received compensation from the government of 10 million CFA, and is now taking a case against her former owner, which she says she is looking forward to, as she "will be compensated for the years of suffering" he put her through.
The slave village of Labitounga
We approach Labitounga along a bumpy red-dirt track through erratically located stands of sogorum, a tall green cereal. Grass grows tall down the middle of the track, reaching over the roof of the Toyota 4x4, as it is the height of the brief rainy season in Niger. Surprised shepherds move their cattle and goats out of our way.
We pull into a well-appointed village of mud walled huts and large shady trees. Our arrival creates a stir in the quiet sunny morning, and very quickly a meeting takes shape, with mats laid on the ground under the trees for the women (pictured above). Across the divide of the central area, a circle of chairs is set up for the men. Villagers arrive in dribs and drabs, but steadily, and very soon there are more than 100 people there, old and young, most watching the scene quietly. There are 53 families in the village - 254 people - "plus lots of children" I am told.
The people of Labitounga are experiencing a strange problem. Members of the neighbouring village, named Luluje, have tried to enslave them. Boubacar Hamada takes the lead amongst the group of men, explaining to the Timidria representatives and me that their current situation is "like living in jail".
The chief of Luluje recently sent men to tell the villagers that they must pay a percentage of their crops to him, as they are slaves and cannot own land. The basis for this claim is that generations ago, the ancestors of the villagers of Labitounga had indeed been the slaves of the ancestors of the people in Luluje. There is an animated discussion amongst the villagers as to when their ascendants gained their freedom and split to form Labitounga. It is decided that "when the white men came" - meaning the French colonisers - slavery was abolished (although history books say the French tolerated slavery in West Africa). Despite having lived as free people in this village for 200 years, the slave descent of the villagers is still being used against them.
The villagers say that the police are being paid by the chief of Luluje to harass them, going so far as to imprison village representatives, one of whom died in jail. A corrupt judge forced villagers to sign papers declaring they did not own certain parts of the their land. Timidria are now fighting for the rights of the village in the courts, but until the situation is resolved, the children bring grass for the animals into the village to feed them and it is difficult to farm with the questions hanging over land ownership. This is a country that regularly sees famine – to be prevented from farming is a matter of life and death for these people. They tell me that to eat, "this year we are only waiting for help from God".
Timidria calls the condition of the villagers 'passive slavery'. They are no longer enslaved, but suffer discrimination in their communities as a result of their or their ancestors' past condition as slaves. It is estimated that there are 800,000 people living lives of 'passive slavery' in Niger. The men tell me that they "always face problems – our children fight with children from other villages. We cannot marry into other local villages." They can go to other places far away to escape their ancestory, but not locally, where it seems they will always be known as slaves.
Mariama Abodu is shy and quietly spoken. She partially covers her face with her headscarf when answering questions, making it difficult to tell her age. She was a slave until a few months ago, but has now escaped and is trying to begin a new life.
She was born into a slave family and sold as a wife to a man when she was young. He only had one wife before Mariama, and she was treated as a legitimate wife for several years. After she had had three children, he began to treat her as a slave, forcing her to do difficult agricultural work. She gives an example of being asked to go to the well to get water for all 30 of the animals. She asked her husband how she could do all this work, and was told that as his slave she must, or she would face punishment. He told her that she had been advertised by her previous owner, he bought her in the marketplace and that even a goat was worth more than her.
She detailed her working day, which went from 8 in the morning till 8 at night without a break to eat. Sometimes she was not given food for 7 days at a time. She was once beaten with a stick which resulted in her losing twin baby boys.
Mariama has problems with counting, but believes that she was living like this for 15 years. Her first child is now 12 or 13, and she is 30 years old, with four children in total.
The local Timidria representative found out about Mariama only recently, when neighbours noticed that she was doing the heavy farm labouring. He went to the well to meet her and took her to a safehouse in the town of Konni. The slave owner came to the town threatening to behead the Timidria representative with his sword. This is not an idle threat in Niger, where people are armed with traditional weapons. Luckily, the law worked and the slave owner was jailed, to await trail for slavery.
Mariama tells me that she had not heard of slavery being illegal until recently, but even so, leaving the animals would have been unthinkable for her, such was her fear of her owner's anger.
If she succeeds in getting compensation from her owner in the court case, she will open a restaurant or buy goods in Northern Nigeria and sell them in her village. She smiles when she says that she would like to get married and have more children.
The village of the Fifth Wives
Alhousna is elderly, but of indeterminate age. Like most ex-slaves, she finds it difficult to tell her age. Slaves are not taught how to count, and are cut off from family and collective memories of things like birthdays. Dressed in a black head covering, she sits on her own mat. She is obviously a person of stature amongst the other women gathered under the tree.
When she arrived in the village of Zongon Aolo she was an escaped Fifth Wife. She arrived in the village with nothing, without any idea if she would be accepted here. At the time, she tells me that she still regarded herself as a slave. To survive, she did odd jobs in the village and was paid in food. The village chief allowed her to sleep in his compound. Alhousna did not know at the time that she was a pioneer, the first of more than 50 escaped fifth wives that would come to live in this village of 1000 people.
Halima was the second escaped Fifth Wife to arrive in the village. Again, she can only guess at her age, but is at least in her fifties. Halima was a friend of Alhousna, and knew she had escaped from slavery. Halima ran away from her master's compound in northern Nigeria and arrived at a market town. People there helped her – a blacksmith removed the ankle bracelet and chain she had been tied up with. In the town she met an old man who knew the village over the border in Niger where Alhousa had gone. For two days she walked with the old man until she reached Zongon Aolo and her friend. She says that she "was sick, but with God's help" she recovered. Halima kept the bracelet and chain. She demonstrated for me how the heavy bronze weight sat on her ankle, leaving a scar. The bracelet resembles a Celtic torc and weighs well over a kilogram.
Aminatou has a sparkle in her eyes. She has no idea how long she spent as a Fifth Wife, but says with a laugh that she was young and had full breasts at the time. She did domestic tasks, but unusually for a Fifth Wife was sent out to work at weddings and celebrations as a singer once her master discovered that she had a good voice. She believes she spent ten years singing, until one day she told her master that she was going to stop. Aminatou credits this unusual display of resistance to the fact that she travelled and gained experience of the world while singing. During this time, she learned that she did not have to stay in slavery.
When Aminatou ran away from her master, she left her children behind. This is a common situation for the ex-Fifth Wives. As the master is often the father of the children, they are not treated as slaves but as one of his legitimate offspring, and are therefore his. As well as this, for an impoverished slave on the run, bringing children is an impossibility. Unusually, Aminatou was in contact with her children until recently, but they were tragically killed in an accident in the last rainy season when a roof collapsed on them.
The escaped Fifth Wives in Zongon Aolo support themselves by making handcrafts such as reed mats. They often use their ankle bracelets in the production of the mats, as the weight and shape lend themselves to the work. Several have married men from the village and had children. They are integrated, and with the help of human rights education by Timidria are being treated as equals by the other villagers. Alhousna, for example, has entirely overcome her slave background, and says that she is already defacto chief over her part of the village. The actual chief collaborates with her, treats her as an equal and she goes with him to meet with local government.
Before we left Zongon Aolo, we convinced Aminatou to sing for us. She finally agrees, but does so with a shawl over her head out of embarrassment. She sings three different pieces, two solo and one on which all the other ex-Fifth Wives join in, clapping and singing the chorus. The songs are beautiful and haunting, yet rhythmical, somewhere between call-and-response and poetry. It reminded me, even as I sat in the village, how little of their world I could ever really know.
Tom Rowe travelled to Niger with the aid of a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. Photos of his trip are below.
1. Alhousna in black on left, beside Aminatou in purple, with Halima in orange on the right – all the women in the photo are escaped Fifth Wives.
2. Aminatou looks at the heavy ankle bracelet she wore as a slave.
3. One of the ankle bracelets worn by the Fifth Wives.
4. An ex-Fifth Wife shows how her anklebracelet was worn.
5. Village representative Boubacar Hamada explains the problems in the village of Labitounga.
6. Village representative Boubacar Hamada in red explains the problems in the village of Labitounga.
7. Hadijatou Mani, who took a case against the government of Niger for its failure to uphold its own laws against slavery.
8.A daughter of one of the escaped Fifth Wives in Zongon Aolo.
9. Hadijatou Mani, who took a case against the government of Niger for its failure to uphold its own laws against slavery.
10. Hadijatou Mani, who took a case against the government of Niger for its failure to uphold its own laws against slavery.
11. Hadijatou Mani, who took a case against the government of Niger for its failure to uphold its own laws against slavery.
12. Halima in the village of Zongon Aolo.
13. Traditional store houses for grain outside a village.
14. An escaped Fifth Wife with traditional facial tattoos.
15. A man in Labitounga joins the meeting to explain the problems of the villagers.
16. A man in Labitounga joins the meeting to explain the problems of the villagers.
17. Two men in Labitounga join the meeting to explain the problems of the villagers.
18. Women of Labitounga sit on one side during the meeting, men on the other.
19. The women of Labitounga watch the meeting with Timidria.
20. Escaped Fifth Wives in the village of Zongon Aolo.
21. Mariama Abodu
22. Mariama Abodu with local Timidria representative Almou, Almou was instrumental in informing her of her rights and helping her escape. The ex-slave owner has threatened to cut off the head of Almou.
23. Local Timidria President Almou Wangara