Videos shared on social media on September 17 show a man being tied up in the Malian village of Krémis, a few kilometres from the border with Mauritania. The distressing footage shows the man lying on the ground, shirtless, while several dozen people surround him and bind his wrists and feet.
“Descent-based” slavery, also known as “caste-based” slavery, is still the norm in some parts of the Sahel, the belt of countries that stretches across Africa below the Sahara Desert. Some ethnic groups in the region, like the Soninke (who live in Mali’s Kayes region as well as in Mauritania and Senegal), have a traditional society based on castes, which range from the so-called masters to those known as “slaves” or “descendants of slaves”. Children inherit “slave” status via their mothers.
'The village chief had never seen a slave refuse to obey'
My neighbour let it be known that he would no longer accept to be treated as a slave. As a result, the village chief gave him two days to leave. My neighbour said that no one had the right to force him to leave his home so he went to Yélimané to lodge a complaint. [Editor’s note: The village of Krémis falls under the jurisdiction of Yélimané sub-prefecture.]
While he was away, the village chief sent a group to empty out his home. People were bringing all of his belongings outside, so I went out to try to stop them. Then I started filming what was going on with my phone.
Residents of the Malian village of Krémis empty the home of a man who refused to be treated like a slave.
(Video sent by our Observer)
Photo sent to our team by our Observer.
People thought that I had gotten out my phone to call the police, so they surrounded me, tied me up and brought me to the village chief. He said he had never seen a slave refuse to obey. He then told the crowd to make sure that I was restrained, so they bound my wrists and feet, which is what you see in the video.
This video was edited to protect the identity of the victim.
This photo, which was shared on WhatsApp, was edited to protect the identity of the victim.Then they broke down the door to my home. They unbound me and told me to gather my things, so I was able to flee to Yélimané.
Now the man in the video and his neighbour are living in Yélimané, where they lodged a complaint.
A society built on descendent-based slavery
Though there are groups known as “masters” and “slaves” in the Kayes region, the masters do not have legal ownership of the slaves like in the United States before Emancipation. It is more like a caste system.
Marie Rodet, a historian who has studied the practice of slavery in Kayes for years, calls it "physical, symbolic and psychological violence meant to limit another person’s liberty". She says the abuses can take many forms: people in the lowest class bear the title “slave” or “descendant of slave”; they are not allowed to marry someone from another caste; and they cannot become village chief. In some Soninké villages, housing is segregated and there are special “slave quarters”. Slaves are often forced to work for free in the masters’ fields.
"In the case of the Soninkés in the Sahel,” Rodet says, “the masters have maintained their dominion over the so-called slaves, even though the legal framework has changed and slavery is officially banned.”
There are no reliable statistics on the number of descent-based slaves in Mali.
Violence perpetrated against anti-slavery activists in Mali
There is an ongoing anti-slavery movement in the Sahel region. Mauritanian activist-turned-politician Biram Dah Abeid has been imprisoned multiple times, but also managed to arrive second in two presidential elections.
In Mali, the struggle carried out by anti-slavery activists is two-fold. They want slaves to be liberated from their servile condition. They also want justice to be served to masters and traditional chiefs who glean their power and authority from the system of descent-based slavery.
But it is a serious risk to speak out against slavery. Many activists have ended up being beaten or tortured or had their belongings stolen, especially in Kayes, where slavery is deeply entrenched.
Rodet says that the Malian government has a very limited presence in Kayes, especially since the road linking Kayes to the capital is in a terrible state. She says this may partially explain the spike in physical violence, “which hasn’t been seen in the region since the 1970s”. She also says that the Soninké diaspora has really helped to give a platform to those who oppose slavery.
'We are calling for a law criminalising slavery'
The video of the man being tied up in Krémis made it to social media so quickly because of the Gambana movement, a group founded in 2017 by activists in Mali and members of the Soninké diaspora in France who oppose slavery. In Soninké, Gambana means equality.
Members of the diaspora search local WhatsApp groups for photos and first-person accounts of violence committed against slaves. They repost the videos on about 30 different WhatsApp groups where anti-slavery activists can see them too.
Sekhou Traoré, who lives in France, is part of Gambana’s leadership committee. He says their aim is to break through the taboo and actually talk about the problem of slavery in Mali:
First, we want people to know that slavery exists. The government in Bamako, the capital, is too far away and they don’t know what is going on. Local judges just close their eyes to the problem.
If there is an incident in one of the villages, then the local Gambana contact gets in touch with the leadership committee. We then share the information on social media and try to get the attention of Malian officials.
When we talk about slavery, people usually think about the slave trade, but no one talks about descent-based slavery because it isn’t a good image for Mali.
Slavery was banned in Mali in 1905 during the colonial period, as in all of French West Africa. But there are no modern laws in Mali criminalising the practice. In neighbouring Mauritania, a 2015 law made slavery a “crime against humanity” with a possible sentence of 20 years in prison.
We are calling for a similar law. The Malian Constitution says that “all Malians are born free and equal” but this isn’t enough for judges to be able to condemn those who practice slavery.
Article by Pierre Hamdi (@PierreHamdi)