Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why Are Virtually All The News Sources Covering Up Slavery In Mali?


A few days ago I posted about Mali on my travel blog again. I've been covering their civil war on the travel blog because I spent time in the country a few years ago and have been writing about it ever since. Not many Americans had ever even heard of it-- let alone gone there-- until this year. But another old friend of mine, Rick Streicker, who worked as an attorney at Warner Bros when I was there, had also been there and left this post on my Facebook page.
The whole race/slavery angle is shockingly evident the minute you set foot in northern Mali even if you haven't read the historical accounts of enslaved black Africans forced to work in the Tuaregs' underground desert salt mines. For some reason Western travelers seem to love those romantic, swashbuckling Tuaregs-- for the same reason that (some, white) American teens swoon and blubber over Gone With the Wind?
Like Rick said, if you travel to northern Mali at all-- and leave your hotel room-- you can't miss seeing evidence of slavery-in-action with your own eyes. I've read that the Tuaregs also keep slaves in Niger and Mauretania and I'm sure it's true but in Mali I saw it. It was so eery when I ran across my first gang of armed-tp-the-teeth Tuaregs in northern Mali. We were waiting for a couple hours for the ferry to take us across the Niger on the way to Timbuktu and the settlement there is a Bella one. Until 1973's epoch drought nearly wiped out the Tuareg's camel herds, the Bella had been their slaves. In 1973, basically because the Tuareg couldn't feed them anymore, they emancipated them-- although they still use slaves ("illegally") to mine salt in the far reaches of the Sahara and there are still some "small services" that many of them still render to their former masters (like when there is a wedding or something). Anyway, this Bella settlement was all festive, lively, noisy and bustling like all the villages we visited in Mali, when a couple of pickup trucks filled with Tuaregs pulled up to the bank of the river. Suddenly things got dead silent. All of the women and children just suddenly disappeared. It reminded me of a scene from Star Wars when some alien warrior people dropped by a space cafe. Anyway, the Tuaregs were pretty armed-to-the-teeth with swords and daggers and God knows what else and they don't seem to smile much; no chatty bonjours and they certainly don't ask you for a Bic or an empty water bottle or candy. The Tuareg War ended in the mid-90's though and, until the latest outbreak, they seemed to be peaceable enough (except around Kidal) and way in the northern Sahara where Mali, Algeria and Mauritania share vast trackless wastes. In Timbuktu, they were certainly easy enough to get along with.

Now they've declared most of Mali, including Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, the independent country of Azawad, although no other country recognizes it. "They," by the way, is the MNLA, the Tuaregs of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, but it gets sticky not because of the Tuaregs and their quest for slaves but because they joined forces with a radical Islamist group, Ansar Dine, who were heavily armed after the fall of Qaddafi where many of them had been serving as mercenaries, and who are said to be somehow connected to al-Qaeda. The Western strategy is to sow dischord between the MNLA and Ansar Dine which is why they don't demonize the Tuaregs and their slave holding. In fact the MNLA is no longer working with Ansar Dine and has fought several (losing) battles with them. Ansar Dine now controls Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu and in December, the MNLA gave up the idea of an independent state and aligned themselves with the Maian government against the Islamists.

The Western media-- not just here but in France and Britain as well-- has completely ignored the whole issue of slavery in the Mali civil war. (Needless to say, so has the Arab media.) No one brings it up-- not even NPR or a dependable civil libertarian like Glenn Greenwald writing for the Guardian. I found one mention, in a publication I was unaware of, International Business Times which gave a brief outline of the slavery connection.
Early in 2012 the Tuaregs, a nomadic group native to the region, began asserting control over communities in northern Mali. On their heels came several militant Islamist groups that took over the area and are now the target of a French military intervention. Mali is also suffering from an unstable government in the capital city of Bamako, which has never recovered from a military coup that unseated the former administration in March.

But for two decades before all that, Mali was a stable democracy-- one of few in a tumultuous and under-resourced region.

Or so the story went. In fact, not all citizens enjoyed equal rights in this country of 16 million. Hundreds of thousands were-- and are-- victims of modern slavery, and the recent upheaval there has thrown a wrench into international activists’ long-running efforts to put an end to the practice.

Slavery has been a reality in West Africa for centuries. Mali formally outlawed it when it became independent from France in 1960, but the rule is toothless since slave ownership was never criminalized.

The practice of slavery long has been a cultural norm in many Malian communities. As in neighboring Mauritania, slaves and slave owners are often described in terms of “black” and “white,” since slave descendants tend to have black African roots and their masters are typically of lighter-skinned Berber ancestry. But in fact, members of both groups have varying skin tones, and ethnicities are sometimes mixed due to masters raping female slaves.

According to Temedt, a Mali-based advocacy program, about 200,000 people are currently enslaved in the country and about 600,000 more are slave descendants under some form of control even though they live separately from their masters. Temedt works with Anti-Slavery International, a London-based human rights organization, to help free victims of slavery and then assist them in the transition to independence.

“We’re mainly working with ethnic Tuaregs, who have a very strong hierarchy including nobles, warriors and slave classes,” said Anti-Slavery International’s Africa Program Coordinator Sarah Mathewson, noting that slavery exists among other Malian communities as well.

Ending slavery is more complicated than it seems, since it is not only masters who are wedded to the system. Often, slave themselves have no desire to escape their servitude.

“I think for many people in that situation, the idea of leaving or escaping wouldn’t even occur,” says Mathewson. “They’re given no sense of their own agency; they’re in a state of total submission. And masters often use religion to further indoctrinate people, saying it’s God’s will they should be enslaved.”
This was the flawed Democracy Now report by Al Jezeera's Mali correspondent May Ying Welsh that made me decide to speak out against the slavery coverup again.

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At 7:11 PM, Blogger Daro said...

Democracy Now! has issues. A few years ago they steadfastly refused to address Israel's apartheid. As progressives they seem to be caught a bit too much in the PC status quo paradigm.

At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Tommy Miles said...

Thanks for writing about this, especially in relation to Western media. Slavery and class are not solely Tuareg or Maure problems, but I keep running across Americans who have stories like yours, picking up on the pretty obvious vibe in many northern communities (once) frequented by tourists.

You might check out Bruce Hall's recent book "A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960" on the archeology of slavery and "race" in what is now Mali. We outsiders tend to see these things through our own histories and categories of race and class. But that doesn't make it any less toxic, and that festering injustice is just one of those that let to last year's crisis. Unfortunately, most of the Western press (progressives included) like simple answers.


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