Essatim Mint M’Barka must have been about 15 years old when she became pregnant by her “daddy.” Not that he really was her father. But that’s what she called him because he was her master and she was his slave.
Just as her mother and her grandmother had been slaves their whole lives, the young woman’s future, and that of her unborn baby, was already mapped out. Sitting on the floor of her hut of planks and rags on the outskirts of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, M’Barka tells me her story, her face devoid of expression, as if paralyzed by her experience.
When she was five years old, an influential Arab-Berber family was looking for a little girl who could help with household tasks. M’Barka was taken from her mother, who lived as a slave with another family, to cook, sweep the floors and massage the feet of her new master.
Essatim Mint M’Barke was around 15 years old when her master made her pregnant. Photo: Lisa Develtere
According to the Mauritanian government, though, M’Barka was never a slave. Officially, slavery does not exist in the northwestern African country. Mint Abdel Wedoud, chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights received us last year in a cold office. A portrait of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz hung above her desk. The human rights organization has independent status but closely cooperates with the government.
“You have been in the country a week,” Wedoud told me. “Have you seen even one slave?” Before I could answer she decidedly said: “no, you have not seen any slaves. There are in fact no slaves here. In my whole life, I have never seen a slave. Nor have my children. Slavery is a historical phenomenon that we used to see. But that’s all in the past.”
Slavery has been abolished three times in Mauritania, in 1905 by the French colonizers, then in 1961 when it gained independence, and again in 1981—making it the last country to do so. But there was no legislation for criminalizing slavery until 2007. Since 2014, a slave owner risks a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years.