Had the privilege last night of viewing an almost-completed documentary by J-School student Jigar Mehta on the problem of endemic slavery in Mauritania, where light-skinned Moors have for centuries been enslaving sub-Saharan blacks. Although the government of Mauritania has decreed slavery illegal three times in the past twenty years, it turn a systemic blind eye, chases out journalists, and has even abolished the word “slave” from the vocabulary.
The problem is made more complex by the fact that Mauritania is so poverty-stricken that many slaves feel they’re economically better off being owned than being on their own — freed slaves have been known to return voluntarily to their masters (some masters are abusive, others relatively “civilized,” apparently). And it’s culturally and religiously embedded: Children born into slavery are taught that their enslavement is part of their duty to God.
Another interesting twist: Although the country was until recently a vocal critic of the United States, the discovery of oil and the recent installation of drilling rigs off the Mauritanian coast (expected to double the country’s GNP) has coincided with them suddenly turning against Saddam Hussein, switching their official state position to pro-Israel, etc.
A Mauritanian slavery watch group, working underground to document details on tens of thousands of slaves (and in some cases freeing them), has produced a report which was recently accepted by the U.N.’s human rights watch group.
Mehta’s documentary, which is exceptionally well-produced, is not yet available for public viewing. Will post again when it is. Here’s a 2001 NPR story on the subject.