CNN deserves praises for its enterprising report on the persistence of human bondage in Mauritania, a country which straddles the cleavage between North Africa and the region to its South, the sub-Saharan which consumes my own attention. Sparsely populated, resource poor and profoundly isolated, Mauritania is defined by Islam — and imprisoned by outmoded ways of thought that even 100 years ago were contested by reformers in the Muslim world.
To be sure, the character and frequency of slavery in Mauritania remains an open question. The government has outlawed the practice and activists have beseiged the country, even opening shelters for “runaway” slaves. The rhetoric plays well in the U.S., but the activist agenda appears to have caused scant change in Mauritania itself, where CNN vividly reports that slavery persists in rural areas especially.
Reporter John D. Sutter, in his reports at CNN online, gives voice to the voiceless among the Mauritanians abused by their country’s ragged tradition of bondage. Whether 10-20 percent of Mauritania’s 3.4 million population lives in slavery — as CNN suggests — is not the point. The feudal exploitation of one set of people by another, is an artifact of history in black Africa, where the colonial slave trade fueled a heightened awareness of the essential value of human liberty. “Better poverty with freedom than wealth in chains” was the rallying cry of many an African activist during the fitful decolonialization of the sub-Saharan. Such active and relentless repudiation of the practice of human bondage never happened in North Africa, leaving the Mauritanians to wander in their confused twilight between inhumanity and illegality.
That Mauritania is not part of the African experience doesn’t mean we should care about the plight of its slaves. But activists need to be wary of exploiting an outmoded and false meta-narrative — Africans enslaving each other — when they present the story of contemporary Mauritania for global audiences. Here the map lies. Mauritania is no more part of the African experience. Ali Mazrui many years ago proclaimed the “triple heritage” of Africa in order to bring Islam fully into the mix of African spiritual traditions (along with Christianity and animism or traditional religion). But the great Mazrui did not mean to integrate every practice of North Africa into the tapestry of black sub-Saharan life; only some.
Slavery in Africa? No.