Recently, a friend sent me the cover article in CNN’s first virtual magazine: “Slavery’s Last Stronghold.” The article explores the vestiges of modern slavery that remain in Mauritania, a small West African country whose unfortunate distinction is as the last nation in the world to abolish the ability to own another human being, a feat it accomplished in 1981. Of course, as any American historian can attest, oppression doesn’t end with a legislative document. Mauritania declared slavery a crime in 2007, yet no court has handed down a conviction even though 10 – 20% of the population remains in slavery.
That last sentence seems to defy reason until you realize that Mauritania is ruled by an Orwellian logic. The journalists investigating the story were told that the discussion of slavery was taboo. Moreover, a government official boasted, “All people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon (of slavery) no longer exists.” However, the journalists discovered that, though the word slavery itself has been eradicated, the condition – which the word describes – survives.
An abolitionist organization, SOS Slaves, founded ironically by a former slave owner and a freed slave, is working to liberate those who remain in bondage. However, it’s not as simple as physically freeing a slave from his or her master. There are no chains in Mauritania; generations of institutional, legal slavery have bound individuals to submissive identities. To a Mauritanian, freedom is not an inherent right. Even when a master grants freedom, the slave “remain(s) dependent, grateful.” As a result, activists must teach enslaved individuals their inherent dignity: “For a slave to be free, she first must break the shackles in her mind.”
Describing the endlessly arid landscape that Mauritanians witness, the journalists suggest a metaphor for the oppressed mind: “The farther into the desert one goes, the more it seems possible that the outside world simply doesn’t exist — that memory is playing a trick. That this is all there is.”
At the risk of belittling the plight these enslaved endure, I wonder if there isn’t a lesson for all of us in considering their struggle. “Stockholm Syndrome” describes the psychological phenomenon in which those held captive begin to empathize with their captors. The phenomenon derives its name from an event in which bank employees, held hostage for six days, developed “traumatic bonding” with their abductors. Six days! In less than a week, we can lose our belief in our fundamental right to freedom.
This should give all of us pause, cause us to question what and who binds us, and determine how to break the shackles in our own minds.