Much ado is made about slavery in places like Mauritania and Northern Mali. Researchers and journalists come to Timbuktu to study slavery among the Tuareg. Magazine articles and radio reports are done about the issue of Tuareg's and Moor's slave practices. These reports often try to characterize the issue as a "white master" versus a "black slave". I have seen in certain guide books a discussion of the Tuareg rebellion and they also colour the problem as white former slave holders vs. black former slaves. The issue of slavery is far from black and white... in any sense of the term.
Today people tend to forget that slavery has many sides, many victims and many accomplices. It becomes an issue of colour; depicting white people as the exploiters of black people not only in the western world but also among the darker and paler peoples in Africa. As one Tuareg said when discussing the issue of “the [black population’s] unfair tendency to blame all their problems on us... Our ancestors were just taking advantage of what was on the market. If their brothers hadn’t put them up for sale to begin with we wouldn’t have been able to buy them” The reality is that black Africans were buying and selling slaves as well, and slavery has only recently (as recent as the 1980’s) been abolished in many African countries.
One other thing of note is that slavery in Africa was not what we typically imagine it to be. Western history of the slave trade in the West Indies, the southern states of the USA and so forth is ugly and terrible to contemplate. It is full of atrocities and inhumanities of the worst sort. In Africa, at least in the north amongst the "white" populations that are villianized for keeping slaves, while slaves were owned and could be bought and sold at the will of the master the conditions were less severe. Instead of being abused and terrorized into submission they were given tasks and expected to do them in exchange for the right to expect to be fed, clothed and sheltered.
Early explorers such as René Caillé remarked on this in their travel journals.
"In general, the slaves are better treated at Timbuctoo than in other countries. They are well clothed and fed, and seldom beaten. They are required to observe religious duties, which they do very punctually; but they are nevertheless regarded as merchandise, and are exported to Tripoli, Morocco, and other parts of the coast, where they are not so happy as at Timbuctoo. They always leave that place with regret, though they are ignorant of the fate that awaits them elsewhere."
Henri Duverier, the first european to give a detailed description of the Tuareg in 1864 remarks that slavery among the Tuareg was “very mild and has nothing in common with the forced labour of the colonies”
And more recently according to a retired commander in the Malian Army, Amidou Mariko (a black, Bambara man), in his book Memoires d'un Crocodile:"
This slavery which existed in the North was calmer than that of other regions and the captives were better treated than elsewhere. [...]Those who said later [about the rebellion] that the black soldiers wanted to revenge themselves on on the white slave holders of the north were completely in error. Most of the military were Bambara and didn't even know who the Tuaregs were! Many of them came from families who had had or still had their own captives. The Bambara were never the captives of the Tuaregs! So there was no feeling of vengeance.
Many of the ethic groups have some sort of cast structure that resembles the feudal system of Europe in the middle ages with nobles, vassals and serfs. The nobles being the learned and the warriors, the vassals the managers of their goods and land and supervising the serfs or slaves, who did the labour. The exact system varies between ethnic groups, some having complicated system of hierarchies amongst the non-noble non-slaves, each craft or trade having its place. Even if nobles were more “important” than artisans and jewellers were higher than potters, the different groups were interdependent and the nobles were expected to take care of their “dependants”.
While Most ethnic groups had slaves, not every family did, only those wealthy enough to afford to purchase and maintain them. Each ethnic group had a slightly different system. Among the Tuareg, slaves actually had a lot of power. Slaves were in charge of the herds, in charge of the fields and in charge of the house. They had the keys to the storehouse and when they opened it to take out the daily rations for the family they served they removed rations for their own family as well. Being the ones to do much of the labour they could regulate just how much they got. When milking they could drink what they wanted with nobody the wiser, when removing stores again they would help themselves. The Tuaregs having no artisan cast, the slaves became the smiths, wood and leather workers for their masters, and thus indispensable. They were also the griots, the musicians, praise-singers, town-criers and keepers of history all rolled into one, thus privy to all the secrets of the the chiefs and other important people. This gave them incredible power and sway.
In Mali The French took some steps to reduce slavery, but it was only officially abolished upon Malian independence in 1960. The following two paragraphs are notes taken from an ethnographic study The Primitive City of Timbuctoo done on Timbuktu in the 1940s by professor of anthropology ---.
The French have eliminated some aspects of slavery. They have forbidden the use of the French word for "slave" and substituted "captive." The capture of new slaves and the sale of slaves, except for concubines, has been stopped. The purchase of concubines is looked upon as marriage and actually frees slaves. Moslem law states that if a concubine bears a child by her master, she becomes free upon his death. A mistreated slave may appeal to the French for freedom or simply run away, for now the danger of being re-enslavesd is gone. The determining fact in the eyes of the French as to whether a person is freeman or slave is who pays the head tax-the individual or master.
Many aspects of the old system of slavery were not particularly harsh and the household slave was probably in a more favourable position than a poor freeman today. ... many slaves still prefer slavery to economically precarious freedom. ... An alternative employment is household work of the type which used to be done by slaves. Arabs who have no slaves speak of "hiring a household "slave" Such services may be secured in return for poor clothes and food and forty cents a month." (a foot note adds that the wage paid to native domestic help by the French was three dollars a month no clothing or food included.)
In Mali two things happened in recent history to dramatically rearrange the roles between former masters and former slaves. One is during colonial times the French insisted families send their children to school the proud and suspicious nobles, bargained with their slaves and paid them to send the slaves’ children in place of the noble children. A generation later came independence and the majority of the educated people, those capable of running the country in the modern sense were the former slaves, who suddenly held most of the positions of administrative power and authority. Then successive droughts decimated herds and the many nobles found themselves with little left to them but their pride, while the former slaves used their education and positions to grow wealthy.
This is not universal and has not completely changed the face of relations between groups. Africans continue to cling to traditional ideas, according prestige based on family name and social castes. Some families may still exploit the families of former slaves demanding services that the former slave families feel bound by tradition to render. Some former slave families who want to be free of prejudices and the stigma of slavery have changed their names to the family name of another racial group so as not to be identified as a slave simply by his name.
Other former slaves cling to their place in society as strongly as any other group, not wanting to give up the responsibilities and rights they see as theirs. For example the tradition has it that the people called upon to prepare the meals for a marriage or other fete have the right to all the left overs including the soap, detergent, scrubbing pads, large quantities of food etc. In a poor village, being able to take all that home is important and the people do not want to loose that. They would be as insulted not to be asked to prepare as someone of another cast would be insulted to be asked. Many are loath to give up the security of having someone to take care of them. If they leave the protection of the family they are connected with they will be at the mercy of the uncertainty of the job market, obliged to fend for themselves and no longer be able to count on assistance from the former masters when in necessity.
Some nobles now find themselves exploited. One man explains, “you see these tents around here, the inhabitants are the slaves of my family. When they need something they come to me and say that since I am their master I should help them. They will come and sing my praises and massage my feet a little to puff up my ego and then ask for money. I am obliged to give it. But when I need a service I have to pay for it and I pay twice as much as anyone else. They think since I am noble, since I am light-skinned, I am wealthy. Every family here has at least a few animals. I don’t have even one goat or sheep of my own.”
Another important aspect that helps confuse the issue of slavery to the western visitor or researcher is that of vocabulary and habits of usage. As noted by Heller above, the Arabs spoke of hiring a "slave" clearly if you hire someone that person is not a slave, yet the person needs a domestic servant which in their mind set is work done by slaves and the person hired will most likely be of the slave caste, a descendant of former slaves. Thus for purposes of nomenclature he will still be nominally a slave. I have observed this clinging to the trappings of traditional roles in several of the West African ethnic groups. Even if a person has become a nurse, teacher, or bureaucrat he is still tagged with the social caste from which he comes. The nurse in one town was a "fisherman" because he came from a family that had always been fisherman. A popular singer has had to overcome much teasing because he was from a "noble" family and nobles aren't griots. The mayor in another town was a "slave" this did not stop him from being re-elected or from being one of the wealthiest men in town whom others sought out for assistance. But people would talk about him as a slave and to western ears used to political correctness this could come across as very racist and a circumstance for a human rights watch group to look in to. In truth it is a question of semantics, tradition and culture that is going to take several generations more to smooth out.
The link between slaves and masters is a complex bond formed of long history as a family of slaves would serve the same masters for generations, being something like indentured servants or the serfs of the feudal system. Today the links between slave and master families still exists. Families of former slaves or the descendants of slaves are still closely associated with the former master’s family. In some cases they still work for them or serve them when a call is made for assistance, though rarely for free. Often they are just like members of the family, the head of household feeds and clothes everyone with an equal hand. His children, nieces nephews, kids of his former slaves who still live in his household, all call him dad and all receive new clothes for the various fetes. When a chore needs to be done the nearest person is asked without preference for status.
This is not so say that there are no exceptions, no cruel and tyrannical chiefs or nobles who did or do mistreat people under their care, nor that slavery is an acceptable institution but it should be seen in its proper context.
It is human nature to use every tool available to improve his condition. People everywhere exploit their status as a minority or member of a disadvantaged group when it will make them more competitive for limited resources, grants, employment, etc. It is well known that slavery is a sensational hot ticket item for the western nations, one of those issues for which they are willing to offer resources and fund projects and programs aimed at fighting it. Thus some people exploit this hyping up the slavery issue or inventing stories to garner financial contributions. Sympathetic travels who have had the horrors of western style slavery drummed into them and carry subconscious guilt for the slaving histories of their own countries are also easy marks. Journalists who come blundering in with preconceived notions of slavery and the issues surrounding it are liable to be duped as the first person they talk to will see thier chance and fabricate any sort of tale. I have read articles where the reporter told the story of a “slave” that had escaped his master in the desert where he had been obliged to get up at dawn and take the camels out to graze all day coming home only at dusk when he must then milk them be for falling into exhausted sleep will little food. One day fed up he just abandoned the camels and walked away finally making it to the capital. While it sounds horrible to the uninformed this life describes the typical tribulations of any nomad herder and they all have to work hard from dawn to dusk with little food or material wealth. As for just walking away, if he were truly out in the desert it is unlikely he would manage that without dying. Another article told of a girl who kyaked up the Niger river to Timbuktu with a goal coin with which she was going to purchase the freedom of a slave. She believes she did so. I believe she was had by the first guide she stumbled on. Hearing her folly he would have easily set us a scam wherein some woman played the role of freed slave especially since the owner insisted on remaining invisible and anonymous.