Oumoulkhér Mint Mahmoud was born into slavery in Mauritania. Her daughter Selek’ha escaped and returned with the human rights organization SOS Slaves, to seek the release of Oumoulkhér. But Oumoulkhér initially refused to leave her master, and it was only when Selek’ha began to cry, in response to insults from the master’s wives, that she got “angry and…decided to leave.” Oumoulkhér’s narrative oscillates between assertions that freedom remains out of reach (“I am still a slave”) and acknowledgements that she is now free (“I was a good slave”).Oumoulkhér’s initial reluctance to accept her freedom because she is “an old lady” symbolizes the ancient and deeply-rooted form of slavery practiced in Mauritania: chattel slavery, more difficult to dislodge than the new slavery of the global economy. The practice of buying, selling, and breeding Africans hasn’t stopped in Mauritania since the 13th century, when Arab invaders entered the country to convert the Africans to Islam, abducted women and children, and bred a new caste of slaves. Slaves are raised to believe that serving their Arabo-Berber masters is a religious duty and most remain in bondage their whole lives.
I am Oumoulkhér Mint Mahmoud. I have been a slave all my life. I was a good slave. A slave who obeys her master is a good slave. I am still a slave, I am looking for my freedom. Since I have been here, with SOS, I feel peaceful. I don’t care what my master thinks—I don’t think about my master.
When Selek’ha was taken from me, the master said he would bring her back, but he didn’t. I cried and cried. I had three other children at the time, I had nowhere to go. My son Hamit, was given to a Marabout in exchange for a remedy to cure my master’s son who was sick. Hamit escaped and I have not seen him since. My son Mbarack, the master said he died of thirst whilst looking after the camels. I don’t know if it’s true, but they said he was dead. My daughter Behuja Habah was rented out by my master for money. They said she ran away too.
I have spent my life working. I tried to run away when I was younger but they always found me in the bush and brought me back. When Selek’ha came for me, I refused to go, because I am an old lady and useless, but then the master’s wives started to insult her and Selek’ha was crying so it made me angry and I decided to leave. Selek’ha has promised to look after me. Now I can rest.
Narrative as told to Romana Cacchioli for Anti-Slavery International, with SOS Esclaves, August 1, 2006, in Nouakchott, Mauritania.