Did you know1981 Mauritania of East-North Africa was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981


Mint Yarba escaped slavery in 2010. She has asked the Mauritanian courts to prosecute her slave masters. “I demand justice,” she says, “justice for my daughter that they killed and justice for all the time they spent beating and abusing me.”
Population: 3.4 million
Percentage living in slavery: 10% to 20%
Enslaved population: 340,000 to 680,000
Year slavery was abolished: 1981
Year slavery became a crime: 2007
Convictions against slave owners: One
Area: 400,000 square miles, slightly larger than Egypt
Capital: Nouakchott
Bordered by: Mali, Senegal, Algeria, Western Sahara
Landscape: Sahara Desert, Sahel
Farmable land: 0.2%
Languages: Arabic, French and regional languages
Official religion: Islam
Literacy rate: 51%
Unemployment: 30%
Population density: 8 people per square mile
Percentage living on less than $2 per day: 44%
GDP (purchasing power parity): $7.2 billion, less than Haiti
GDP per capita: $2,200 (compared to $48,000 in the U.S.)
Currency: Ouguiya
Government: Republic (currently under military rule)
Legal system: Mix of Islamic and French civil law
President: Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz
Recent history: Gained independence from France in 1960. Aziz came to power in a military coup in 2008, overthrowing first democratically elected leader. Aziz was elected in 2009 as a way to validate his rule.
Sources: United Nations, Encyclopedia Britannica, CIA World Factbook, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, “Disposable People,” BBC Country Profiles

Moulkheir Mint Yarba returned from a day of tending her master’s goats out on the Sahara Desert to find something unimaginable: Her baby girl, barely old enough to crawl, had been left outdoors to die.

The usually stoic mother — whose jet-black eyes and cardboard hands carry decades of sadness — wept when she saw her child’s lifeless face, eyes open and covered in ants, resting in the orange sands of the Mauritanian desert. The master who raped Moulkheir to produce the child wanted to punish his slave. He told her she would work faster without the child on her back.

Trying to pull herself together, Moulkheir asked if she could take a break to give her daughter a proper burial. Her master’s reply: Get back to work.

“Her soul is a dog’s soul,” she recalls him saying.

Later that day, at the cemetery, “We dug a shallow grave and buried her in her clothes, without washing her or giving her burial rites.”

“I only had my tears to console me,” she would later tell anti-slavery activists, according to a written testimony. “I cried a lot for my daughter and for the situation I was in. Instead of understanding, they ordered me to shut up. Otherwise, they would make things worse for me — so bad that I wouldn’t be able to endure it.”

Moulkheir told her story to CNN in December, when a reporter and videographer visited Mauritania — a vast, bone-dry nation on the western fringe of the Sahara — to document slavery in the place where the practice is arguably more common, more readily accepted and more intractable than anywhere else on Earth.

An estimated 10% to 20% of Mauritania’s 3.4 million people are enslaved — in “real slavery,” according to the United Nations’ special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian. If that’s not unbelievable enough, consider that Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery. That happened in 1981, nearly 120 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. It wasn’t until five years ago, in 2007, that Mauritania passed a law that criminalized the act of owning another person. So far, only one case has been successfully prosecuted.

The country is slavery’s last stronghold.

Even knowing those facts before we departed, what we found on the ground in West Africa astonished us. Mauritania feels stuck in time in ways both quaint and sinister. It’s a place where camels and goats roam the streets alongside dented French sedans; where silky sand dunes give the land the look of a meringue pie topping; where desert winds play with the cloaks of nomadic herdsmen, making their silhouettes look like dancing flames on the horizon; and where, incredibly, the nuances of a person’s skin color and family history determine whether he or she will be free or enslaved.

That reality permeates every aspect of Mauritanian life — from the dark-skinned boys who serve mint-flavored tea at restaurants to the clothes people wear. A man wearing a powder-blue garment that billows at the arms and has fancy gold embroidery on the chest is almost certainly free and comes from the traditional slave-owning class of White Moors, who are lighter-skinned Arabs. A woman in a loud tie-dye print that covers her hair, but not her arms, is likely a slave. Her arms are exposed, against custom, so she can work.

It’s a maddening, complicated place — one made all the more difficult for outsiders to understand because no one is allowed to talk about slavery. When we confronted the country’s minister of rural development about slavery’s existence, Brahim Ould M’Bareck Ould Med El Moctar told us his country is among the freest in the world. “All people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon (of slavery) no longer exists,” he said.

The issue is so sensitive here that we had to conduct most of our interviews in secret, often in the middle of the night and in covert locations. The only other option was to do them in the presence of a government minder, who was assigned to our group by the Ministry of Communications to ensure we didn’t mention the topic. Our official reason for entering the country was to report on the science of locust swarms; our contacts for that story were unaware of our plan to research slavery.

If we were caught talking with an escaped slave like Moulkheir, we could have been arrested or thrown out of the country without our notebooks and footage. That point was made clear to us in a meeting with the national director of audiovisual communications, Mohamed Yahya Ould Haye, who told us journalists who attempted to report on such topics were jailed or ejected from the country.

More important, getting caught talking about slavery could have put our sources at risk. Anti-slavery activists say they have been arrested and tortured for their work.

When we met Moulkheir in a gray, open-air office in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s seaside capital city where concrete buildings are scattered on the Sahara like Legos in a sandbox, our hired security guard stood watch at the door to make sure no government representatives were following us, as they had during other parts of our visit.

Moulkheir, who is in her 40s, wore a bright blue headscarf and matching dress. She was brave enough to tell her tale with poise and unflinching resolve. She did so in hopes her former masters would be brought to justice. She was aware that telling her story could put her in danger but asked to be named and to have her photograph shown. “I am not afraid of anyone,” she said.

As she recounted her torture, imprisonment and escape, her hands gestured wildly but her eyes stayed focused, with dart-like precision, on mine.

Listening to her story, two facts became painfully clear:

In Mauritania, the shackles of slavery are mental as well as physical.

And breaking them — an unthinkably long process — requires unlikely allies.


Moulkheir was born a slave in the northern deserts of Mauritania, where the sand dunes are pocked with thorny acacia trees. As a child, she talked more frequently with camels than people, spending days at a time in the Sahara, tending to her master’s herd. She rose before dawn and toiled into the night, pounding millet to make food, milking livestock, cleaning and doing laundry. She never was paid for her work. “I was like an animal living with animals,” she said.

Slave masters in Mauritania exercise full ownership over their slaves. They can send them away at will, and it’s common for a master to give away a young slave as a wedding present. This practice tears families apart; Moulkheir never knew her mother and barely knew her father.

Most slave families in Mauritania consist of dark-skinned people whose ancestors were captured by lighter-skinned Arab Berbers centuries ago. Slaves typically are not bought and sold — only given as gifts, and bound for life. Their offspring automatically become slaves, too.

All of Moulkheir’s children were born into slavery. all were the result of rape by her master.

The attacks began when she had barely begun to cover her head with a scarf, a Muslim tradition that begins at puberty. The master took Moulkheir out to the goat fields near his home and raped her in front of the animals. Moulkheir had no choice but to endure this torture. She’d convinced herself that her master knew what was best for her — that this was the way it had always been, would always be.

o document slavery in Mauritania, we traveled out of Nouakchott and into the Sahara, where the desert landscape is so expansive it’s claustrophobic.

We drove for hours without seeing a single person or dwelling, save for the military checkpoints where men in black turbans — only slivers of their faces showing — stop every vehicle, demanding to know what its occupants are doing in the desert.

“I was like an animal living with animals.”— Moulkheir Mint Yarba, escaped slave

The scenery is a highlight reel of emptiness: dusty plains, thorny shrubs and sand dunes flying past our Land Cruiser’s windows at 75 mph. It looks as if an enormous syringe has been jabbed into the ground to suck out all the color — except for yellows and browns.

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.

It’s in this isolated environment that slavery has been able to thrive.

Occasionally, a village pops into view. In most of these, we saw the same scene: dark-skinned people working as servants. They live in tents made of rags, some so shabby that their bark-stripped stick frames look like carcasses left to rot in the sun.

It’s impossible, from the road, to know for sure which of these men and women are enslaved and which are paid for their work. Many exist somewhere on the continuum between slavery and freedom. Some are beaten; some aren’t. Some are held captive under the threat of violence. Others are like Moulkheir once was — chained by more complicated methods, tricked into believing that their darker skin makes them less worthy, that it’s their place to serve light-skinned masters. Some have escaped and live in fear they’ll be found and returned to the families that own them; some return voluntarily, unable to survive without assistance.h

She couldn’t see beyond her small, enslaved world.

Because slavery is so common in Mauritania, the experience of being a slave there is quite varied, said Kevin Bales, president of the group Free the Slaves. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people,” he said when asked about how slaves are usually treated in Mauritania. “The answer is all of the above.”

In a strange twist, some masters who no longer need a slave’s help send the servants away to slave-only villages in the countryside. They check on them only occasionally or employ informants who make sure the slaves tend to the land and don’t leave it.

Fences that surround these circular villages are often made of long twigs, stuck vertically into the ground so that they look like the horns of enormous bulls submerged in the sand.

Nothing ties these skeletal posts together. Nothing stops people from running.But they rarely do.

Full story



  • Population: 3.4 million
  • Percentage living in slavery: 10% to 20%
  • Enslaved population: 340,000 to 680,000
  • Year slavery was abolished: 1981
  • Year slavery became a crime: 2007
  • Convictions against slave owners: One


  • Area: 400,000 square miles, slightly larger than Egypt
  • Capital: Nouakchott
  • Bordered by: Mali, Senegal, Algeria, Western Sahara
  • Landscape: Sahara Desert, Sahel
  • Farmable land: 0.2%


  • Languages: Arabic, French and regional languages
  • Official religion: Islam
  • Literacy rate: 51%
  • Unemployment: 30%
  • Population density: 8 people per square mile


  • Percentage living on less than $2 per day: 44%
  • GDP (purchasing power parity): $7.2 billion, less than Haiti
  • GDP per capita: $2,200 (compared to $48,000 in the U.S.)
  • Currency: Ouguiya


  • Government: Republic (currently under military rule)
  • Legal system: Mix of Islamic and French civil law
  • President: Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz
  • Recent history: Gained independence from France in 1960. Aziz came to power in a military coup in 2008, overthrowing first democratically elected leader. Aziz was elected in 2009 as a way to validate his rule.

Sources: United Nations, Encyclopedia Britannica, CIA World Factbook, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, “Disposable People,” BBC Country Profiles

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