Slave Master Becomes an Abolitionist
As a member of Mauritania’s slave-owning class, Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane could have had anything he wanted as a present for his circumcision ceremony: a toy, money, a camel, or, as his brother would choose, a bicycle.
But the 7-year-old wanted something more sinister.
He chose Yebawa Ould Keihel, a young boy with skin the color of coal. At that moment, Abdel became a slave master.
It’s an experience that’s common here in Mauritania, a vast country in West Africa’s Sahara Desert where activists and the United Nations estimate 10% to 20% of people are enslaved — usually dark-skinned people who have lighter-skinned masters.
For the owners of slaves, a group of Arab people called the White Moors who raided sub-Saharan Africa for slaves centuries ago, this is no big deal.
“It was as if I were picking out a toy,” Abdel, now 47, said of choosing Yebawa as his slave. “For me, it was as if he were a thing — a thing that pleased me. This idea came to me because there were all these stories about him which made me laugh — that he talked in his sleep, that he was a bit chubby and a bit clumsy, that he was always losing the animals he was supposed to be watching over and was then always getting punished for this. So for me, he was an interesting and comic figure.