Point of no re­turn for many Africans

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

More car­toons on­line at An­gela Mudukuti is an in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nal jus­tice lawyer

EAR­LIER this week, I had the op­por­tu­nity to visit the Sene­galese is­land of Gorée, which played a piv­otal part in the har­row­ing transat­lantic slave trade. De­spite the for­mal abo­li­tion of slav­ery roughly 150 years ago, ac­cord­ing to the Global Slav­ery In­dex, there are 45.8 mil­lion peo­ple who are mod­ern day slaves.

The hum­bling and deeply mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence vis­it­ing this is­land and un­der­stand­ing how slaves were treated makes the Global Slav­ery In­dex all the more alarm­ing. How can it be, that in the 21st cen­tury, slav­ery con­tin­ues to ex­ist?

Gorée Is­land is only 900m long by 350m wide and is home to an es­ti­mated 1 680 peo­ple. Its strate­gic po­si­tion – 2km from Dakar har­bour – per­pet­u­ated con­flict be­tween the Por­tuguese, Dutch and French in their bid to con­trol vi­tal trad­ing routes. The is­land’s ar­chi­tec­ture ex­hibits in­flu­ences from th­ese three na­tions.

The nar­row dusty streets tell the sad story of the slav­ery that dev­as­tated the African con­ti­nent from the 15th cen­tury to the late 18th cen­tury. Some his­to­ri­ans say that the slave trade was re­spon­si­ble for the move­ment of 12 mil­lion to 15 mil­lion peo­ple from Africa to the West dur­ing that time.

Ac­com­pa­nied by a his­to­rian-tour guide, I was taken to the in­fa­mous “House of Slaves” which was built by the French be­tween 1780 and 1784. This is just one of the 28 slave houses that ex­isted on the is­land.

While there is an aca­demic de­bate as to how many slaves ac­tu­ally passed through the House of Slaves, it was trans­formed into a mu­seum in 1962 to share the plight of the slaves and pre­serve this in­hu­man and tragic part of his­tory. The house memo­ri­alises the fi­nal de­par­ture points of slaves des­tined for the Amer­i­cas.

Gorée Is­land has been called “one of the largest slave-trad­ing cen­tres on the African coast” by Unesco, and was des­ig­nated a World Her­itage Site in 1978. The is­land’s his­tory ex­poses the worst of hu­man na­ture.

Slaves were kept in the house in squalid con­di­tions, shack­led, and sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies. At any time, 15 to 20 slaves were crammed into small 2.6m by 2.6m rooms. Smaller dark rooms were used to pun­ish those who re­fused to fol­low or­ders. The slaves would be piled into th­ese pun­ish­ment rooms where there is barely enough room to stand and left there for days. Women and young girls were used as sex slaves.

The un­san­i­tary con­di­tions led to the out­break of dis­eases. Many died be­fore they could make it on to the ships. Dead bodies were merely thrown into the sea to make space for other slaves.

On the At­lantic Ocean-fac­ing side of the house, the “Door of no re­turn” marks the last point where the slaves would ever be on African soil.

While we look back in hor­ror and re­joice that slav­ery was for­merly and legally abolished, we need to stop and re­alise that mod­ern day slav­ery still ex­ists. This is de­fined to in­clude forced labour, hu­man traf­fick­ing, debt bondage, use of child sol­diers, child labour, and forced early mar­riages.

The In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­gan­i­sa­tion cal­cu­lates that 90% of forced labour­ers are be­ing ex­ploited by com­pa­nies or in­di­vid­u­als while the re­main­ing 10% are vic­tims of forced labour at the hands of the state, or in­sur­gent mil­i­tary groups. Sex­ual slav­ery is also con­sid­ered a form of forced labour, and it con­sti­tutes 22% of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s sta­tis­tics.

The most dis­turb­ing part of all of this is that il­le­gal prof­its from forced labour amount to more than $44 bil­lion (R595bn).

In re­gards to hu­man traf­fick­ing, which of­ten runs par­al­lel with other forms of slav­ery, the UN’s Global Ini­tia­tive to Fight Hu­man Traf­fick­ing es­ti­mates that peo­ple traf­fick­ing is the third largest global crim­i­nal in­dus­try af­ter drugs and arms.

The Asian con­ti­nent ac­counts for more than half of ex­ist­ing mod­ern day slav­ery sta­tis­tics. Africa also has high num­bers with the Cen­tral African Repub­lic, Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo, So­ma­lia, South Su­dan, Su­dan and Mau­ri­ta­nia ex­hibit­ing the high­est rates of mod­ern slav­ery.

Women and chil­dren are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble and, un­for­tu­nately, not enough is be­ing done by gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions, law en­force­ment or the or­di­nary cit­i­zen to stop the ex­ploita­tion of peo­ple.

With such dis­ap­point­ing sta­tis­tics, it is easy to feel pow­er­less. How­ever, bring­ing an end to mod­ern day slav­ery re­quires a con­certed ef­fort from ev­ery part of so­ci­ety.

For ex­am­ple, as a con­sumer, avoid pur­chas­ing choco­late that comes from child labour plan­ta­tions in Cote D’Ivoire.

Tak­ing time to ed­u­cate our­selves about the sources of the goods we en­joy could go a long way.

As small as this may seem, it could put a sig­nif­i­cant dent in the prof­its made by those ex­ploit­ing hu­man be­ings and sub­ject­ing them to mod­ern day slav­ery.

Hope­fully, it will not take an­other 100 or so years be­fore we can say we have truly abolished slav­ery.

LAST RE­SORT: A view from the sea of the Slave House on Gorée Is­land, Sene­gal. An un­known num­ber of slaves were shipped to French colonies be­tween the mid-16th and 19th cen­turies.

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