Point of no return for many Africans
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.