Mauritania, The Last Stronghold Of Slavery

Among the Berber slaves of Mauritania, property of Arab masters despite their shared Muslim faith.

Young fishermen in Nouakchott, Mauritania
Young fishermen in Nouakchott, Mauritania
Domenico Quirico

NOUAKCHOTT — Mauritania is one of the few countries, perhaps the only one, where slavery still exists. Not slavery in the more modern sense of the word, implying some form of economic exploitation, but slavery of the ancient kind — what we in the West believe was abolished long ago. Yes, in Mauritania, slaves are the property of their masters who control their destinies from childhood. They can be lent and traded, and the children of slaves are condemned to the same fate for the rest of their lives.

In this sparsely populated desert country in northwestern Africa, slaves are exclusively Haratins, dark-skinned Berbers who make up around 40% of Mauritania's population. Laws on the books prohibit slavery, but that is little consolation to a defenseless group subjected to a life of suffering without recourse. Slavery does not officially exist in Mauritania, yet slaves do, and all they can do is tell the world about their misery.

In the dark years of the Atlantic system, the African men, women, and children destined to become slaves in the Americas would conduct a ritual before leaving the continent. They would gather around a "forgetting tree" for a ceremony designed to rid them of their African origins, so that they wouldn't return as spirits to haunt their captors after death. No such thing exists in Mauritania where slaves often seem happily devoted to their masters, united by their common Islamic faith that effectively acts as the chains that bind them to their captors.

Nouakchott, the country's capital, is eerily silent at night. The streets are empty and the city is asleep; the darkness punctured only by the odd bright light of a cafe. Child beggars roam the streets, silently following you at markets and intersections with their empty cans. They are children of slaves, the first I encounter on my visit here.

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In the streets of Nouakchott — Photo: Maxim VanBest Dynasty

Nouakchott is sprawling but empty, a city hidden in the Sahara desert notable only for the scourge of slavery. "My story is banal, about a slave and her master," says Habj Rabah, covered from head to toe in black robes. "My ancestors were slaves too and I never went to school, I tend to my owners' animals, do house chores and bring my masters water, but they still hit me." Her Muslim faith does not protect her from such abuses. "I'm Muslim, but they tell me it doesn't matter if I wear the veil or pray, because God decided I'm a slave that belongs to "white" Arabs and I must obey them," she says.

Many slaves in Mauritania are children, born into the practice as a result of their mothers' origins. One must never ask Haratins who their fathers are, only their mothers; it's considered rude, because oftentimes the father was a master or another slave, a detail irrelevant to the child's destiny.

In the morning I travel to the poor Haratin neighborhood of Riyad, taken there by a militant abolitionist who drives a rugged old Mercedes. The area is an enormous slum lined with rows upon rows of makeshift "homes," composed of tin, wood, and sheets. The Haratins who live here are not free from slavery; they have simply been released here by masters who no longer wanted them — but they all know that they can be recalled to serve them at any time. Without any official documents and explicit consent from their masters, they cannot leave the city or find work.

The only Arabs that roam Riyad are the owners of shops and the large grain silos where they store rice and flour as they wait for higher prices to sell their goods. The owners of Riyad's slaves live far from these sandy, reeking streets where donkeys roam carrying dirty drinking water for the locals. Children scour expansive piles of garbage for anything to quench their hunger, surrounded by swarms of flies and sheep with a similar interest in the putrid waste.

"They took me from my mother when I was five, and I would take care of my master's animals and his home," says Barka Asatin, 28. "One day he raped me when I was still a child, and I gave birth to a child that he gave to his daughter." She is free today, thanks to the love of the man who is now her husband. "Then my master's son raped me too and I had a child from him, but there was a driver who unlike me was not a slave, and he decided to help me find my mother," she says. "He found her and took me away to safety, but my master was enraged and took my children hostage, and even my own mother denounced me to the police and judges to help my master."

The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), an abolitionist group led by the imprisoned Biram Dah Abeid — dubbed "Mauritania's Mandela" — aided Barka in her legal battles against the police and judiciary. "My own mother said I was crazy, but the driver helped me and we eventually won and married, now we live together with my two children and a third we had together," she says.

There is no hiding the squalid conditions and fundamental injustices of the slaves who live in Riyad, where the streets are governed by an air of dejected resignation. "I found out I was a slave when I saw my master treat his children differently from me," says Said, who fled from his master three years ago at age fifteen. "Slavery has defined my entire life and I don't know where most of my half-siblings are, it took me ten years to find one, and one of my sisters refused to leave her master."

Slavery exists in the open here; a way of life present in the city's streets, homes, and markets. It's pervasive, reminding you every second that you are in Mauritania, a country that feels like it's almost on another planet. If you don't know how to tell if someone is a slave or not, all you have to do is travel to Nouakchott's market where slaves toil to carry bricks and cement, or visit the home of a judge where they serve the very men who are supposed to defend their rights. In Nouakchott, you are surrounded by slavery wherever you go. They've polished the stairs you walk on, painted the walls you pass by, and cooked the food you eat. The absence of freedom is "normal" here, a city dominated by a sense of remorseless indifference to the plight of its oppressed.

"Anti-slavery laws exist only to distract Westerners, but judges here use Islamic law to justify slavery," says Hamadi, who dedicated his entire life to abolishing the practice. "They teach it in the schools, a vestige of when Arabs conquered this land centuries ago and kept the defeated locals as slaves, using religion as a cover."

In 2016, nothing has changed in Mauritania. "It's not a matter of the color of your skin or your social class, it's far more complicated, something that starts at childhood," says Hamadi. "Slaves have no freedom of choice, they don't exist as individuals, they obey their masters and are ready to die for them."

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli


• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.


“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.


Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA

London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.


Dottoré! is a weekly column on by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."


• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days

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