Alexis Okeowo tells the story of Biram Dah Abeid and his crusade to abolish slavery in his home country of Mauritiana. Abeid is the founder of the country’s largest anti-slavery organization, and he will stop at nothing to get slave owners arrested:
Finally, the police took the slaves to the station, and Abeid and the others followed. For a moment, the activists—schoolteachers, civil servants, the unemployed—remained in a standoff with the police there, a force of some sixty officers. Abeid walked toward a policeman. When the policeman grabbed Abeid’s shirt, Abeid butted him twice with his head. “I wanted to go to jail,” he said. “When people ask why I am in jail, they will have to know there were two slave girls, and the government refused to put the slave owner in jail.” As the activists and the police clashed, Abeid lunged at the police again, and he was arrested. He was jailed for three months; the slave owner was released after nine days. But it was a seminal victory for IRA: the first time that police had imprisoned a slave owner. The organization has since helped to put about twenty others in jail, though often for brief terms. As owners heard about the arrests, they started releasing their slaves, in a ripple of fear. Working through a network of nine thousand activists, IRA has freed thousands of slaves around the country. Haratin often refer to the former slaves as Biram Frees. [New Yorker]
In 1981, Mauritiana became the last country on earth to outlaw slavery, but the country still has the highest incidence of slavery in the world. The practice is sustained by tradition, economic necessity, and idiosyncratic local interpretation of Islam that Abeid is risking his life to discredit.
[Photo credit: Nouakchott, the largest city in Mauritiana, by Manuel M. Almeida, Creative Commons.]