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Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi: The equals of the slave masters

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By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi

‘Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves’, Abraham Lincoln.

The headlines are unrelenting:
‘Woman docked for locking maid in the toilet for 20 days’
‘Woman called out for burning 10-year-old housemaid with hot iron’
‘Police arrest madam who brutalized maid, cuts her hand with hand saw’
‘Woman sentenced to 4years in prison for brutalizing 12-year-old niece with razor’
‘Police Officer’s wife tortures 10-year-old niece over missing N30’

It goes on and on. Perhaps because people now know action will be taken against perpetrators, there are now more tip offs from concerned neighbours when they notice something untoward with regards to the treatment of house help or very young family members who live with their relatives. The maltreatment of domestic workers is nothing new, and since we have very poor enforcement of our trafficking laws, impunity continues to reign. How can someone lock up another human being for weeks and leave them with only biscuits to eat?

Most of the cases of the abuse of domestics involves minors. Children who are supposed to be looked after themselves are left in charge of other children. They are tasked with carrying out endless domestic chores, and when they do not meet the standards of their employers, they are beaten and starved. When you deprive anyone of food, they will do whatever they can to survive. The house-help then resort to sneaking food from the house or from neighbours, for which they receive more punishment in a vicious cycle of abuse and neglect.

As Africans, we are now all up in arms about what is going on in Libya, with the open sale of African migrants in Libyan slave markets. We have also been told by some fortunate returnees that they were sold by fellow Africans to the Libyans. One of the pillars of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which lasted for over 400 years, was the active involvement of Africans who acted as middle-men in the capture and sale of their kinsmen and women. We can argue that the locals had little choice because the Europeans were armed with guns and canons, and if they refused, it would only be a matter of time before they entered the hinterlands and did the dirty work themselves. However, perhaps if there had been less enthusiasm for the trade on the part of greedy local Chiefs and slave catchers, malaria and other tropical diseases could have helped minimize the damage done by the slave trading merchants.

At the end of the day, it does not really matter whether they were willing participants or not. The fact is that they played a key role in the capture and enslavement of millions for generations.

When I wonder what could drive sane human beings to acts of such wickedness against children and vulnerable adults, I think about what kept the institution of slavery going for so long. In order for those invested in the slave trade to justify their actions, they had to convince themselves and others that slaves were not human beings and did not have souls. Slaves were merely property, to be bought, owned, used and sold when required. Slaves were on the same level as livestock, and those who received good treatment at the hands of their Masters or Mistresses did so because of the productive and reproductive value they had. If you own a cow and want it to produce milk on a consistent basis, you have to keep it alive and well.

Slavery was widely practiced in many of our communities, usually a direct consequence of wars of conquest. However, slaves were not equated with animals, and there are several sayings in our languages that imply that slaves were treated as human beings and some of them even rose to become members of households. Apart from what we know of slavery from ancient times, before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, there was the Trans-Saharan slave trade, which has not been as widely documented.

Just as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade provided the basis for an assertion of superiority over black Africans, the Trans-Saharan slave trade was predicated on exactly the same thing – black Africans were (and still are) considered lower in the pecking order of ‘races’. Going back in history, there has never been any doubt that we are thought of as slaves in those communities because of the colour of our skin, regardless of the contributions we have made in building and running empires that date back thousands of years.

The images of Africans chained and sold like goats, and the disgusting video footage showing the sexual torture of African women by their Libyan captors, do not belong in a modern era, but the thinking that has sustained the slave trade globally over hundreds of years has never really changed. For the slave trade to work back then, Africans had to be deprived of their very humanity. Today, nothing much has changed. Sadly, a vast majority of victims of the modern slave trade are not those who by choice or deception decided to make the deadly trip to get to Europe via places like Libya. The thousands of very young children who are being trafficked across borders and in-country in West Africa, for example, far exceed those in the slave camps in Libya.

A few years ago, I visited the elderly mother of a friend of mine. Her daughter is based in the US, and had sent money home for her mother to employ a maid. I was asked to visit the old woman and help interview the maid. I thought the maid would be at least eighteen and above. It turned out that the maid did not appear to be older than thirteen years old. She spoke no English, French or any Nigerian language. She had been brought in from a village in Togo. I insisted that she had to be sent back to where she had come from. I then threatened the ‘middle-woman’ with arrest by the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). She scurried off with her young victim and I knew the poor child would end up somewhere else. The middle-woman would be the one collecting the girl’s pay to ‘send to her parents’.

It is rather unfortunate that both men and women are culpable in the abuse of domestic staff and depriving them of basic rights such as food, shelter, education and healthcare. Many domestic staff sleep on the hard floor, most of them are starved and when they are sick they do not get the help they need. The scars on their bodies tell a story of constant neglect and abuse.

While sexual abuse and harassment seems to be the purview of the men and sons of the house, the Madam of the house is the enforcer and all kinds of horrors are rained on the bodies and souls of these poor children.

The moment we start to undermine the personhood of others, our own humanity is called into question. Just like the slavers of old convinced themselves that the slaves they owned were not human, those who ‘own’ domestic staff seem to have drawn the same conclusion. A person who leaves another human being locked up in a house for weeks and travels out of the country does not think she has left a person in the house. You can’t even lock up a cat or dog and travel and not be thought of as a terrible human being.

We can rain all the curses we like on the Libyan slave traders and their African collaborators. We need to take a long hard look at ourselves, our neighbours and our friends. How do we feel about those who prey on the poor and vulnerable? Are we different? How do we treat those who work for us? Those who we leave our children with?

We have been made to understand that there is a whistleblowing policy at NAPTIP. It needs to be widely publicized so that we can be each other’s keeper. Black people have been enslaved in so many different ways for many generations. It is tragic that we are doing the same thing to ourselves and our children.

According to James A. Baldwin, ‘Not only was I not born to be a slave, I was not born to hope to become the equal of the slave master’. It seems as if some of us have become exactly that. Equals of the slave master.