When I first met Aichana while doing research in Africa, the heat from the Sahara that was sweeping through Mauritania's capital had made it so difficult to sleep indoors that she had thrown a mattress on the terrace of a friend's home. Aichana's dark skin blended easily into the night. The blue scarf she'd wrapped around her long hair was about the only bright spot coming from the shadows. Everything else about her faded into the blackness of the evening.
I'd never met anyone like Aichana. A few months before, she had been a piece of property - for that's what you call someone owned by someone else. For the 29 years she'd been with her master, a man named Mohamed Ould Moissa, she had scavenged for firewood and herded livestock and done all the cooking and cleaning. Mr. Ould Moissa was her life because she had no life; he was her life because she was a slave.
This is the weekend when Jews mark Passover, their holiday of liberation. Passover celebrates the Jews' exodus from slavery in Egypt about 3,300 years ago. It is not, though, a parochial holiday: Most broadly, it honors the quest by all people to be freed from fetters and restraints. Thus, Passover is an apt moment to remember Aichana and the millions of other slaves around the globe.
The shackles that bind contemporary slaves may be political, economic, sexual. They may even be shackles of the imagination, for what is worse than a mind whose confines are defined and imposed by others?
Slavery persists around the world, although often it does not correspond to our traditional notion of a master and a slave. The International Labor Organization, for instance, has estimated that around the globe, 218 million children ages 5 to 17 are working; of these, 74 million children perform especially hazardous work from which they should be immediately withdrawn. Another 8.4 million children have been coerced into prostitution or pornography or into militias in war zones. From Russia, tens of thousands of women have disappeared into brothels in Germany, Greece, Portugal, Israel, China, Japan, Thailand and the United States. Debts as high as $30,000 to the "agency" that "resettled" them consign these women to not years but a lifetime of prostitution. Also known as "bonded labor," this form of debt has trapped millions of people in nonprostitution slavery, especially on large farms in South Asia, where entire families are kept like cattle.
In Mauritania, Aichana was among the lucky few: By the time she reached her late 20s, she resolved to leave her master. She first escaped by herself, then returned a few weeks later with government officials who freed her four children. They all moved to Nouakchott, the capital, where, with difficulty, they got by; Mauritanians do not take lightly to someone flouting the nation's rigid caste system.
But hard as her new life was, Aichana was relieved. When slaves are too old or too feeble to do what their master wants, he figuratively takes his foot off them and rolls them into their grave. The slave is done with his life; the master is done with his property. This is as basic a transaction as you can find, a transaction that is ancient and primeval and horrible, all at the same time - a transaction that slights everything we have come to believe about the intractable and inevitable and progressive trajectory of this race we call human.
Africa convinced me that universal abolition remains a compelling and durable myth. For if slavery is being practiced today, if people - anywhere - are still being treated like commodities that walk and talk just like the people who claim ownership over them, then some parts of the world have traveled little moral distance in the last century. And some people - "slaves" - are still forced to do their damnedest to cheat the devil of the cruelest theft of all: the theft of dignity and honor and strength, a theft that means that the rich, satisfying banquet of true freedom is for others, while their own lives are stunted in service to "masters," a word as rueful as it is antiquated.
Thankfully, slavery today is a fraction of what it had been more than a century ago. Yet not completely eradicating it may be proof that we humans are more flawed than we like to admit, that we haven't quite made it to the point of treating all people with an essential decency. Maybe we never will, yet the promise of Passover - the Promised Land of freedom, the blessed land of dignity - should be the horizon on which we set our eyes. Without that, pharaoh reigns, with death as his companion.
Arthur J. Magida is writer in residence at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is "Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 Baltimore Sun