On one particularly memorable and tense evening, Edythe and I reunited a former slave with his former master. The two men hadn’t seen each other in years. Their master-slave relationship started when the master chose his slave — like he was choosing a toy, he told us — at his circumcision ceremony far out in the desert. The slave master, Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane, would go on to become one of Mauritania’s most prominent abolitionists — working with a group called SOS Slaves to free many people in Mauritania. But with this man, named Yebawwa, he failed, he told us. I asked Yebawa what it was like when he was freed by his former master. He acted like he didn’t know exactly what I was talking about, or didn’t remember. I got the impression that this man didn’t truly understand what “freedom” meant.
He still saw his former master as family.
And I came to believe that’s this uncomfortable truth is part of what perpetuates modern slavery in Mauritania: The shackles of slavery, as one activist told us, can exist in the mind. Breaking them may be a long and arduous process.
Thinking back on this story, however, I’m filled not with a sense of sadness but of hope. There are so many brave people, inside Mauritania and abroad, who are working to fight this practice, sometimes at great personal risk. CNN Digital readers donated thousands of dollars to a training center for escaped slaves and their descendants in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital. Members of the CNN iReport community also sent in video clips telling them women who attend classes at that center that “We are with you,” in the local language, so they could understand. Sean Tenner, in Illinois, founded a group called the Abolition Institute, based in Illinois, because he was so moved by the coverage. And, despite tough odd and the fact that much of the opposition is boycotting the election, one of the men we interviewed, Biram Dah Abeid, a descendant of slaves, is currently running for president.