Freedom fighter

Living and dying in slavery ought to have been consigned to the history books. But for hundreds of thousands of Africans, it's still the only life they will know. Clare Rudebeck meets Ilguilas Weila, a 21st-century emancipator who is bringing hope to the hopeless
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The Independent Online

For 50 years of her life, Assibit Wanagoda was a slave. Her life consisted of collecting water, milking camels, herding goats and moving her mistress's tent to keep her in the shade. She was regularly beaten and abused by her masters but even so, the night of 28 June was particularly difficult. As a storm swept across the southern Niger, her owner forced her to act as a pole for his tent. While his family slept, she stood outside, lashed by violent wind and rain for nine hours.

For 50 years of her life, Assibit Wanagoda was a slave. Her life consisted of collecting water, milking camels, herding goats and moving her mistress's tent to keep her in the shade. She was regularly beaten and abused by her masters but even so, the night of 28 June was particularly difficult. As a storm swept across the southern Niger, her owner forced her to act as a pole for his tent. While his family slept, she stood outside, lashed by violent wind and rain for nine hours.

At dawn, having reached breaking point, Assibit decided to take her chance and escape. She had heard rumours from other slaves of someone who could help her: Ilguilas Weila. She walked 30km to the nearest village from where she was taken to the office of Weila's organisation, Timidria. Once there, Assibit was clothed, fed and washed. Weila then organised for her to be set up as an independent woman for the first time in her life.

Ilguilas Weila is the best hope not only for Assibit but for all of the estimated 870,000 slaves living in Niger today. And his work has now been recognised internationally. Today, he is in London to receive an award from the British human-rights charity, Anti-Slavery International.

Sitting in an anonymous hotel room, Weila does not look a likely saviour. The middle-aged 21st-century abolitionist, is dressed in a beige mac, peers over his glasses and speaks in cut-glass French. Working in the former French colony of Niger, bordered by Nigeria to the south and Algeria to the north, Weila founded Timidria in 1991 with 11 other young Nigerians. Before then, slaves had nowhere to run to - to date, the organisation has secured the freedom of 210 slaves.

This trickle of emancipated people is about to become a flood: last year, Timidria secured a change in the law that criminalised slavery in Niger. Since 5 May 2003 anyone owning a slave has risked a prison term of up to 30 years. In Niger, one of the world's poorest nations where two-thirds of the land is desert, it takes time for the letter of the law to imprint itself. However, already one nomadic chief in the Tillaberi region of central Niger has heard about the new law and, eager to avoid arrest, contacted Timidria to arrange to hand over the 7,000 slaves within his encampment. It is the first mass emancipation, and it is due to happen this month.

"Although my family are not from the slave class, when I was growing up we were treated as such," says Weila, 47, who was born in the Tahoua region of northern Niger. "We could only receive an education or marry with the consent of the village chief." Through a quirk of fate though, Weila was handed the chance to escape. "My village chief was hostile to education," he explains. "He saw it as a Western imposition and a threat to our way of life. So when he was obliged by law to send his son to school, he wanted a way out and ordered that a boy from his encampment should instead. I was the boy chosen to go."

It might have been his passport to another way of life, but it wasn't an easy time and the prejudice he faced then was one of the reasons he later started Timidria. "On one occasion, I was walking home from school with children from the slave-owning class. I could hear people saying, 'Who is that boy?' 'Who does he belong to?'" he remembers. "These people had assumed that I was a slave. And the idea that I was nothing - that I was identified by who I was owned by - marked me."

Timidria estimates that the number of Nigerians living in slavery is at least 870,000 or 7 per cent of the population of 12 million - a figure that is accepted by the country's government. Some slaves eat, sleep, work, marry and have children only as and when their master decides. Wanagoda, who was married to another slave, has four children, two of whom are the result of rape by her owner. "I was my mistress's slave - that was my identity," she says."We were never paid, I was only given one tenth of the camel milk I milked."

The scale of the problem only became clear last year when Timidria carried out extensive research, supported by Anti-Slavery International. Its researchers interviewed 11,000 people, most of whom were slaves who, like Wanagoda, lived with constant violence. Islamana, 70, from Gadabeji, central Niger, told a researcher: "My two daughters are treated like goats. The master invites men to sleep with them." Ahmed Assalam, 33, told how he was once beaten so badly that his legs were broken and that his wife had been tortured and raped.

Timidria's ability to help escaped slaves is limited by lack of funds. It relies heavily on volunteers to carry out its work. When an escaped slave arrives at one of Timidria's 636 local offices, they rarely have anything other than the clothes they stand in. Timidria must provide them with a way of surviving independently, otherwise they will have no choice but to go back to their master.

When Assibit Wanagoda walked to freedom in June, she took nothing with her. "When she arrived, she was practically naked, wearing just rags," remembers Weila. "She had no shoes. Her hair was wild and dishevelled." The village women living near Timidria's office gave her clothes and shoes.She was taken into one of their houses, fed and washed. For the next few weeks, she lived with former slave women, while money was sent from Timidria's head office to support her. She now milks the goats Timidria provided her with whenever she pleases. But while this hands-on approach, reliant on the generosity of ordinary people, works on a small scale, Weila is worried about how they will cope with large-scale liberations such as the one planned for this month.

Timidria's goal of freeing all of Niger's slaves amounts to a social revolution. Slavery has been part of the fabric of Nigerian society since the 19th century, when people were openly traded or kidnapped in raids. During French rule from 1890 to 1960 slave-trading was suppressed, but the practice of owning slaves didn't end, and after independence the new ruling elite included many from the slave-owning class who were happy to turn a blind eye to maintain the status quo. People were born and died slaves. "Many Nigerians consider slavery normal," says Weila. "They think that slaves are a different type of human being, that it is their God-given place."

Timidria's success depends on its ability to overturn these entrenched beliefs and overcome hostility from the slave-owning class. In addition, the slaves need to be educated to the fact that they now have a legal right to live freely, and to receive compensation from their former masters. But in a country twice the size of France, none of this is an easy task. "The 210 people we have helped to escape so far are lucky," says Weila, "Because they had heard about Timidria. The majority don't know that liberty is a possibility."

Slaves are usually kept away from towns and villages by masters who want to keep them in ignorance. They are also subject to attacks on their identity, designed to make them psychologically dependent on their master. Boulboulou was born into slavery in the Tahoua region of northern Niger in 1980. When she was two she was taken away from her mother - standard practice among slave owners. At 16, after being forced to marry, she had a baby daughter who was also taken away at two years old. "Slaves often don't have a sense of self," says Weila. "By severing the link with their parents, the owner reinforces the slave's status as a non-person with no history or ties. When Assibit Wanagoda was asked if she was happy to be free, she didn't understand the question. She had to be taught how be a person."

Boulboulou later escaped, spurred by the desire to be reunited with her daughter. She, too, was helped by Timidria, which managed to negotiate the return of her daughter. "Since my escape I feel happy and have support from my family," says Boulboulou, now married to a man of her choice. "My daughter goes to school in Tahoua. I am free and content."

But few slaves have her sense of self-will. "Probably the most important reason why slaves do not leave is down to religion: they've usually been told that their chance to enter paradise is linked to their master," says Weila. It's Weila's mission to convince slaves that they can live independently, without fear of reprisals in this life or the next. But he is all too aware of the hundreds of thousands of slaves who he cannot yet help. Liberating all of Niger's slaves is impossible without support from both the Nigerian government and abroad. "As a result of the research with Anti-Slavery International, we know where thousands of slaves are. We know what they are called. We know how many children they have," says Weila. "When we interviewed them, we promised that we would come and help them. But we just don't have the resources."

Earlier this year on a tour of the country, Weila stopped in a village to speak to a slave woman. "At the end of the conversation, she understood all about my work, and asked why she wasn't leaving with me. And I cried because I couldn't take her. I had nowhere to take her to."

For further information visit www.antislavery.org. To contribute to Timidria, send a cheque, made payable to Anti-Slavery International, to Anti-Slavery International, Thomas Clarkson House, The Stableyard, Broomgrove Road, London SW9 9TL

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