Have you ever met anybody who was a slave?

Have you ever met anybody who was a slave?

Answer by Rory Young:

This man is a slave.

I met him in Mali, in the conflict zone. Look closely at him. Look into his eyes. He is the property of another man. His wife, his children and his grand children are also the property of another human being.

He served me food and Tamasheq tea on several occasions. I was meeting with a group of Tamasheq and other nobles in the Gourma, a part of the Sahel, where North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa meet.

He was extremely grateful and highly honoured when I asked to take his picture. As a slave he of course has absolutely no social standing and is entirely dependent on the good will of his master for his water, food, clothing, health and even his very life. Yes, traditionally his master has the right of life or death over him. The soldiers, rangers and others with whom I work were fascinated that I would want to take a picture of such a person rather than a noble with his robes, swords and other signs of status and power.

Don’t be surprised, he is not so unusual. There are around 200′000 slaves in Mali, possibly many, many more, and slavery in the region is growing. A recent report by Newseek of slaves being openly sold in markets in Libya sparked apparent shock and horror all over the world. This is a reflection of the worldwide ignorance the actual condition of both the human and natural environments.

I work in the conflict zone as chief instructor of the Malian mixed army-ranger anti-poaching brigade, a project supported by Chengeta Wildlife, Wild Foundation, The Canadian Fund for International Conservation and others. This is not a place the NGO’s in big, shiny airconditioned SUV’s will come. Nor is it a place that even the Un peacekeepers or other military are willing to enter, except as part of a fast in-and-out mission by air.

I have gotten to know many men like this man. I know the owners, the slaves and I have gotten to know former slaves. None of these people are shy about discussing slavery and how they view it. I have tried to see it as the people of this region do, so as to understand it.

No man wishes to be a slave. However, like a kidnapped person suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, the slaves identify with their master and, get ready for it, often look at them with love and affection. The slave-owners often refer to their slaves as their “children”. Most could imagine life without chiefs and nobles more easily than they could without slaves.

I have also gotten to know a number of former slaves who have risen through the ranks of the Malian Armed Forces to command men who are themselves from slave-owning families. Most of these men have severed ties with their former owners and have a very surprising perspective. They usually refer to both slaves and slave-owners as “their people” and seldom hold a grudge against their former masters. Whilst they appreciate being free they do not look at their slavery or freedom as a question of right or wrong, but rather as a change from one system to another, or even of their own personal upward mobility.

This is I believe is a key to understanding slavery. Slavery is not a simple question of law or perceived freedom. It is a social and economic system in which status, power and wealth are rewarded with entitlement. To stop the slavery, the entire culture needs to change. The whole system.

Returning home to the modern world is always a greater journey for me than simple transportation. It is always very difficult to get my mind out of that world and into the 21st Century. I cannot help but be fascinated with the many parallels and hypocrisies I see around me when I return home.

People in the modern world are shedding their sense of equality and modesty and openly adoring the unbridled pursuit of wealth, power and status as true virtues. Creativity, knowledge, wisdom and society all take a back seat.

It is as though the slaves are agreeing to be slaves in the belief they may somehow make it out of the pit and to the top of the pile. At least the cultures of the sahel do not pretend to be anything other than what they are.

Have you ever met anybody who was a slave?

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What’s it like to be mistaken for being a different ethnicity than you actually are?

Imagine spending your entire life being completely mistaken about your own ethnicity.

Answer by Rory Young:

Imagine spending your entire life being mistaken of your own ethnicity.

I was born in Zambia to “white Rhodesian parents” and I was surrounded by racism from a young age. Questions of race and racism have been a constant frustrating issue that I have learned to hate with a vengeance. Some of my own family are unrepentant racists.

I was taught that I came from “the best pioneering Rhodesian stock”. My father was particularly proud of this. I once told him that a teacher had said I was cheeky. His reply was, “Tell her it’s because of your good breeding.” Such extreme arrogance either rubs off on you insidiously over time or violently repels you.

Imagine my surprise then to find out I have black African blood running in my veins…

I have a pretty flat nose, made more so by having been broken early on, but am otherwise very pink with green eyes, and although I am now as bald as a coot, I once had soft straight hair. As a child I was blonde, as were all of my four siblings and all are either blue or green-eyed, but my hair turned black as I reached adulthood and then began to retreat at great speed. One sister has always been blonde and blue-eyed.

Both my parents were very obsessed with their genealogy and both came from “old distinguished families”. Yeah, well mostly it would seem…

My father was always very vocal about about the illustrious history of his father’s family, but not his mother’s… My mother went on very much the same about her mother’s family, but was deafeningly quite about the origins of her father’s family.

As I grew older I began to find the skeletons in the closet most interesting, and eventually, quite recently, absolutely fascinating. I discovered that my mother’s mother’s family had been loyalist Irish Catholics (and Episcopalian when it suited them) and my father’s family had originally been rebel Irish Protestants (and then produced Thomas young, the nastiest of my ancestors, a brutal enforcer of the crown in Northern Ireland – or a great hero depending on which side of the blurry line you sit).

I decided one day to look look my father’s mother’s background and lo and behold! He had mentioned her parents had been “Frenchmen”. He failed however to mention they were also gypsies. This was getting interesting…

I was never particularly curious about my mother’s father’s background. I knew that they had originally been 1820 settlers. These were poor Englishmen mostly who settled in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. I knew that my grandfather’s particular lot had moved to Natal (Zululand), but that was it really. His father had been a mathematics professor and his brother was a physics professor, but other than that they appeared to be relatively uninteresting.

And then one day I was reading about the results of DNA studies on the Afrikaners (South Africans of mostly Dutch, German and French Huguenot descent). A study that had discovered that not only were Afrikaners an average of 7 percent Sub-Saharan African. Some far right wing racists in South Africa desperately try to refute this, and the gymnastics they achieve and the lengths they will go to to do this are quite hilarious. There was even an incident in South African parliament in the early 1980’s, after the release of the first revelatory study of church records which clearly showed an admixture of both African(6–12%) and Asian blood (+-2%), when one legislature punched another for saying “The Van Wyks are black!”

I continued reading, laughing quite heartely, and then there it was, “the descendants of the 1820’s all have sub- African admixture. And then, “most notably those who migrated to Natal”.

At first I was simply too surprised to speak, but then the laughter began and simply wouldn’t stop. The more I thought of all my snotty relatives sitting around waffling about being “good Rhodesian pioneer stock, but failing to mention the fine Zulu coursing through their veins.

I will be taking great pleasure in pointing out to horrified relatives that they are in fact not white after all!

What's it like to be mistaken for being a different ethnicity than you actually are?