Observers Direct: Standing up to slavery in southwestern Mali

“I am not your slave.” That simple sentence is enough to unleash anger and violence in villages in the Kayes region of southwestern Mali. But more and more villagers are standing up to what is known as “descent-based slavery”.

Slavery was formally abolished by Mali’s French colonial rulers in 1905, and Mali’s constitution proclaims that all Malians are born “free and equal”. But in certain villages in the northern part of the Kayes region, the descendants of slaves continue to face daily discrimination.

Traditional societies like the Soninké, Malinké and Fulani are still divided into social castes: “nobles”, artisans, bards – and “slaves”, or “descendants of slaves”. In certain Soninké villages, “slaves” cannot become mayor, cannot participate in village meetings and cannot marry outside their caste. During celebrations such as weddings or births, they are expected to fetch wood and water, and slaughter the animals. The nobles call it tradition; antislavery groups call it “descent-based slavery”.

After seeing an amateur video showing a man tied up and humiliated for refusing to be called a slave, the Observers travelled to the region to investigate. The man in the video, farmer Mohammedou Sidibé, told us he was targeted because the nobles suspected him of filming for an antislavery group called Gambana. The group uses amateur video to document such incidents, distributing the videos via WhatsApp inside Mali and among the sizable Soninké diaspora around the world.

Watch our Observers Direct report here: