Ouidah, Republic of Benin – Martine de Souza, a middle-aged, enthusiastic tour guide, leads a group of travelers to the Door of No Return, a monumental arch located on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea in the Republic of Benin. From her home in Ouidah, Martine had covered 3.5 km on the back of a motor-taxi, the common mode of transportation in Benin, to meet the tour bus.
Martine points to the road from which she came, a sandy road known as the Route des Esclaves (Slave Route). Along this route, countless number of Africans were forced to march from Africa’s interior to slave ships that sailed the infamous Middle Passage to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern coast of North America.
Martine stands at the entrance of The Door of No Return, a modern structure that symbolizes the final exit point of African slaves forced departure. Four hundred years ago, the transAtlantic slave trade flourished along the Gulf of Guinea coast with the majority of those enslaved captured from western and central parts of the continent.
“I am the sixth generation direct descendent of our family founder, Francisco Felix de Souza,” Martine says.
“Francisco de Souza, a white Brazilian of Portuguese ancestry, came to the Kingdom of Dahomey (historical name for Benin) in 1812. He was a merchant that traded in slaves, palm oil and gold, in fact, he was the most powerful slave trader on the West African coast in the 1800s. De Souza was a close friend to the Dahomeyan king, Ghezo, who made him viceroy of Ouidah,” she reveals.
A century and a half after the arrival of her family’s patriarch, Martine de Souza guides tours along the coconut tree-lined shores that stretch out into the notoriously treacherous blue waters of the Gulf of Guinea. She tells the history of past atrocities; stories of slavery, wealth, survival, greed, and glory are told about Francisco de Souza. But she also speaks about how slavery is not a thing of the past. “Modern-day slavery is a growing problem we face today taking the forms of forced labour and human trafficking,” Martine says.
While the transAtlantic slave trade was abolished in the nineteenth century, there are still 30 million enslaved people in the world today, according to estimates of the 2013 Global Slavery Index, http://www.globalslaveryindex.org, a study by the Walk Free Foundation.
Thirteen of the first 20 countries where slavery is prevalent are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Republic of Benin ranks seventh, with an estimated enslaved population of 76,000–84,000.
Slavery is a relationship of violence and exploitation. Modern slavery is a developmental issue rooted in poverty, poor education, gender inequality, unemployment, and ineffective laws. Children are usually the victims, forced to labour as domestic servants, field laborers who gather crops, or street vendors who sell goods such as gasoline by pouring gasoline from bottles into vehicles.
Children work as mechanics and in construction, and are trafficked from West Africa and Central Africa for domestic and agriculture work. Children are also sexually exploited and become victims of human trafficking.
Today, Martine has dedicated her life to ending modern slavery. A descendant of someone who helped continue the slave trade in Benin, Martine has dedicated the last ten years to fighting the lingering impact of enslavement. Her home has become a refuge for street children, runaways and orphans. Martine feeds, educates and provides shelter to the children. Some leave, most stay.
A survivor herself, Martine is no stranger to enslavement. Married at fifteen years old and soon with three babies to feed, Martine fed her family by braiding hair and stringing beads while enduring beatings and forced starvation.
What changed Martine’s life was her work as an assistant to Anne Kielland at the World Bank/Benin from 1999–2006 and later on a research project from PopPov (http://poppov.org/).
“Anne would tell me that I was intelligent and beautiful,” Martine recalls. “I never believed it myself but having a friend and mentor like Anne encouraged me to act.”
From her office in Norway, Anne (now with Fafo, http://www.fafo.no) reciprocates that inspiration. “I don’t think I exaggerate when I say Martine has made my life very different and more meaningful from what it would have been had I had not accidentally stumbled into her compound in Ouidah, a very dramatic day 15 years ago.”
“I think Martine simply loves helping people. She is an angel, and it just makes her happy and her life meaningful. And what a tough life that has been,” said Anne.
Martine worked with Anne on the child mobility survey, a survey of Koranic schools, an NGO inventory, and a judicial consultancy as translator and facilitator for more than ten years in Benin. During those years, there were many documentary films produced by World Bank and USAID for the rural population.
“I realized the rural population would never have a chance to see the films so I decided to start an association called Cinevillage to screen educational films about human trafficking, enslavement, and women’s rights,” Martine recalls.
“When we show films about women’s rights, we went to the village elders or the chief to receive permission before showing the film,” Martine explains. “We visited the chief once, twice, and even three times before permission was granted to show the films.”
“We explain to the men that we are not teaching the women to be rebels. We explain that it is better for men when women can stand on their own and make money to feed the family.”
Even when permission was granted, men were wary. Often Martine traveled with security for fear of angering men firmly attached to patriarchal traditions.
After a typical day of working with a women’s cooperative group to produce gari (a grain made from cassava tubers), or a day with tourists at the Door of No Return, Martine drives to a local market or village center to show the films. Each market or village is visited more than a dozen times. Martine encourages discussion of topics such as child trafficking, hygiene and diseases. In each village, a committee is set up to follow the villagers’ comments and reactions.
When funds were available, several years ago, Martine showed films everyday traveling from one Beninoise village to the next. Today, there is little money and no grant for Cinevillage but Martine uses any extra money she has to drive, at least twice a month, to a village or market, pull from the back of her car a generator, speakers, film equipment and a worn, collapsible screen and show a documentary film.
“For me, showing films with an important message is why I am here but films also provide entertainment to people who normally have no electricity, no television,” Martine explains. “There is never less than 50 people in attendance.”
After each film, anyone can take the microphone and speak. Martine tells of an elderly man who came up to thank her. “You taught me how to wash my hands very well,” he said into the microphone. “I always wash my hands before I eat but I didn’t know I had to clean under my fingernails,” he stated.
Martine emphasizes the importance of hearing what children have to say. Martine’s favorite story is when a child proclaimed to the people of her village, “I was sold. My parents sold me. I was taken away from the village. We went to Nigeria. The person who bought me, beat me, then I was lucky. I ran away.”
The girl continued to address the crowd. Her voice loud and strong, she said, “Keep us with you. Even if you are poor, we will love you and stay with you. If you eat sand, we will eat sand with you.”
At the Door of No Return, Martine continues to tell her story. “There are statues called the Revenants that guard the monument. They represent Voodoo dancers who wait on the beach to welcome wandering slave souls back to Africa.”
“Nearby, there is a center, Place du Repentance, built by the Ouidah community for Africans to pray for forgiveness for their part in the slave trade,” she says. “It is through forgiveness, education, and personal activism that a cycle is broken, then we are free.
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