Ghost of Slavery Past and Present

IMG_1682Ouidah, Republic of Benin – Mâtiné 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, Mâtiné had covered 3.5 km on the back of a motor-taxi, the common mode of transportation in Benin, to meet the tour bus.DSC_1660

Mâtiné  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.

Mâtiné  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,” Mâtiné  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, Mâtiné 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,” Mâtiné says.

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The Door of No Return, commemorative monumental arch, erected in 1995 near Ouidah, Republic of Benin

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, Mâtiné has dedicated her life to ending modern slavery. A descendant of someone who helped continue the slave trade in Benin, Mâtiné 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. Mâtiné feeds, educates and provides shelter to the children. Some leave, most stay.

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Children who find shelter and care under Mâtiné ’s roof.

A survivor herself, Mâtiné is no stranger to enslavement. Married at fifteen years old and soon with three babies to feed, Mâtiné fed her family by braiding hair and stringing beads while enduring beatings and forced starvation.

What changed Mâtiné’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,” Mâtiné 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 Mâtiné  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 Mâtiné 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.

Mâtiné 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,” Mâtiné recalls.

Children who find shelter and care under Martine’s roof.

Children who find shelter and care under Mâtiné’s roof.

“When we show films about women’s rights, we went to the village elders or the chief to receive permission before showing the film,” Mâtiné 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 Mâtiné 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, Mâtiné drives to a local market or village center to show the films. Each market or village is visited more than a dozen times. Mâtiné 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, Mâtiné showed films everyday traveling from one Beninoise village to the next. Today, there is little money and no grant for Cinevillage but Mâtiné 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,” Mâtiné explains. “There is never less than 50 people in attendance.”

School children gather at a roundabout in Cotonou, Republic of Benin for a film that Cinevillage organized.

School children gather at Place Lénine roundabout in Cotonou, Republic of Benin for a film that Cinevillage organized.

After each film, anyone can take the microphone and speak. Mâtiné 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.

Mâtiné emphasizes the importance of hearing what children have to say. Mâtiné ’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.”

Statues called ‘Revenants’ guard the Door of No Return, Republic of Benin.

Statues called ‘Revenants’ guard the Door of No Return, Republic of Benin.

At the Door of No Return, Mâtiné 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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All rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi. Photographs and text cannot be reproduced without the permission by Lesley Lababidi.

4 thoughts on “Ghost of Slavery Past and Present

    • Thank you Paula, for your continued support of my blog. I really appreciate your comment because Martine de Souza continues to try in her own way to right many brutal truths. To me, this is a very important story. I have been disappointed that I could not get a mainstream journal to promote it. I do hope in some way the universe passes via Internet as it is a story of good. Lesley

  1. Good day, Laila. I wish you luck in your effort to change the lives of Africans, particularly through your educative and informative write ups. I think the proper name of this “modern slavery” should be “neo-slavery”. And it is more dangerous and destructive than the conventional slavery.
    However, fighting against this ‘plague’ is not a one man duty. It should be a collective responsibility for all those to whom it concerns. Martine cannot win this war alone, she needs spiritual, financial, and bodily support. Majority of women, in African continent, live as slaves in one way or another in the society. And the population of women multiplies that of men, how can Martine tackle that, for example?
    I suggest that Martine should bring more people in from different regions of the continent of Africa. However, she shall liaise with some international NGOs and media so that the crusade will cover every nook and cranny of the continent. But my question is “how will this crusade overcome neocolonialism, which is another form of neo-slavery at the international level?
    I really appreciate the way your blog has become a platform of addressing contemporary issues. You are completely ‘academics’ from the outside academic environment. Had it been you are in the university, your publications would have made you a professor. Thank you for the post.

    • I always enjoy your critique and intellectual perspective. Thank you for being a contributor to the articles. It means a great deal to me to have your opinions. If my life had taken a different turn maybe I could have been in a university setting. Your compliment means a lot to me.
      Thank you, Murtala.

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