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Updated Apr 9, 2020

Traditional societies in Mali – like the Fulani, Soninké, and Malinké – are still divided into social castes: some are believed to be born as nobles, chiefs or artisans, and the lowest caste is that of slaves, or descendants of slaves. This has allowed modern-day slavery to persist in western Mali.

Diagley Kanouté, a former slave himself, leads activists in the Kayes region through an organization called Gambana, meaning “equality” in Soninké. Gambana estimates that more than 200,000 Malians live as hereditary slaves. Since 2017, more than 2,000 of these slaves have been convinced to declare independence from their masters thanks to the efforts of activists.

Slave lives are highly dictated within these feudal societies. They are forbidden to hold land, participate in village meetings, run for mayor, or marry outside their caste. Chieftains who practice this form of slavery and their supporters deny that slavery exists and accuse Gambana of attempting to bring shame to Kayes and of being Western agent-provocateurs. Although slavery was formerly abolished under French colonial rule and is outlawed under Mali’s current constitution, a number of government officials and members of parliament maintain connections with local groups that practice slavery, making enforcement of abolition difficult.

Gambana has struggled to make the progress they desire due to their staunch anti-slavery stance. Other organizations in Mali attempt to establish dialogue with tribal leaders, religious figures, and local officials to preserve social cohesion and avoid outright accusations of blame. Others focus on using Mali’s courts to provide slaves with birth certificates or to help them build their lives after declaring their independence.


 group of Fulani men is seen while setting up a hut in a camp for Internal Displaced People in Bamako on April 2, 2020. Since June 2018, more than 1200 displaced people who fled their villages in central Mali, have found a shelter in a camp built in proximity of a landfill. The critical hygienic conditions do not allow, among other things, social distancing and the observance of preventive measures for Covid-19 coronavirus. So far 41 cases of Covid-19 coronavirus have been reported in Mali. The rise of COVID-19 coronavirus in the war-torn Sahel has sparked sharp fears for the region's hundreds of thousands of displaced people, often packed inside camps. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
A group of Fulani men in Bamako on April 2, 2020. (Michele Cattani/AFP)


Why It Matters

Mali’s weakened infrastructure due to its ongoing conflict with terrorist organizations and rebel groups leaves little recourse for the country’s most vulnerable people, especially slaves. This, along with entrenched cultural norms, makes it difficult for activists to bring about change. A few hundred slaves have managed to attain their freedom thanks to the efforts of Gambana and others, yet this is a tiny percentage of the total number of Malians living under bondage.

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