A slave owner becomes an abolitionist

I just read a story from CNN about a young slave owner turned abolitionist in Mauritania. And I must say it was such a touching story.

According to the article, Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane received a gift for his circumcision ceremony when he was a child. He chose a childhood friend, Yebawa Ould Keihel whose skin was darker than his, as his gift. At that moment, he became a slave.

Ethmane did not think slavery was wrong growing up. It is a common practice in Mauritania, “where activists and the United Nations estimate 10% to 20% of people are enslaved — usually dark-skinned people who have lighter-skinned masters,” according to the article.

These “darker skinned” people are treated as and believe they are subhuman. And it was never questioned.

That all changed when Ethmane was sent to Nouakchott, a seaside capital, for schooling. It was here that his views on slavery began to change.

Ethmane met a European tutor who opened the door to readings on slavery. The tutor showed him these books and slavery was not mentioned, and if it was, it was talked about as a thing of the past.

While reading one of these books, he found a sentence that would eventually change his life:

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.

From that moment, he began to question whether slavery was right.

Ethmane asked his father about slavery. His father said it was wrong and he tried to free the slaves once. But their slaves wanted to stay.

When Ethmane asked his mom, he got a different response. She said it was natural.

Soon after, he took the conversation to members outside his family. He organized a secret meeting with like-minded people to talk about their experience in Mauritania. They met in secret because meeting in public to talk about slavery could mean arrest.

Through these discussions, he realized slavery was wrong. Ethmane began denouncing as inhumane. He even formed SOS Slaves in 1995 with “Boubacar Messaoud, who grew up in a family of slaves in southern Mauritania, near the border with Senegal,” according to the article. SOS Slaves is an organization fighting to end slavery in Mauritania, which was officially abolished in 1981 but continued to be a common practice.

SOS Slavery has made strides in Mauritania. In 2007, a law was passed, with help from SOS Slavery, making it a crime to own another person or force him/her to work.


This story is touching for a variety of reasons. This young man, although at fault for owning a slave, became educated and decided to denounce the practice. Ethmane not only educated himself, but then proceeded to educate his country and lobby for change.

It takes a lot to educate yourself and admit that you are wrong. But it takes even more to decide to educate others and begin to change the framework of your country.



About Haley Behre

I graduated from Syracuse University in December 2011 with majors in newspaper journalism and women and gender studies. Using these majors, I aspire to become a journalist who writes about human rights issues. I have held internships at the Syracuse New Times, Dash Media PR Firm, Syracuse Post-Standard and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. I also had an internship at the Not For Sale Campaign Syracuse chapter, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating human trafficking. I was born in Seoul, Korea on September 30, 1990 and moved to the United States before I was one year old. When I was 8, my family and I moved to Norwich, England for three years. While I was here I was immersed into a new culture and got to experience many things other children my age do not get to. Over the three years, I visited Ireland, France and the Netherlands several times, and Belgium, Wales and Sweden once. In the winter of 2010, I got an amazing opportunity to visit Kenya for a month. This was by far the single most eye-opening experience of my life thus far. The natural beauty of the landscape and its people do not compare to anything I have seen. I currently intern for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press in the hopes of getting a full-time job at a newspaper or non-profit after.
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4 Responses to A slave owner becomes an abolitionist

  1. Pingback: Mauritania: Slavery’s last stronghold « This Day – One Day

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  3. Pingback: Slavery continues in Mauritania today | Picking Daisies

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