For 20 years, Tamazrat Ousame had to clean, cook and even bear children for her masters. One day she managed to escape, but hundreds of others are still enslaved in Niger.
Maradi, southern Niger. Soldiers supposed to protect foreign journalists are dozing on plastic chairs in the shade in front of the hotel. Besides the hotel entrance, an old man on a woobly wooden table is arranging his souvenirs for sale: Colorful pearl necklaces, bronze giraffes and knitted handbags.
An old rusty metal necklace is lying nearby. It was used as a necklace to hold slaves, the old man says with a toothless grin. "That was before," he says, while lifting the heavy chain. Today, there are no more slaves in Niger, he declares as he offers me a bargain price for the necklace. But are there really no more slaves in Niger? I ask him. No, he motions with his head and moves away. A clear signal that he does not like the question. For him, the conversation is over.
Almost 700 kilometers (435 miles) away, Tamazrat Ousame is sitting in the shade of a tiny hut made of straw and thick rubber tires in Niger's capital Niamey. On the road, young boys are playing soccer with bare feet, dust and scattered plastic bags swirling around them. Two women cross the street, cautiously avoiding the pile of garbage.
Ousame has been living in the capital of the country for nearly ten years. Before that, she says, life was terrible – it was a time in which nobody called her Tamazrat Ousame, she was simply referred as "the slave".
There are probably thousands of people in Niger who are still being held as slaves. Women exploited as domestic servants and raped by their owners, men who must toil free of charge on the fields of their masters. If they have any children, they automatically become the property of their masters, who can sell if them if they so wish.
Born free, taken as a slave
Ousame repeatedly emphasized that she came from a free family. She was probably four, at most five years old, when she became the property of a high-ranking nomadic family. Her mother had worked for a short time for the family.
And as the nomads moved on, they simply took little Ousmane along. She had no idea that she had been enslaved, she says. Only when the neighbors said, "That is the new slave of Abduld-Alahi," did she finally realize her life would never be the same.
Inside her hut, Ousame shows her bare feet with deep cracks. A stark reminder of her time in slavery. She had to work from morning until evening, walk long distances to fetch water, and later prepare food.
If the family of the master, as she calls him, wandered in the wilderness, they had a tent in which she, the slave, was not allowed to sleep. Only when it rained would she be allowed to sleep in a corner of the tent. Otherwise, she and the children slept outside. Before going to bed, Ousmane said she often whispered to her eldest daughter, "You're not a slave, you're free." She promised her that one day, they would be free.
She and her three children were brought to Niamey by soldiers after she managed to escape from her master in the desert. With the help of a charitable organization, she was trained as a seamstress, got married, but a few years later her husband died. Ousmane strongly believes if she had not been a slave, her life would have been different.
Solidarity with former slaves
Nobody knows exactly how many people are being kept as slaves in Niger. Maybe 800,000, maybe fewer, says Almansour Galissoune. His house is only a few blocks away from Ousame's shed.
Galissoune and other volunteers work with the human rights organization Timidria, which in the Tuareg language means solidarity.
The organization helps people who have escaped from slavery by providing shelter and teaching them how to read and write. Some of the volunteers who were former slaves now want to sue their masters.
In 2003, Niger passed a law that criminalizes slavery. Anyone who sells or keeps people against their will can be punished with up to 30 years in prison.
Only a few years before, the government wanted to suppress the issue of slavery and even arrested several colleagues of Galissoune. Today, however, members of Timidria are working closely with the Interior Ministry and other partner organizations to end slavery in Niger. "The political will is now finally here," says Galissoune.
Poverty linked to slavery
Nevertheless, slavery remains an integral part of the culture of Nigeriens, Galissoune says. "The feudal thinking still persists." The main reason is poverty. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world.
His organization carries out awareness campaigns in remote villages, but Galissoune admits that often freed slaves eventually return to their former masters. The reason: they simply can't find another livelihood. "We just do not have the financial means."
Galissoune believes that it will take years, perhaps decades, for Niger to stop little girls from being snatched from their parents, as happened to Tamazrat Ousame.