“Under the Radar: Descent-based Slavery as a Form of Contemporary Slavery”, article in “The Republic”


Examining the links between descent-based slavery and contemporary slavery in West Africa helps us to find the missing link to understanding the conditions under which slavery and slavery-like practices keep persisting despite abolitions and international anti-slavery legislation. 

Descent-based slavery and its legacies continue to prevail in many West African communities. This form of slavery is defined by Anti-Slavery International as when an individual is ‘born into slavery because their ancestors were captured into slavery and their families have ‘belonged’ to the slave-owning families ever since’. This status is passed down mostly through the maternal line, to ensure that future generations are born into slavery. Some may not even have ancestors who were captured and sold as slaves, but rather were ascribed ‘slave status’ after moving to a new community and being treated as someone lower in status than those in power. For example, in times of intense warfare and slave raiding like in the West African Sahel in the second half of the twentieth century, people sought refuge in other villages and other regions. These refugees, as outsiders, were often viewed as of possible ‘slave origin’ by the local landlords upon their arrival in a new village. They were, thus, most often only offered to marry women with ascribed slave status; the children would be subsequently considered as ‘slaves’. In times of famine and acute hardship, some others had to pawn their children to get something to eat. If they could not reimburse their debt, the pawned children remained in the creditor’s family and their descendants could be ascribed a ‘slave status’.


Descent-based slavery is prevalent among Mali’s nomadic Fulani and Tuareg communities in Central and Northern Mali, but exists in every region of Mali. It is also present in other Sahel countries, including NigerMauritania, SenegalThe GambiaBurkina FasoNigeriaChadSudan. In the West African Sahel, people with ascribed ‘slave status’ are often considered as property and can be given as gifts or passed down the family line as inheritance by the enslaver. The victims of descent-based slavery suffer numerous human rights violations and can be forced to work without pay and denied access to basic social services such as schooling and necessary identity documents, without which ‘it is impossible to gain access to civil, political, economic, social or cultural rights’ (Anti-Slavery International).  Even after escaping the communities where they were considered and treated as ‘slaves’—their descendants as ‘strangers’ elsewhere—and because of historic disadvantages accumulated over generations, such people often continue to live at the bottom of the social ladder making it almost impossible for them to escape the poverty trap. In Mali, the few who managed to escape the stigma completely had to do so at the expense of suppressing their own experience and those of their ancestors so that they could pass for people of ‘freeborn status’ in a society where notability, honour and notoriety is still based on genealogical hierarchies linked to the history of slavery.

An examination of contemporary forms of slavery in West Africa cannot be done without a detailed study of their links with descent-based slavery. Such examination is necessary to understand the conditions which create vulnerability and exploitation in a purported post-slavery West Africa and to propose appropriate solutions to prevent them.

This analysis is based on research conducted within the framework of the SlafMig project (Slavery and Forced Migration in Western Mali), funded by the UKRI (2020-2023). It is a collaborative project between SOAS, University of London (PI Marie Rodet), the Malian research institute LERDDL (Co-I Bakary Camara), the University of Copenhagen (Co-I Lotte Pelckmans) and the Malian NGOs Donkosira and Temedt. It brings together a unique combination of expertise in African history, law, social anthropology and social demography, cultural and social activism. This research aims to identify the socio-economic and political circumstances under which slavery-related protracted displacements have occurred in Western Mali. It examines how and why despite their regular occurrences in the past 100 years, these fugitive displacements have been largely made invisible and illegible. The project also aims to provide a better understanding of how the legal environment can be used, changed and shaped to provide slavery-related displaced populations with legal protections and solutions for sustainable livelihoods, with a special focus on women and land access. Ultimately, the project’s ambitions are to create communication bridges and platforms between forcedly displaced groups and local communities, as well as with local and national authorities, to enable collaboration, integration and acceptance.

Since 2020, our project team has been surveying the Kayes, Nioro and Kita regions in Western Mali (which until 2020 formed only one region—the Kayes region), where conflicts over the meaning of post-slavery and anti-slavery have erupted especially violently since 2018. These violent conflicts have put into the spotlight the very contemporality of exploitative practices which were thought to inhabit mainly other Malian regions (mostly Central and Northern Mali) and even ages (those of the pre-abolition era). Descent-based slavery combines in the present-day the residues, continuities and legacies of historical slavery. Thinking of the (dis)continuities between historical slavery and modern forms of slavery through the lens of descent-based slavery allows us to find the missing link to understand the conditions under which slavery and slavery-like practices keep persisting despite abolitions and international anti-slavery legislation. With abolition and legislation, old forms of trafficking and exploitation were transformed and reorganized in order to adapt to the new circumstances. Going under the radar, they became invisible and even illegible/incomprehensible for most outsiders. These practices are based on an intimate political economy of social pressure and coercion, which allows exploitation without leaving any obvious material traces or evidence.

Not least due to the lack of a national protecting legal framework, populations with ascribed ‘slave status’ who have contemporary disputes with the local elite over access to land and other means of livelihoods, as well as those who are victims of violence in retaliation for their membership to and activities in anti-slavery movements, often have little choice but to move out of their communities and escape to more ‘hospitable’ areas. These populations are among the poorest and the most vulnerable in the Sahel. Because of historic economic vulnerability and marginalization, they are also more likely to become victims of ‘modern’ forms of slavery, such as human trafficking, prostitution, joining the bottom ranks of terrorist groups and drug and arms smuggling networks.

Continuities of past forms of slavery today goes beyond the continuum of legacies and should be qualified as actual slavery in contemporary settings, even though it might not be legally nor socially recognized as such. In the case of descent-based slavery, the dependency relations can often be historically traced to, and are explicitly justified by, historical enslavement of one ancestor. Descent-based slavery is often distinguished from modern slavery because in the latter coerced dependency and exploitation include processes of anonymization and replaceability. What is often misunderstood is that descent-based slavery sustains modern slavery, in which descent-based slavery creates a terrain for a continuum of violence. It is the banalization of descent-based slavery and its violence that trivializes next-door exploitation and allows overall social acceptance of the economic control of increasingly anonymized and replaceable bodies on a daily basis.


Since 2018, more than 3,000 people have been officially displaced in Western Mali to escape violence linked to descent-based slavery and its legacies. These forced displacements are far less reported in the media than the tragic internal displacements experienced many more people from Northern and Central Mali have experienced since 2012. This is for a number of reasons: 1) the number of internally displaced populations in Western Mali is obviously extremely low in comparison; 2) they are only the tip of the iceberg and the slightly more visible part of a far longer-term exodus linked to slavery affecting the region since the beginning of the twentieth century; 3) there is a long history whereby this form of protracted displacement and forced migration is largely unknown, goes unrecognized and is, therefore, not quantifiable.

The Malian government’s non-investment in managing what we have termed the ‘Kayes slavery crisis’ and the incurred forced displacement reflects a longer history of denial of slavery in Mali, and more largely in West Africa. Indeed, today the history of internal slavery is still a taboo subject in West Africa and the ‘ideology of slavery’ remains pervasive. When it comes to descent-based slavery, Mali is mostly known for such issues among nomadic Tuareg and Fulani communities in Northern and Central Mali. However, descent-based slavery and its legacies continue to prevail in most communities of Mali and have incurred a long history of related violence. Kayes, like other regions in South and central Mali, was a major transit zone of slave caravans in the nineteenth century. Populations considered locally of ‘slave descent’ are still discriminated against and stigmatized in Mali, with some even victims of severe exactions.

Postcolonial Mali has never criminalized descent-based slavery, despite the numerous advocacy campaigns conducted by Malian human rights anti-slavery organizations such as Temedt, and more recently by the Gambana, a transnational anti-slavery organization particularly involved in the ‘Kayes slavery crisis’. Mali has certainly signed up to the major international conventions banning slavery (including the UN International Declaration on Human Rights), and passed a law criminalizing international trafficking in 2012. But in today’s security situation in Mali the promulgation of a criminalizing descent-based slavery law (the project was ready to be discussed and adopted in parliament in 2016) has been repeatedly relegated by other time-critical agendas. There is also a general amnesia and fraught political environment which display an inability and/or unwillingness to understand descent-based slavery and incurred forced displacements as a contemporary manifestation of slavery, which this research seeks to redress.


Despite the lack of longitudinal quantitative data on descent-based slavery-related violence in West Africa, the latest ‘Kayes slavery crisis’ invites us to (re)think such violence outside the usual suspect boxes of local village disputes over land and resources, which have actually allowed neither researchers nor humanitarian practitioners and governmental agencies to grasp the extent of illegible/invisibilised slavery-related violence in all its complexity.

Considering these highly exploitative practices as simply exceptional resurgences from the past is misleading. The existence of cumulative intergenerational violence experienced by groups with ascribed ‘slave status’ (based on the historical status of their family members, or based on their late arrival as newcomers and strangers) has already been largely documented in colonial and postcolonial Mali. There are also testimonies (of mainly women) gathered by the legal NGO Aba Roli in cooperation with the anti-slavery organization TEMEDT (2014) and finally our own SlaFMig project’s quantitative survey with forcedly displaced victims of descent-based slavery. The Malian public sphere has covered up these practices and the current conflicts over them, as expressed in Malian newspaper articles and discourses adopted by the Malian government, where descent-based slavery is presented as more akin to ‘traditional local conflict’ or even ‘benign traditions of the past that need to be respected’ rather than forms of actual exploitation and contemporary slavery practices. While it is true that there are regional variations (for some families and in some regions, the forms of rights alienation and exploitation are crueller than for others), there is an absolute need to approach these practices as intrinsically violent, very contemporary and at the core of the fabrics of social and economic control and exploitation in today’s Mali, in short as neglected forms of modern slavery.

How many families have been deprived of land and means of survival, just because they demanded not to be called ‘slaves’ anymore? How many women continue to be violated on a daily basis because they are considered of just ‘slave descent’? In some villages, people considered of ‘free status’ (enslavers) can practice their sexuality on these women without penal sanctions and without having to acknowledge as theirs, eventual offspring originating from such silenced sexual assaults. How many more women and men who campaign against this, need to be beaten, embargoed and forever banned from their villages, and even killed? Very intimate and non-regulated forms of violence are at the heart of control over the bodies of the enslaved and their social and economic work, and this is not easily accounted for by paradigms of modern slavery or by historical and anthropological scholarship on African slavery. Indeed, the intimacy of living together and having built up ties of familiarity over time, makes it even more difficult to acknowledge intrinsically violent practices in such familiar space. Especially in view of the fact that this exploitative intimacy has been built up over several generations, where it has remained unacknowledged and approved of by those in power benefitting from it, under the guise of kinship, domesticity, marriage and fosterage.

In view of the intricate taboos, and the systemic but also highly silenced forms of violence, we propose to adopt the analytical model for modern slavery proposed by Laura T. Murphy. This model proposes to actively and consciously ‘displace’ the burden of proof from the ‘victims’ towards the reader, the development worker, the authorities, the justice system, where all should contribute to render these modern slavery practices not only more visible, but also legible and intelligible, so that more sustainable forms of analysis, understanding and solutions can be reached.

In October 2020, we conducted a quantitative survey with displaced populations in the Kayes region who escaped slavery. Of a population of 1,634 displaced persons, we interviewed 204 adults (105 men and 99 women), of an average age of 35.8 years. Of those interviewed, 97 per cent declared they left their village to escape slavery. The majority of them escaped and re-settled in the village of Mambiri within three weeks in January 2019, coming from five different communes located North of Mambiri, about 150 kilometres away. They coordinated this sudden resettlement over the phone and via WhatsApp groups following a series of exactions perpetrated the previous year by the local elite because the victims refused to be called and treated as ‘slaves’. Sixty per cent of the interviewed declared they had to work for a master or a noble in their village of origin. Eighty-five per cent of the interviewed declared that they had been victims of violence, including verbal abuse and threats (58 per cent); deprivation of education (47 per cent); deprivation of healthcare (43 per cent); assault and battery (41 per cent); torture (31 per cent) and confiscation of belongings (31 per cent). All the generations were affected by this violence, including those less than 30 years old (51 per cent of those who experienced violence), which shows the very contemporality of slavery practices in these villages.

Yet the Malian authorities refused to acknowledge these ‘forced displacements’ as a consequence of slavery practices and considered them instead as the consequence of local activism against ‘traditional practices’. In other words, victims of descent-based slavery defending their rights were accused of being the perpetrators of violence and of disrupting a purported peaceful social order. Malian authorities, thus, preferred ignoring the violence of descent-based slavery to protect what they considered ‘social cohesion’. Yet, UN human rights experts, following the death of four anti-slavery activists, forced the Malian government to acknowledge officially there was a ‘slavery issue’. The Malian government ultimately released a laconic declaration condemning slavery in Mali but not mentioning specifically the violence linked to slavery that occurred in the Kayes region nor the related forced displacement. Since then, it’s the status quo. The recent coup in August 2020 and the focus on the continuously deteriorating security situation in Central and Northern Mali have certainly not helped to make the slavery experienced by these forcedly displaced populations more visible and legible and the prosecution of the perpetrators effective.

This invisibilization has hampered government’s investment and efforts towards adopting the necessary legal tools that could possibly be used for prevention. The local and national government’s neglect and lack of interest in resolving an issue that remains taboo yet well-known and largely practised in many parts of the country, has reinforced the economic and social marginalization of these forcedly displaced communities whose unrecognized situation continues to limit their access to essential resources, notably land, and thus prevent them from living sustainable lives.


Because of the lack of protective legal frameworks, victims of slavery-related violence often have little choice but to escape to more ‘hospitable’ areas, having been systematically barred from land access in their home village by the local elite. In many cases though, those displaced, mostly agricultural populations continue to live in precarious conditions because of continuing marginalization and stigmatization in new host communities.

This precarity is amplified by the socio-politics of land access as managed by local elite groups, but also the degradation of land in the fragile ecological Sahelian zone particularly affected by climate change. Those displacements remain mostly ‘fugitive’ and despite a diversity of trajectories and strategies in a largely uneven social category of the population, the general legal, social and economic environment often prevents these ‘fugitive’ displacements from having a fully emancipatory potential. Indeed, new generations of displaced families have continued to be vulnerable to further exploitation, especially girls and women, with, for example, girls being sent out to work as domestic workers to support their displaced family. In such cases, new forms of servitude strongly overlap with the legacies of historical slavery.

The contemporary violence, vulnerability and fugitive displacements testify to the protracted histories of suffering that many people with ascribed slave status continue to experience and are forced to regenerate into the future, especially women. Despite displacement, the further control and claims of property on the physical bodies of women by the historical ruling class is organized through, for example, domestic work and sexual abuse. These aspects are not easily accounted for by social paradigms of modern slavery or by historical and anthropological scholarship which continue to focus on the ‘integrative’ or ‘assimilative’ post-abolition discourses. This later discourse is largely conveyed by the elite who actually continues to benefit from the exploitation of those populations. In many ways, these women are confined to a kind of ‘third space of citizenship’, from where they have to constantly negotiate forms of ‘deservingness’ in a moral economy of marginality and illegality—outside of legal citizenship but inside a moral community of socio-politico-religious practices based on violent and supposedly immutable social hierarchies upholding slavery practices.

Our approach engages with multidisciplinary debates on ‘invisible’ and ‘illegible’ slavery practices. Most studies on modern slavery consistently neglect context-sensitive longue-durée intersectional perspectives. Such approach is necessary to bring into dialogue scholarship on citizen’s rights, ‘modern’ slavery advocacy work and economic violence (through in particular the issue of land governance) and studies of traumatic memories– and their discursive and non-discursive transmission over several generations

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