Mauritania: ‘I saw that the system was unjust – it strengthened my resolve to combat injustice’

By Chris Chapman

Salimata Lam has been an activist all of her adult life, since joining a pro-democracy movement in her teens. In the 1980s, she was even deported from the country for three years and stripped of her citizenship, which only made her more determined to be an activist. ‘I saw that the system was unjust. It strengthened my resolve to combat injustice.’ She has been advocating with the Mauritanian NGO SOS Esclaves against modern forms of slavery since 2010.

As a long-term partner of MRG, Salimata points to how SOS Esclaves has benefited from the cooperative relationship. ‘The dialogue with the state is difficult. Their position is that slavery does not exist. MRG and other partners help us to collaborate with intermediaries, who communicate our recommendations.’ An example of this is the work at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, including the child rights committee, whose ruling has been instrumental in pressuring the government to live up to its commitment to end slavery.

Her organization has worked together with MRG to train activists, journalists, paralegals and magistrates. As a result, not only have she and her staff been able to learn through the experience of implementing large projects, they have also benefited from being exposed to the content of training programmes. ‘I have really benefited from the workshops on how to use the media,’ she says:

‘Public opinion is very important. What we need is to work on deconstructing the existing mentality. If slavery persists, it’s because that work of deconstruction is not yet finished, so that people will say no.’

Salimata sees progress, even if it is slow: ‘Fifty years ago, if you called someone a Haratine, they would be insulted. Today, the people say, yes we are Haratine. They are ready to assume their identity. People want to be free, to live in dignity. This tendency is irreversible.’

Photo: A portrait of Salimata Lam