‘Outside Servitude’: A Novel Exploring Enslavement in Mauritania

There are only a handful of Mauritanian novels in English: one translation from French and the few novels written and self-published by Mohamed Bouya Bamba:

By July Blalack

Eight years have passed since Mohamed Bouya Bamba wrote and self-published Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language, a novel which was groundbreaking in both its choice of language and in encouraging other Mauritanian writers to self-publish. While his first book hinted at ethnic and racial tensions in Mauritania through an innovative prologue where the land speaks as an observer of humanity, this topic was mostly left unexplored and unresolved. The main text of Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language portrays life in Nouakchott through the struggles of one family, who try to stay together and make ends meet. In his new novella, Outside Servitude, Bamba continues writing in the social-realist vein, but now turns his attention to race and slavery in Mauritania — or, more specifically, what comes after slavery.

The story begins as the protagonist Mheimid takes his weekly walk on the beach, which seems at first like a zone where social restrictions are relaxed. He sees two women laughing freely and letting the wind play with their flowing melhefas. However, the narrative quickly alludes to the penetrating nature of some social boundaries, which do not break down on the beach:  

“Sometimes, he would meet some of his acquaintances, but, not too often. He felt that they did not really enjoy his presence and even thought that there were times when they were reserved with their conversation while with him. It was natural for him to wonder why there seemed to be this divide, but, he couldn’t find a reasonable explanation, thinking that it may be due to some of them being from a different ethnicity.”  

The interactions that follow this thought drive the point home. Mheimid’s first conversation is with a Hartani peddler, someone who is Black and Arabic-speaking like him, but who has been freed. The exchange quickly dissolves into mutual ridicule and hostility, as the peddler contemptuously tells Mheimid he is a slave. Mheimid shoots back that the peddler probably still does some work for his former “family,” hinting at the reality that many Hartanis are not able to completely cut off their former masters. Mheimid then visits the fish-seller Aminata, with whom he has a friendly rapport despite the language barrier between them. Here, Bamba takes pains to point out the various cultural differences between Hartanis and other Black ethnicities in Mauritania, showing that he is writing mostly for a readership outside of the country. The explanations are, however, sometimes too straightforward and could perhaps have been integrated into either the dialogue or the protagonist’s inner monologue more naturally.

Mheimid then heads home to continue his normal routine, but a brief exchange with a man hawking phone credit sends him into a tailspin:

“Mheimid was anxious. He was late and he had chores that he needed to complete. He looked at the card seller and said, ‘Don’t you have to go to your master’s house and do chores?’ The card seller turned to him sharply and said, ‘No! No way!’

Mheimid had meant no offense. He almost wished someone would be in the same position that he was in at that moment. He dropped his head and said, ‘I have to get home or I will be punished.’ The card seller looked at Mheimid, sucked his teeth and shook his head[.]

‘No,’ he said softly, ‘you don’t have to, you choose to.’”

This line seems to open a door in Mheimid’s mind, and he begins to question the degree that the family he works for actually cares about him. He begins to wonder where he came from. Although he is unsure what freedom means to him, he decides to start by discovering who his parents were. He drifts from stranger to stranger, gathering bits of information that lead him to the next step on his journey…until he finds himself at a place similar to where he started. As with his first book, Bamba packs this story into a period just over 24-hours, and is effective in keeping the pace of action exciting. The story also manages to reveal two seemingly contradictory truths: that leaving slavery is possible and, at the same time, the space society makes for Haratanis is so limited and confining that it is not a true freedom. Bamba is also skillful and sensitive in exploring what makes someone accept their status as a slave and not think of other possibilities.  

Another interesting aspect of Outside Servitude is the feeling that one is able to listen in on the conversation Mauritanian society is having around slavery, especially toward prominent anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid and his organization Initiative for the Resurgent Abolition Movement (IRA). In one scene, Mheimid tentatively suggests that Biram’s burning of religious books was a statement against the way they are used to justify slavery, not against religion. Multiple characters warn Mheimid that he should not sit around waiting for Biram to save him. Also, a friend of Mheimid’s former owner says that Biram does not genuinely care about the issues he advocates for, but instead is seeking to make himself a political player. These perspectives are skillfully woven into the interactions between the characters, forming a contextualizing soundtrack to Mheimid’s adventure.

Outside Servitude is undoubtedly worth reading, especially as Bamba remains one of the Anglophone reader’s only windows on Mauritania. However, the book is in sore need of another round of editing. The number of punctuation and conjugation errors was distracting. Another confusing aspect was the decision to call some of the characters in an allegorical fashion but not others, as the wife and daughter of the slave-owning family are Precious and Wanted, but all other characters have names. For these reasons — and also because of the decision to leave out the complexities of caste, which is also overlooked by Western coverage of Mauritanian slavery — the book did leave me with a feeling of unfulfilled potential. Overall, though, I look forward to reading more of Mohamed Bouya Bamba’s work and hope there will be a time when he can devote himself completely to his craft. He is a sensitive observer of the society he grew up in and has a rare ability to move among different segments of it with ease.   

Outside Servitude is available online in ebook and paperback formats.

July Blalack is researching North African literature for the European Research Council’s MULOSIGE project. She is a PhD candidate at SOAS, and her history of Mauritanian prose was published in ‘The Oxford Handbook of Arab Novelistic Traditions’ in 2017. You can read more of her reviews on ArabLit.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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