Modern-day child slaves for sale at the bargain price of a fiver each
FOR just st£5 the cost of two tall cappuccinos and a life-long guilty conscience I could have bought my own slave.
I would have had someone to do my washing, cleaning, ironing and look after a demanding two-year-old.
Le Marche de Jeunes Filles, the Market of Young Girls, on a dusty piece of land under a busy fly-over in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, is a salutary place. There was something indefinably appalling about those 30 or so girls ranged on wooden benches under the hot sun, dressed in their gaudy Sunday best, preening ironed and plaited hair, beseeching me to buy them.
There was no sign saying "People for Sale". The tragedy was in their faces. Had anyone sketched the scene, it would have been an exact 21st century representation of engravings from two or three centuries ago of white slave-trader examining the wares.
It would also have made a complete mockery of African attempts at last week's World Racism Conference in Durban to demand apologies and reparations for the slave trade from Britain and other nations.
For in the 21st century Africans are still trading their own people. At the Abidjan market, Ivorian traders in white trousers sit in a small office, shirts open to reveal thick yellow gold chains, fake Rolexes on thick wrists and mobile telephones at the ready for new deliveries.
At the sight of a prospective customer, they emerge, standing the girls up and emphasising their good points "clean, from a good family, God-fearing". If I had wanted to poke one of the girls, I have no doubt they would have agreed. "Take this one Auntie," wheedled a particularly greasy character, adding, "you will not regret it".
The girls come from rural areas, lured by traders promising them work in shops in the city. Arriving in the capital to find the jobs non-existent, they have little option but to stay with the trader to be sold as domestic servants.
If I decided to pay a salary, the trader would get a percentage and the girl would use the rest to pay off money owed for transport and shelter, all at exorbitant rates. This may be a modern-day variant on the raiding parties of old, but those demanding apologies for the past cannot even claim that slavery was a concept learnt from the white man.
When the Portuguese, the first Europeans to arrive in Africa, travelled down the Senegal river south of Mauritania in 1444, they reported a flourishing sale of slaves to the Moors at the exchange rate of nine to 12 per horse. It was common practice for African kings to take captives from other tribes and use them as slaves or to sell them in exchange for goods and arms.
This, of course, is no justification for the European role in shipping millions of people to work as plantation slaves in the Americas. Anyone who has visited the slave-forts along the Ghanaian coast and seen the desperate scratchings on the dungeon walls where thousands were held before being shipped cannot fail to be horrified.
However, rather than arguing who was to blame, it would surely make more sense to devote the time and energy (and considerable money involved in holding such a conference) to try to stamp out what is happening now.
The week before visiting the Abidjan market, I interviewed child slaves on cocoa plantations upcountry where children as young as nine work for pitiful wages that they never receive because the patron deducts food and transport. Most were from neighbouring Mali, one of the world's poorest countries.
Modern-day slavery is not restricted to West Africa. One of the worst offenders is Sudan, where paramilitaries and government forces alike raid and trade for slaves.
In Mozambique, many families remain separated because their children were captured and used as slaves by guerillas during the long civil war.
(Daily Telegraph, London)