This year marks the 200th anniversary of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the 175th anniversary of the first meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society.
This year also represents the 50th anniversary of independence for many African states, a credit to the visionary leaders of Ghana, Tanzania, Guinea, Cape Verde and Zaire who led decades-long movements to throw off the yoke of colonial slavery.
In West African mythology, “Sankofa” is a bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg in its mouth that symbolizes the future. In the spirit of Sankofa, it is time to reflect on Africa’s tragic history and also to look toward ways of abolishing the lingering forms of modern-day slavery that ravage lives throughout much of the African world.
Slave traders transported 12 million Africans across the Atlantic, wresting them from the land of their ancestors. Many of those who survived the voyage were beaten, tortured, separated from all they knew and forced to work in the New World’s plantations and mines.
On both sides of the Atlantic, slavery stripped away the dignity of African people while diverting resources so traders and sellers could accumulate wealth. At the core of this system of lifetime servitude was a racist worldview in which people of color were less than human.
As we commemorate the end of the slave trade, modern-day forms of slavery are devastating lives throughout much of the African world.
The International Labor Rights Fund recently sued Bridgestone/Firestone for the slavelike conditions in its rubber plantations in Liberia. Firestone’s operations allegedly forced children as young as 11 to work in the fields from before sunrise until late day. These kids typically walked one to two miles carrying two 75-pound buckets of rubber to storage or collection tanks. If the children refused to work, their parents risked losing their measly $3.19 daily wage, all while Bridgestone/Firestone celebrates record-level profits for 2005 and 2006.
Faced with loud international protests from human rights groups and labor unions, the company made cosmetic changes that are already visible on the plantations.
Religious and other groups around the world have united in a so-called jubilee movement to liberate Africa from another set of shackles — the extreme burden of foreign debt.
Debt slavery has placed many African countries on an endless downward spiral. More resources are going to international bankers and their surrogates than to the nation’s health, education or housing — the core building blocks of development.
According to the United Nations, rich countries squeeze $100 million a day out of Africa in debt payments. This siphons off scarce resources needed to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other key concerns on the subcontinent.
Last year, the Bush administration agreed to a plan to cancel the debts of 18 countries, most of them in Africa. The jubilee movement is working to build on that precedent by pushing for the cancellation of the debts of 50 or more countries that are in desperate need.
Another overt form of modern-day slavery is human trafficking. Throughout Africa, women and children face a murderous and exploitative system of servitude.
From mothers in Egypt who reportedly sell kidneys and other body parts in order to take care of their children to teenage sex workers working in the “AIDS corridor” that runs through oil-producing areas of Nigeria, Cameroon or Chad, human trafficking is on the increase.
In the Americas, where wealth is being accumulated in fewer and fewer hands, modern-day forms of slavery are easily visible, from the flower pickers in Latin America to the garment factory workers in Haiti, from migrant workers in fields picking tomatoes in the southern United States to black workers locked into sub-poverty-level minimum-wage jobs.
Justice for the African world will come only by restoring the dignity of its people, wherever they may live.