News & Politics

True Tales of Slavery

Two emotionally searing narratives expose the truth about the modern-day slave trade in Sudan.
I've been teaching African and African American history at various universities for almost 40 years. Invariably, the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs), and Olaudah Equiano are required reading. Though powerfully enlightening, those narratives are nonetheless 18th- and 19th-century artifacts, remembrances of when European nations ravaged the African continent.

Two new books provide proof that the slave trade continues. Unlike the Atlantic slave trade, the movement of human cargo in these instances is an internal affair within the Sudan, the exploitation of indigenous people by Arab merchants. That two contemporary narratives from young Sudanese have been published almost simultaneously would seem remarkable, until one reflects that their stories are emblematic of thousands who remain in bondage.

Slave: My True Story (Public Affairs, $25) opens dramatically on a spring night in 1994 when Mende Nazer was abducted. She, her family, and the other Nubians of their small village were asleep when Arab raiders, the mujahadeen, jarred them awake. Generally, after a mujahadeen raid, a compound is devastated, all the men killed, and the women occasionally raped and then carried off with the children to be sold. "I saw the raiders cutting peoples' throats, their curved daggers glinting in the firelight," Nazer writes. "I cannot describe to you all the scenes I saw as we ran through the village. No one should ever have to witness the things I saw that night."

Twelve-year-old Nazer was among the 31 children taken from the burning village and sold at market, where the average price was $150 per slave. She went to a wealthy Arab family in Khartoum, Sudan's capital. Through seven years of captivity, she was sexually and mentally abused, and beaten. Nazer devotes the early chapters of her book, coauthored by British journalist Damien Lewis, to explaining her Nubian childhood. The language, culture and religion of her people all struck a stark contrast to the lifestyle of her Arab masters. Her native language and customs were forbidden. Her Arab mistress was relentless in her domination, destroying every vestige of the young girl's self-esteem. Nazer was forced to sleep in a shed and was fed leftovers, like a dog.

Francis Bok's story is hauntingly similar. Written with Edward Tivnan, Escape From Slavery" (St. Martin's, $25) opens with a chapter on the raid followed by several chapters detailing Bok's life under Arab hegemony. Bok was at a village market when he was abducted by his captors. "I looked around the marketplace for help," he writes, "but all I could see were those bodies of the men, not moving, the blood running from them like water in little rivers going nowhere."

Bok was sold to a Muslim farmer who confined him to tending goats and cows. Repeated escape attempts brought him severe treatment. Like Nazer, Bok was forced to relinquish his Dinka identity. He spoke only Arabic, ate alone, and learned to accept his new status as abeed, which meant both "black person" and "slave."

Bok finally succeeded in escaping when he was about 17. He took the cows to pasture, then ran for hours. When he finally reached a town, the police arrested him. For the next two months, the police were his new masters. He left them the same way: he ran. When he finally stopped running he was in Khartoum. There he naively sought help by telling people about his enslavement, something vehemently denied by the Sudanese government. Someone snitched on him. He remained in custody for another seven months in Khartoum before he was miraculously freed. He made his way to Cairo. After some time there, he found his way on a TWA flight to New York in 1999, with a connecting flight to Fargo, North Dakota.

Nazer escaped with the help of fellow Nubians, and now lives in London. As with earlier slave narratives, Nazer and Bok are effusive in their gratitude to those who assisted them. Two years after her escape, Nazer is so beholden to her adopted country that she is amazed when she hears people openly criticizing the British government.

Nazer and Bok grew up in cultures with strong storytelling traditions, and both enliven their books with descriptive passages and images. This was particularly true in Nazer's case, though she acknowledges that certain scenes were fictionalized. Both books could have benefited from a bit less wide-eyed wonder about the modern world the narrators suddenly found themselves in, which is surprising given that both subjects enlisted the help of professional writers. This, too, is a parallel to African American slave narratives, which were often written with the help of white abolitionists.

These emotionally searing narratives are personal accounts of a much larger tragedy -- one that threatens the annihilation of a people. Both Nazer and Bok remain determined to help the countless other slaves escape. (Bok in particular has been unstinting in his work with the American Anti-Slavery Group.)

"I have learned that no one gives a people oppressed for generations their freedom and equality without a struggle," writes Bok, at the close of his narrative. "You have to fight for it."

His words echo Frederick Douglass, whose powerful anti-slavery speeches of the 1840s stirred the American conscience. It is incredible to realize that, 160 years later, abolitionists still have work to do.

Herb Boyd's articles have appeared in a number of African-American and alternative newspapers since the 1960s. His most recent book is "The Harlem Reader" (Three Rivers, 2003). This piece was written for Dragonfly Review, which appears in Dragonfly magazines.
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