Rory and Monique Hoskins in Mauritania last spring learned about slavery’s ‘last stronghold.’ More photos on page 11 (Photo provided)

Mauritania is a country where the evil of slavery still persists. Mayor Rory Hoskins and his wife, Monique, were part of a 15-person delegation of Americans who traveled to this West African nation to support the movement to end slavery there. 

The trip was sponsored by a Chicago-based organization called The Abolition Institute and was funded by the U.S. State Department. Senator Dick Durbin has obtained over $5 million to fund The Abolition Institute and other anti-slavery programs in Mauritania.

The institute was formed in 2007 in response to a groundbreaking CNN report about Mauritania titled, “Slavery’s Last Stronghold.” Mauritania has a history of slavery going back to the 8th century. It is reinforced by an ancient caste system in which the Bidhan (white moors) oppress the Haratine (black moors). 

Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 but didn’t criminalize it until 2007. The anti-slavery laws, though, are not enforced and there are at least 90,000 Haratines still enslaved. The delegation’s purpose was to meet with leaders of the anti-slavery movement and to interview ex-slaves, which involved translating from Arabic to French to English. 

Monique (center, pink headress) with local women listens to a presentation. (Provided)

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a former French colony and French is spoken in the schools and on local media. Arabic is also widely spoken, as almost the entire population is Sunni Muslim. Islam is the official religion of Mauritania and Sharia law is enforced. “Sharia law supports slavery,” Rory observed. “We need Imams to speak out against slavery.”

The U.S. has issued a Level 2 Travel Advisory to Americans visiting Mauritania, due to COVID-19, crime and terrorism. The couple didn’t encounter much COVID but received $500 worth of shots to stave off other diseases. They flew to Mauritania on May 17. 

His travel was paid for by The Abolition Institute. Over 60 people greeted them at the airport. The delegation’s visit made TV news and local newspapers. They were treated like “movie stars,” Rory recalled, and gave press conferences.

The delegation stayed at a 5-Star hotel with heavy security. Plainclothes detectives lingered in the lobby because kidnapping was considered a threat. Their guide was Sarah Matheson from England, an anti-slavery advocate, who works with Amnesty International. The group traveled in a 15-passeneger van and each day they had a busy schedule. 

Boubacar Massoud, (center, white robe) founder of SOS Esclaves, at his home (Monique in green, second from right). (Provided)

Their first excursion was to a veil-making business, where Monique and the other women bought veils. Matheson had recommended the women wear veils, especially in remote areas. “They showed us how to tie them,” Monique said. “All the women in Mauritania wear veils with long sleeves.”

The first government official they met was Mauritania’s Commissioner for Human Rights Hassenna Boukhreiss, a graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati. He introduced them to Boubacar Massoud, North Africa’s leading abolitionist. Massoud rose from poverty to become a prominent architect. He also founded SOS-Esclaves, the anti-slavery organization that The Abolition Institute partners with in Mauritania. He is considered the “Martin Luther King” of Mauritania. 

They later met Minister of Parliament Biram Da Abeid, whose parents were slaves though he managed to escape bondage. Abeid has been imprisoned several time for his anti-slavery activities. He is known as the Mauritanian “Nelson Mandela.” Time Magazine listed him among the “100 most influential people you’ve never heard of.” 

The delegation visited palaces and attended lavish banquets. Mauritanians subsist mostly on fish and Rory confessed, “I hate fish.” The banquets featured fried fish, grilled fish and baked fish, all with their heads intact. Monique learned how to say “I don’t feel well” in Arabic and had to use it once when the seafood got to her.

Rory (right) with Mauritanian Minister of Parliament Biram Da Abeid (center, white robe) at a meeting with refugees in Senegal. (Provided)

Besides meeting dignitaries at these gatherings, the couple spoke with women who had escaped slavery as well as the people who had helped them escape. Monique could spot former slaves from their body language and “downcast eyes.” She said meeting with the ex-slaves was “overwhelming and uplifting at the same time.” 

Rory said some women didn’t even know they were slaves. They considered slavery to be “normal life.” The freed women receive veils, which give them a sense of security. They learn trades like sewing and cooking and are given seed money to start their own businesses. Monique watched these women “dancing in joy” at a banquet. 

Away from the palaces and the hotel, life in Mauritania is very primitive. “People use donkeys and carts,” Monique observed, “There are street kids everywhere.” The couple was well-supplied to meet them. Rory carried a backpack full of candy to hand out. Monique brought toys to give to the kids they encountered. The Mauritanians repaid her kindness by decorating her hand with elaborate henna tattoos. They also visited the beaches of Mauritania but were disappointed to find no “beach culture,” just trash and dead fish. 

Following their stay in Mauritania, the couple spent four days in Senegal, where the beaches were teeming with people and activities. They visited Goree Island, where slaves embarked on their journey across the Atlantic. On the ferry ride back, Rory was asked if he was a mayor. He was then introduced to the mayor of Medina, a populous district of the capital Dakar.

Rory had previously met Mayor Nkono of Kaedi in Mauritania, which is home to a regional hospital. One of the causes championed by The Abolition Institute is to obtain health care for former slaves. As co-founder Sean Tenner explained, “Members of the Haratine group do not have the same access to medical care as other Mauritanians.” Tenner is urgently seeking medical care for a 3-year-old girl named Mariem Maiting, who suffers from a neurological disorder.

When asked whether the trip had helped him as mayor, Rory replied, “The trip helped me as a human being.” Monique said her teaching was enriched by the journey. She teaches Spanish at Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park and gave presentations to her students about Mauritania. 

“The students were very receptive,” she said. “They could see the parallels between anti-slavery leaders and American civil rights leaders.” 

Monique said she would return to Mauritania in a heartbeat.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.