In Niger and certain parts of northern Nigeria, a form of slavery and sexual exploitation still runs rampant although it is not widely discussed in larger circles. It was outlawed in 2005, nevertheless, it is still carried out in secret with the assistance of tribal chiefs, traders and families.
Wahaya is practiced by men of wealth as a way to exhibit their riches and flaunt their social status. This includes noblemen, farmers, tradesmen and businessmen further fueling sexual abuse, exploitation, underage ‘marriage’ and sex trafficking.
In Islam, a man is permitted to marry up to four wives, as long as he can equally and provide for all of his spouses. In the practice of wahaya, wahayu or sadaka, a man acquires a 5th “wife” via a sale in which this wife becomes a slave to her husband as well as any other spouses and children he may have.
According to Norah Hashim Msuya, “these wahaya are often young girls, usually between the ages of nine and 14, who are enslaved when their parents are sold into slavery.” “Usually, they are in charge of watching the children, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the livestock.”
Wahaya can be sold by their parents, family members, master or mistress.
Some men have been reported to have up to 10 wahaya in addition to their four wives. Children born from the wahaya are considered legitimate and are able to inherit a portion of their father’s wealth. If the offspring is a girl, the child is also sold into slavery.
According to Galy Kadir Abdelkader and Moussa Zangaou in an anti-slavery report, the wahaya are obtained from the Tahoua region of Niger. Additionally, wahaya are also kept in the Illela, Bouza, Madaoua and Konni districts. In Nigeria, wahaya culture is prevalent in the following states: Sokoto, Kano, Kaduna and Zaria.
The practice is said to have been introduced in Niger after the conquest of Adar by the Touaregs led by Agabba in 1772.
When the Touareg people arrived in the Adar or modern-day Tahoua region, they introduced slave practices not native to the area. Wahaya being one of them.
“The process involves initiating discussions with a member of the supplier family, typically a tribal chief, to see if there is a young girl of slave status available. If so, the transaction and the delivery of the girl take place in absolute secrecy.” At times, several girls are offered to the inquirer and he is able to select which wahaya he finds suitable. If no girls are available, the inquiry is taken to other tribes or settlements of the same tribe.
A Wahaya is bought typically at the rate of 200,000 to 400,000 CFA francs or $349 to $706. Usually, the master who negotiates the deal receives all of the money. In some cases, the mother receives a nominal amount, although never a total above one-tenth of the amount.
A wahaya is not granted the rights of a formal wedding, mahr or dowry or divorce as she is not legally married to her husband or master, although her children are rightful heirs of their father’s wealth to the chagrin of his “legal” wife or wives.
One landmark case is that of Hadijatou Mani Koraou versus The Republic of Niger. In 2006, Koraou initiated a case against Niger in hopes of gaining freedom from her master, El Hadj Souleymane Naroua.
Naroua granted Koraou a certificate of emancipation in 2005 as a tactic to evade legal ramifications when wahaya became outlawed in the West African country.
Naroua planned to marry Koraou legally to keep her enslaved, however, she ran away, later married a man of her choice and filed a suit to be granted complete freedom.
In 2008, Koraou’s case was ruled in her favour to no longer serve as a slave. She was initially sold into slavery in 1996.
Another account of a former wahaya named Tabass Aborak sums up the ordeal that these women must face, she iterated: “I think my parents became slaves during a raid led by Touareg chiefs. I know nothing about them, except that they lived with their masters and were still serving them when I was sold. Because of the unstable life I’ve had, I’m essentially an orphan now, because I don’t even know if my parents are still alive. I have no other family members; my family is just my husband, my mother Tassoubarat and my village, Zongon Ablo.”
“I was probably seven years old when I was separated from my parents who lived in a village called Chanyassou, in the Tahoua region, towards Bagaroua. So I was very young and hadn’t really had the chance to enjoy my childhood with all the other girls and boys in my village when, one day, my parents’ master sold me to a Hausa who took me away from all the childhood games with the children in my village. This meant that my status suddenly changed, much earlier than what was (and is) common among the light-skinned Touareg girls and the Hausa girls (I was sold to the Hausa). They get married when they are at least 15 years old and their marriages were, and still are, big celebrations with ceremonies, wedding parties, dancing, rejoicing and festivities all with the sound of the ‘tende’ and drumming. I had none of this; I was just given an order, which was to follow my buyer, who took me away in a vehicle. I can only remember the beginning of the journey (my home village of Chanyassou) and the end of it (Nigeria).”
“The masters think I have no opinions of any worth, even now I’m older. It was the same for my parents who were, it seems, their property. I didn’t really have a childhood, just a troubled time of disregard, chores, abuse, submission and orders to be carried out immediately. That was my childhood.”
“I was sold three times to three different masters. In 12 years, I had three false ‘marriages’. I only remember the first names of my three masters, all of whom were Hausa, and where they lived: I was first sold to master Bargo in Farara; re-sold to master Mabrouk Dogo in Salka, and the third time in Sokoto, to master Aïlale, whom I remember best. I will never forget the times I changed masters. I can still feel it now, especially when I went to my third master’s house, as I was older by then. By 12, I’d started to feel bitter, as I’d realized that I was different from the others I lived with. It was awful. I was faced with this fate and my parents couldn’t do anything about it. I asked myself: what is happening to me and why? Then one day I made the decision to escape and run away from any relationship – either with the master (Aïlale) or with my parents, who would have just wanted to bring me back and have me continue to put up with the same suffering, in the name of fate.”
“At Aïlale’s, there were seven women of wahaya status and we all spoke Tamacheq. Four of us had children with our master, but we all lived in the same courtyard, separated from the legal wives of the master. The legal wives would give out food to those of us who didn’t have children, and they would do that only after we had finished our domestic chores. The wahaya were all sympathetic to each other. Some would occasionally get secret visits from the master.”
“He seemed to choose between the four wahaya who had already had children in no apparent order, so that one might get a number of demands for sex while the others were helplessly waiting for him to show an interest in them.”
“Still, neither the wahayu with children, nor us ever had the right to the ‘turns’ that each legitimate wife had. We certainly couldn’t ask him to treat us more equally. We were all treated like and called ‘bouzoua’, which means ‘slave’ in Tamacheq. We were Aïlale’s slaves, so we had to take care of all the domestic work all day. To be cruel, our master would often refer loudly to the fact that he had bought us. While those with children had the privilege of occasional sex in secret with our master, all of us still had to clean the courtyard, gather firewood and drinking water for the family, hulling millet or sorghum, depending on the season, and pounding them into flour to make meals for the legal wives, the master, and his children, whenever they wanted.”
“We had to carry out orders from the master and his wives. Night and day were just the same; each moment that passed brought more work. Only speed and skill in carrying out orders allowed us to avoid the master’s punishments, especially if he was angry at us because of the tales his legitimate wives had been telling him. When that happened we’d be called ‘chegiya’, which means ‘bastard’ or ‘bouzoua banza’ – ‘useless slave’.”
“I had to look after the children of the mistresses and the four wahayu. I would rock them, and at the slightest movement, I’d rush over and put them on my back, or I’d take them in my arms until they went back to sleep. I used to panic when they cried, for fear of making the master or his wives angry. If they cried in my absence, I had to answer for it. It was like I was the only thing that would calm them or make them better when the children cried or got upset. I was programmed to predict any disturbance in the children of the mistresses, who would just lounge around doing absolutely nothing. They only moved to eat, sleep, wake up, give orders and visit relatives. I dreaded it when they travelled, because it was my role to prepare a horse for them and to follow behind on foot, carrying the child they were nursing on my back, both on the outward and return journeys. That always made me want to find a way out.”
“Before I was transferred to my third master, my parents managed to have me back for a while. I then managed to get together a little money, which I kept with me. This money let me plan my escape. One day I decided to run away, though I was very scared. It took days and nights of absolute anxiety, passing through villages and hamlets and asking where the black Touareg lived. I can’t recall all the villages I went through, only that I held on to the name of Zongon Ablo. Zongon Ablo is a village where 80% of the inhabitants, mostly women, are originally from other places. I focused all my attention on getting there. I know I went through Guidan Iddar. Zongon Ablo! I had finally arrived.”
Aborak further explains how she was able to obtain a legal marriage to a farmer named Abou after arriving at Zongon Ablo.
Though she and her husband aren’t wealthy, Aborak seems content, she explained, “I am really happy with this and I am holding onto it. We have two children: Tazou, a boy whose twin sister died, and a girl called Akarat.”
She concluded, “My greatest wish is to erase my former masters from my memory. I hope I never meet them again. That’s my answer to the question about my relationship with these inhuman people who make humans into objects. I don’t want to see them again! I am sorry for the men and women who still endure the agony of this pure form of discrimination. I tell myself that something must be done for them: we must help them to free themselves so that they can enjoy life and human existence … their state and condition is just deprivation, a prison.”
Presently, organizations such as Timidria; an NGO founded in 1991 that aims to stamp out slavery in Niger and Anti-Slavery International are spreading awareness about the wahaya culture – which is thriving at the detriment of numerous women and children in the name of proving social status and wealth.