Why did the African cross the sea?  To get to the other side?  No.  To survive.  In recent weeks, there has been an uproar about and outrage against human trafficking.  If, like most of us, you’re digitally tuned in, then you will know that Libya has come under the spotlight on social media for its role in the slave trade of Africans seeking better prospects in Europe.  Scores of African migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are fleeing their countries, daring to risk their lives and braving the treacherous central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Europe.  We all know modern day slavery has long been operating all over the world, so why is the response to the Libyan slave trade so amplified? 

As Africans, we generally recall the transatlantic slave trade as the bane of our existence.  It was the turning point in history when European colonial powers invaded and brought imperialism to our shores.  The basic story for me, as a young girl, depicted the white man docking ship on an African coastline, invading the land, kidnapping indigenous people and sailing them across the seas to foreign lands where they were doomed to a life of hardship and servitude, if they survived the boat ride.  Growing up, that was my elementary, and I later discovered, naïve understanding.  There was a hole in that story, a huge gap in the equation.   It never occurred to me that other natives were variables in that equation.  I never knew about, let alone conceived of, the role of fellow Africans in the transatlantic slave trade until I read.  Recently, two people have sparked my curiosity in tracing the transatlantic slave trade.  A rising literary star by the name of Yaa Gyasi and acclaimed academic Professor Henry Louis Gates jnr. 

Earlier this year, I bought and read the debut historic fiction novel Homegoing by Ghanaian-American Yaa Gyasi.  It gripped me from start to finish.  Each chapter in the book was named after a descendant of two Asante women who were separated by slavery as young sisters.  The entire novel traces the lineage of these two women from the Gold Coast (present Ghana), across the Atlantic and all the way to America for several generations.  The author really takes the reader on a journey of the legacy and the generational impact of slavery, not just on tribes and nations, but full circle on family.  “Homegoing confronts us with the involvement of Africans in the enslavement of their own people.”

It was during my time reading this novel that I started to follow the work of Professor Henry Louis Gates, jnr. Professor Gates is an African-American historian, teacher and filmmaker serving as Director of the Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research at the Harvard University.  He has conducted extensive research, hosted insightful documentaries on African civilization and the diaspora.  He is presently also at work as the host of the PBS television show Finding Your Roots.  This series helps guests trace their ancestry through expert genealogy, historic and genetic research.  These are the two thought leaders that came to mind when I first heard of the Libyan slave trade. 

My outrage sparked from a familial place that cries for ubuntu, and a nostalgic appreciation of the African civilisation as it was, should have, and could still be.  But the realities of xenophobia, civil and tribal wars are a far cry from Pan-Africanism.   Liberation movements turned dictatorships, economies buckling at the knees and natural resources exploited at the expense of human resources leaves many Africans living a sub-human existence.  It’s no wonder that people pick up their lives and leave the only homes they know, to venture into the unknown for a chance at something better.  And as if that decision alone isn’t difficult enough, they are confronted with harsher realities along the way. 

The migrant Mediterranean route from North Africa to Europe is like a shadow of the former transatlantic slave trade.  The more things have changed, the more it seems they have stayed the same.  All I see is black bodies cast on perilous seas on a death-defying voyage.  They may not be wearing physical chains in the 21st century, but they are prisoners of their circumstances nonetheless.  But on the borders of the European Union, at the crossroads between Asia and Africa, a daring rescue mission has been underway to help asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants survive the Mediterranean cross-over.  For nearly two decades, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, has been running emergency medical programs and marine rescue efforts for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.  Through their interventions and extensive coverage of the real conditions that people endure on this harrowing journey, you and I get to see the grave danger they are subjected to.  But I also see the glaring absenteeism of governments and African leadership turned blind and deaf to their people’s suffering.  In recent months, MSF has suspended its operations along this migrant route.  This is, in part, due to European Union politics and due to threatening behaviour from the Libyan coastguard.  So, while the Libyan coastguard is in a maritime spat with MSF, Libya is becoming the last frontier for many an asylum seeker, refugee and migrant, and a modern slave trade is burgeoning in its backyard.  Africans are enslaving other Africans.    

Human rights organisations the world over are crying foul and screaming crimes against humanity.  The shocking revelations of migrants being sold as slaves are indisputable and undoubtedly the result of human trafficking.  But what of the protectors of civil liberties and human rights in the countries of origin?  Are they not complicit?  How could this have happened under the watchful gaze of the African Union?  Is it commendable when a government flies in jets to charter its citizens back from the clutches of human traffickers in Libya?  What are they going back home to, if not to the very same circumstances they fled?  It’s a bitter irony, the parallels between the transatlantic slave trade abolished in the 19th century, and the 21st century migrant crisis across the Mediterranean.  Back then, people were forcefully taken from their homes.  Today, people are under duress to abandon their homes.  Back then, European imperialists invaded Africa.  Today, Europe seeks to stave off the influx of any more Africans.  But there is one constant.  Back then, fellow Africans were complicit in capturing slaves from rival tribes.  Today, Africans are doing the enslavement.    

Hearing about the sale of migrants in the Libyan slave trade and feeling the outrage is a natural response.  But we can give a practical response and start doing something.  Modern day slavery is not that far away from our backyards.  In fact, it may even be closer than we realise.  So, going into the new year, I am challenging myself to begin doing something, somewhere, somehow and fight this bane of our modern-day existence in my backyard.  I can begin with two organisations that provide resources, education and opportunities for volunteerism.  Checkout A21 and STOP for more information on how to begin.  Show human traffickers that you are not just a human being.  You are a human doing. 

Lungiswa Mzimba provides brand advisory
services with the aim of helping brands re-imagine sustainability for a
human-centric economy

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