My interest was piqued after having read Mende Nazer’s account of her life as a slave in the Sudan. Properly titled Slave: The True Story of a Girl’s Lost Childhood and her Fight for Survival, the book makes for an atypical summer read. Sure, it follows the same formula as many accounts of slavery do, putting the reader through the wringer on a journey from freedom to captivity, through a battle to ultimate salvation. However, not only is the book nothing of the traditional romantic and breezy summer picks; but Nazer delivers something surprisingly different from the linear account of slavery. As the Observer put it so well, “all the clichés of such survival stories are inadequate to describe the impact of Nazer’s eventual deliverance.” To me, this story is unique because in remembering the Nuba Mountains Nazer breaks many of the stereotypes we might come to expect of Africa and Africans. In fact, readers will find themselves in the colorful world of the author’s childhood and possibly be quite thrown by the normalcy of it all: Nazer remembers doting and supportive parents whose life centers around her, the last of five children. Surrounded by the Nuba Mountains, she is free to explore her boundless imagination and encouraged to speak her mind. What results in the young Nazer is a boldness that characterizes even her dreams of postponing marriage for a medical career. In this sense the heroine defies every stereotype we might expect from African girls and women. What’s more is that Nazer’s men are strong, funny, articulate and fully capable of providing for their families. As the central male figure, Nazer’s father commands a respect that we would attribute to any head of household and his bravery is almost too big to behold. For centuries in the tradition of European slavery, we have been told that Black men could never embody this, but Nazer’s male figure struck me as possessing everything that colonialism and slavery systemically denied the Black man.
The picture that Nazer painted in the opening chapters may seem to take away from the life-changing turning point readers anticipate, but to the contrary it only serves to make the experience of having one’s freedom snatched away-something we experience right along with Nazer-more heart wrenching. Effectively, it is as if Nazer wants us to feel the separation from her Nuba cocoon as harshly as she does. By the time we get to Part II of the author’s account, we have left the carefree, sheltered and loving childhood for the violent, burdensome and hate-filled world of a life in captivity. The contrast the author creates between the two worlds is almost as sharp as the cut of a knife. At twelve Nazer is torn away from her Nuba village in the middle of the night, suddenly woken by huts on fire and chaos that rip her family apart. Nazer is captured by Arab raiders and taken to Khartoum to be an ‘abid’ to an upper middle-class Arabic family. Her designation as a slave is officially the start of systemic social and cultural erasure for Nazer, signs of which we see earlier in the memoir, when she attends an Arabic school where she is strongly discouraged from making any outward show of her Nuba culture. It is her that she starts telling us that slavery is much more than the White on Black opposition we learn about in today’s schools. Interestingly, her oppression also happens at the hands of a Mistress who completes her sense of abandonment and dehumanization by calling her ‘yebit’, a derogatory term that designates her as less than, dirtier than a fleck of dirt itself. The violence that Nazer suffers at the hands of her Mistress is proof that slavery knows no bounds: not the bounds of race or gender and certainly not the bounds of class.
In the case of Nazer it is it undoubtedly the economic control which Sudan’s Arabic population enjoyed that allowed slavery to go on despite its being sanctioned by law. Nazer boldly points the finger at some of the country’s prominent businessmen and diplomats; she skillfully draws our attention to wealthy families and subtly assigns blame as much to the mistress of the house as to the master. The underhanded nature of slavery in the Sudan as we witness it in this account adds to the outrage readers are sure to feel when coming to grips with the fact that slavery still exists today. In addition, although we may feel more comfortable turning a blind eye to violence and slavery in the Third World perhaps because of the typical depictions we get from that piece of the map-war, famine, illness and infighting-most of us will be squirming in our seats with discomfort when Nazer’s journey as a slave takes us to modern day London, where she is traded like chattel and where, to the readers’ relief, she finally finds freedom. This is the final punch for Nazer, something that contributes plenty to the ‘slave account with a twist’: the hard realization that slavery has not stopped with the ushering of modernity at the turn of the century. Certainly, this is a blow to readers’ egos, which we will not soon forget.
Nazer’s account of her life as a slave has met some opposition and kicked up more than its share of controversy because of the question of its authenticity, and while it continues to do so as it makes its way around the world the brilliance and power of the work lie in the young woman’s appeal to put an end not only to slavery, but to the obvious social ills that continue to impact our world. At times she angers us and at times she pulls at our heartstrings, but what she never fails to do is urge us to keep a level of consciousness that is going to make the world go forward for the better, and that is a message worthy of praise.