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The mythological bird, the “Sankofa” is used as a metaphor for Africa. While it is important for the continent to remember the past it is even more important to look to the future and build on the positive aspects of the past, writes Emira Woods.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the end of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which ripped an estimated 12 million Africans from their homelands and transported them to lives of unspeakable suffering and humiliation in Europe and the Americas. It is important to reflect on this tragic history, but also, like the Sankofa bird, to look towards ways of abolishing the forms of slavery that still ravage lives throughout much of the African world.

Modern-day slavery takes many shapes. In Liberia, the Bridgestone/Firestone Corporation continues to profit from slave-like conditions in their rubber plantation. Firestone's operations force children as young as 11 years old to work in the fields from before the sun rises to the late day. Used as beasts of burden, these kids typically carry two 75 pound buckets of rubber for up to two miles to storage or collection tanks. Should the children refuse to work, their parents risk losing the measly $3.19 daily wage, all while Bridgestone/Firestone announces record level profits for 2005 and the first half of 2006.

In the spirit of Sankofa, an alliance of human rights groups and labor unions is fighting to end this disgraceful abuse, and the International Labor Rights Fund has filed a case against the company.


Another, and perhaps most overt, form of modern day slavery is human trafficking. Throughout the African world women and children face a murderous and exploitative system of servitude. There are the parents in Egypt who reportedly sell kidneys and other body parts to feed their children. And there are the teenagers forced into prostitution working in the “AIDS corridor” running through oil-producing areas of Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad. The millions of impoverished women and children in Africa make easy targets for a growing number of traffickers who push them into unpaid or poorly compensated labor or sexual services. This takes place often through trickery and, at times, kidnapping. In response, the anti-trafficking movement has gained strength and visibility in recent years. This movement which includes survivors is making steady strides to break the chains for women and children around the world.

In the Americas, where wealth is being accumulated into fewer and fewer hands, modern-day forms of slavery are easily visible, from the flower pickers in Latin America to the garment factory workers in Haiti; from migrant workers in fields picking tomatoes in the southern United States to African-Americans locked into poor work conditions with inadequate compensation for their labor. Within the U.S., African girls and women are being enslaved in homes as maids and nannies for diplomats, foreign nationals, and Americans alike. Reports of individuals being held against their will, made to work around the clock for little or no money are becoming increasingly common. Advocates using new strategies and unusual bedfellows from law enforcement are working in the U.S. and around the world to tackle these and other issues of modern-day slavery.

Jubilee Movement

Religious and other groups around the world have united in a Jubilee movement to liberate the African world from another set of shackles – the extreme burden of foreign debt. According to the United Nations, $100 million a day is squeezed out of Africa in debt service payments to the rich world, siphoning off scarce resources needed to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other key concerns of the continent. In exchange, African governments are further enslaved by stringent loan conditions that control everything from inflation rates to wages for teachers and doctors.

Last year, the Bush Administration agreed to a plan to cancel the debts of 18 countries, most of them in Africa. The Jubilee movement is working to build on that precedent by pushing for the cancellation of the debts of 50 or so additional countries that are in desperate need.

The egg of hope in our Sankofa year lies in another commemoration. This year also represents the 50th anniversary of independence for many African states. The movement for change that brought an end to the slave trade culminating in the Emancipation Proclamation’s abolition of legal slavery. The abolitionist movement later inspired a pan-African drive for political independence. It was visionary leaders like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Guinea’s Sekou Toure, Cape Verde’s Amilcar Cabral, and Zaire’s Patrice Lumumba who in turn led a movement to throw off the yoke of colonial slavery. Today we have new inspiring leaders like the many women civil society leaders, cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, and yes even Presidents, reshaping Africa’s political landscape.

This Sankofa year is a vehicle to build movements for peace and justice. There couldn’t be a better time to focus the world’s attention on ending the economic scourge that has drained the African world since the days of legal slavery. Justice for the African world can only come by restoring the dignity of her people, wherever they may live. Seize the Sankofa year. End all forms of modern day slavery and secure reparations for all debts incurred.

* Emira Woods is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She was born in Liberia. See

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