Child Slave Trade Stirs Little Outrage

Cynthia Tucker

In the summer of 1996, two Baltimore journalists went to Africa -- to the war-torn and desperate country of Sudan -- to buy a slave. They had little trouble making the transaction.

Slavery has been commonplace in Sudan or decades, collateral damage from a vicious civil war. The journalists bought two boys for about $1000 and returned them to their grateful father.

The two journalists -- an African American columnist and a white foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun -- might have expected their stories about the Sudanese slave trade to provoke howls of outrage and protest from Americans especially African Americans. They might have expected fiery anti-slavery speeches in black churches and demands that the federal government intercede. They might have believed their sad and awful accounts of small children taken from their families during raids by enemy soldiers would have provoked a resurgence of black America's interest in human rights on the African continent.

It didn't turn out that way. Outrage followed their news accounts, but it centered on the ethics of their purchase. They met harsh criticism from black journalists, who accused them of sensationalism, of exploitation, of aiding and abetting slave traders.

Since Gregory Kane and Gilbert Lewthwaite wrote their stories, the inhuman practice of human trade has grown worse across the African continent. Just last week, news accounts focused on West Africa, where officials passed on stories of a ship suspected of carrying children who would be sold into slavery. While the ship was never located and may never have existed, the news reports sounded credible because so many children are sold into slavery throughout Africa.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 200,000 children are sold every year, the girls do domestic work or, worse, prostitution, the boys to field labor. The U.N.'s International Labor Organization puts the number of children held in slavery or near-slavery at 250 million.

Still, there is little in the way of outrage, little in the way of protests or pickets or mass arrests in front of African embassies. A few conservative church groups have pressured the busy administration to assist persecuted Christians in Sudan, where an Islamic government is trying to convert (or wipe out) Christians and animists.

But the modern slave trade has not become a cause celebre among black American intellectuals. It has not attracted the high-profile attention that helped to undermine and dismantle apartheid in South Africa.

That's not just because white racism is an easier target than black-on-black exploitation. It's also true that the problem of South African apartheid had a simple solution: democratic elections leading to majority rule. By contrast, the problem of modern-day slavery is complex, with deep roots in intractable social ills such as extreme poverty, government corruption and civil wars. Protests, pickets and demonstrations won't end the trade in human chattel.

But the vastness of the problem cannot be an excuse for turning away. If there were ever an issue that deserved the attention of dedicated activists who can attract television cameras, congressional hearings and U.N. resolutions, the modern slave trade is it.

Articles and Reprints

Subway Guitars
1800 Cedar Street
Berkeley, California 94703

Telephone: (510) 841-4106
noon til six Pacific Time
Monday through Saturday