21st Century Abolitionists
by Kay Marshall Strom
On my first trip through Goree Island, the restored slave-holding fortress off the coast of Senegal, West Africa, I was struck dumb at the sight of baby-sized manacles bolted to the walls. Their purpose was all too obvious.
When I started my Grace in Africa novel trilogy, people asked me: “Why write about slavery? Why dredge up that painful past and stir up all that anger and guilt?” Invariably, they ended with: “Thank God the days of slavery are over.”
Well, right there is why I write about slavery. It isn’t over. Two hundred years after Britain passed its first laws barring slave ships from sailing freely across the Atlantic, their wretched holds packed with captives in chains and manacles, three times as many people around the world are living as slaves—an increase from four million to twelve million. (That’s UNICEF’s estimate. Other organizations cite a number twice as high.)
Today it may be called sex trafficking, or bonded labor, or child labor, or some other name. But the fact is, whenever people are owned as property, bought and sold, locked up and held against their will, or physically abused because they don’t work hard enough, they are slaves.
IN NEPAL: Pinkie was only nine years old when she got the good news that her father had secured a job for her. No more crying through endless nights aching with hunger. Now she would have plenty to eat, and money to send home besides. Her aunt came across the border from India to take her back to her new job. How could Pinkie have guessed her father had sold her to a brothel? That her aunt was the broker? That before long, she—Pinkie—would pray for death?
IN HONDURAS: Every day, as soon as the sun is up, Marita is at the quarry. She works all day carrying huge, heavy slabs of stone on her head, up the steep sides of the quarry pit to the rock pile. The work is exhausting and deadly, but it’s all little Marita knows. Most likely, this is how she will spend her entire childhood.
IN INDIA: Deepak has no knowledge of the origin of the debt he has labored his entire life to pay. His grandfather borrowed the money many years earlier. Most likely, it was no more than a few rupees, perhaps for a medical emergency. Yet Deepak is the third generation to work at repaying the debt, and now his son works, too. But the repayment terms are legible only to the lender who will make certain the illiterate family stays indebted forever.
IN DRC (CONGO): Ten-year-old Jonnie joined the soldiers who attacked his village and killed his family because “I was so scared. I thought I would be protected.” He was wrong. The soldiers whipped and brutalized Jonnie, then forced him to kill. “They said it would make me a better fighter.” Kill or be killed, those were Jonnie’s options.
IN NEW YORK: Samirah and Enung were brought from Indonesia to work as housekeepers in the home of a well-to-do family—for $100 a month, all of which was sent back to their families. The illiterate women, who spoke no English, were punished in ways that Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko, who was involved in prosecuting the womenÕs captors, called “cruel forms of torture.” They included beatings and slashing with knives for such misdeeds as stealing food from the trash bins.
“This did not happen in the 1800s,” Mr. Lesko said of the two women from Indonesia. “This happened in the 21st century.”
So did the slavery endured by Pinkie, Marita, Deepak, and Jonnie.
“There ought to be a law!” you say.
There is. Many laws, in fact. Slavery is illegal in every country of the world. Problem is, those laws are not enforced as they should be. Those who cannot read have little chance of understanding the laws. And even if they understood, they would still be powerless. Children are especially defenseless. The sad fact is that few who could help are attuned to hear the cries of the destitute. Which is why it is up to us who do have power and influence (read: every literate person in the West).
It was in that slave-holding fortress in Africa, gazing at the tiny bonds, that the idea for a novel set in those days of horror was born. Because of the research I had done for my other writings, especially my book Once Blind: The Story of John Newton (Authentic Press), I knew what it meant to fight slavery in the 18th century. But what does it mean to be a 21st century abolitionist?
Here are some suggestions:
Educate yourself. Just knowing that slavery exists and the forms it takes puts you ahead of the majority of the population. Read about the problem. Check out relevant websites. Become knowledgeable about slavery today.Pass your knowledge along. Tell others what you have learned. Speak… write… share. Do whatever you can to educate those around you.Support relevant organizations. It isn’t easy for everyday people like you and me to intervene on behalf of a trafficked child in Nepal or an adolescent soldier in Africa—or, for that matter, in most slavery situations. But we can get behind those who are already on the front lines.Make your voice heard. Your elected officials need to know how you feel about issues affecting slavery around the world. Petition them to put a high priority on enforcing anti-slavery laws.Step into the gap on behalf of another. If you suspect someone is being coerced or held against their will, call the U.S. Department of Justice toll-free hotline: 1-888-428-7581.Pray. What does the Lord require of you? To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him. (Micah 6:8) Ask God for the wisdom and ability to do what he requires.
Why did I set my novel in the midst of slavery instead of choosing a more sanguine setting? Because pretending that dark period of history didn’t happen helps no one. Because we need to look full into the facts of what went wrong back then and unflinchingly face the frightening images we see in our own society: hunger for money and power, fear and distrust of others unlike ourselves, and an endless capacity to rationalize. Because some 21st century Christians will do what brave 18th century Christians did: step up and place themselves in the forefront in the fight for freedom.
Kay Marshall Strom, an international speaker, is the author of 36 books. Her most recent, The Call of Zulina, Book 1 of the Grace in Africa trilogy (Abingdon Press).