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Ex-slave works to free others from West African tradition

Boubacar Messaoude is Mauritania's leading antislavery activist

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Boubacar Messaoud, the son of slaves who toiled in the fields of Mauritanian landowners, remembered stopping one day when he was 7 to see what was going on. Local children being signed up for school. He asked a cousin of his family's owner to help him enroll.

"I can't," the man replied. "What will your master say?" Messaoud put down the watermelon he was carrying and cried.

The ancient tradition of slavery endures in the West African nation today, although it was officially abolished in the 1980s. There are roughly half a million slaves among a population of 3.3 million, and at least 80 percent do not have access to a formal education, Messaoud said during recent visit here.

Messaoud founded the antislavery group SOS Slaves in 1995. He has waged many battles on behalf of slaves since that day more than 50 years ago when he faced his first obstacle to breaking the shackles.

A French principal, who found the young Messaoud sobbing, shamed the slave master's cousin into registering him. Messaoud became the first in his family to go to school. He went to college and became an architect.

Messaoud remembered the promise of possibility on his first day of school. But he also remembered being bullied by classmates as inferior. "When you go out in mixed society, life is hard," he said.

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