Tied to the job

CASTE first appeared in Africa in the 18th century, in what was then the Malian empire. It depended on a social stratification which distinguished the ‘griots’ (traditional musicians) and other artisans (blacksmiths, shoemakers, carpenters) from the ruling nobles. In the Sudan-Sahelian area, this caste system continued down the centuries, hugging the contours of a kingdom that stretched over much of western Africa and following myriad migrations.

From Senegal to Niger, people’s mindsets fossilized around caste as a system of social regulation. Wherever there was a skill in a particular trade or occupation, the secret knowledge of that art was passed down through a select group. It was divulged only to those who were worthy of such knowledge and capable of preserving it and keeping it secret. Women and girls were often excluded, as marriage took them out of the enclosed circle.

There have been changes since that time: with the advent of money in African societies, trades changed or transmuted. Griots became merchants. Marriages can sometimes take place outside the barriers of caste, above all among young people who have rejected such ‘antiquated practices’. Even the professional specializations linked to caste have become less clearly delineated. People with technical skills enroll in professional colleges. Those who work with gold or leather are artists and sculptors, not caste people. In the world of music, the griots are no longer the only masters of rhythm.

the caste system survives because some people have an interest in perpetuating it

But this social transformation hides a more complex reality. While the evolution of ideas has increasingly disturbed old, entrenched certainties, the barriers remain strong, perpetuating an upper social grouping that rules over caste people and other groups considered inferior. In much of the heart of Africa, the caste system still has a profound effect on social relations. As people left the villages for the cities, they created their own forms of solidarity in their new communities. Caste became a part of the new just as it was a part of the old.

Senegalese social anthropologist Abdoulaye Bara Diop believes the caste system survives because some people have an interest in perpetuating it. Caste people themselves may benefit financially from their position in relation to ‘nobles’. But beyond such financial interests, the attitudes which perpetuate caste are carried to all levels of society by those who defend the ‘social balance’ and the preservation of common values.

Whatever the principles of equality guaranteed by African constitutions, considerations linked to caste still affect political choices and the exercise of power. Caste people are voters; they can be elected. People still cling to their social origins in order to judge the merits of a person to fulfil a particular function. It is difficult for them to see the griot as ‘worthy’ of assuming a position of power. A caste person, even if they are a Minister, still has to deal with the veiled sarcasm of a frustrated subordinate, whose ‘blue blood’ makes them feel superior.

Badié Hima, vice-president of the Niger Association for Human Rights, believes caste discrimination is an example of the kind of intolerance that perpetuates injustice as well as inequality. Iguilas Weilas, president of Timidria, an organization which fights slavery and discrimination in Niger, says: ‘What makes [caste discrimination] more difficult to combat is that the subject is taboo in Niger. The administration does not talk about it, politicians do not talk about it, and parliamentarians do not talk about it. And if you raise this kind of issue in the courts, the file is simply shelved.’

STOP PRESS: On 28 April, Ilguilas Weila (above) and his colleague Alassane Biga were arrested in Niger, accused of ‘propagating false information on slavery and attempting to raise funds illegally’. As this issue went to press, they remain under arbitrary detention. Anti-Slavery International says this is ‘a concerted campaign by the Government to silence efforts to end slavery in the country.’ www.antislavery.org/homepage/campaign/nigeraction.htm