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My True Story
By Mende Nazer
By Damien Lewis
Formats and Prices
- ebook $9.99
- Trade Paperback $18.99
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 28, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Mende was sold to a wealthy Arab family who lived in Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum. So began her dark years of enslavement. Her Arab owners called her “Yebit,” or “black slave.” She called them “master.” She was subjected to appalling physical, sexual, and mental abuse. She slept in a shed and ate the family leftovers like a dog. She had no rights, no freedom, and no life of her own.
Normally, Mende’s story never would have come to light. But seven years after she was seized and sold into slavery, she was sent to work for another master-a diplomat working in the United Kingdom. In London, she managed to make contact with other Sudanese, who took pity on her. In September 2000, she made a dramatic break for freedom.
Slave is a story almost beyond belief. It depicts the strength and dignity of the Nuba tribe. It recounts the savage way in which the Nuba and their ancient culture are being destroyed by a secret modern-day trade in slaves. Most of all, it is a remarkable testimony to one young woman’s unbreakable spirit and tremendous courage.
Praise for Slave: My True Story
“Nazer provides beautiful and at times heart-wrenching accounts of the Nuba’s traditions . . . an important reminder of the real, lived terrors of thousands of black southern Sudanese whose stories will never be told, and whose freedom may never be won.”
—The Washington Post
“Harrowing . . . [Nazer] describes being sold into servitude . . . a fate shared by more than 11,000 people each year in Sudan alone.”
“[Nazer] dwells on her Nuba childhood with a childlike quality . . . Ultimately [she] celebrates . . . rebellion against injustice and the triumph of the human spirit.”
“A clear, compelling, first-person narrative that conveys [Mende’s] young voice with powerful authenticity . . . the details are unforgettable, capturing both the innocence of the child and the world-weariness of one who has endured the worst.”
“Few [memoirs] are as starkly powerful as this one: Nazer tells her story with lucid simplicity, deftly evoking her earlier self to convey that girl’s innocence, violent loss, and compromise with survival.”
“Ultimately, Slave is the compelling memoir of one woman’s struggle to hang on to her humanity and of her continuing fight to stop others from losing theirs.”
—The Kansas City Star
“Mende Nazer’s spirit echoes that of Sojourner Truth’s during her journey from slave to freedom fighter . . . told in a childlike voice that conveys innocence and honesty.”
“[Nazer] tells her story of individual dignity combined with uncommon courage.”
—The Denver Post
“Told with clarity and dignity . . . Surprisingly, a book about such a horrible subject is uplifting: Slave is an inspiring testimonial to one young woman’s remarkable courage and unbreakable spirit.”
—The Roanoke Times
“A shocking, true story of contemporary slavery . . . [Mende Nazer’s] eventual and incredible journey into freedom is told simply and with grace even under the circumstances.”
“By telling her story, Mende has managed to shed much needed light to the plight of the rest of our African sisters and throughout it all, her strength and beauty never fade.”
—Waris Dirie, author of Desert Flower
“An eye-opening account of the atrocities that can and do happen when one nationality believes it is superior to another, and an unforgettable plea for all people of all nations to focus on the importance of human rights and to understand that we are all equal, all part of one human race, and therefore should all be treated equally.”
author of Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern-Day Jordan
“Slave constitutes an act of tremendous courage. A solitary and profoundly moving voice emerging from the most silenced of quarters.”
—Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane
“A straightforward, harrowing memoir that’s a sobering reminder that slavery still needs to be stamped out . . . a profound meditation on the human ability to survive under virtually any circumstances.”
“The shockingly grim story of how the author became a slave at the end of the 20th century—mercifully, it has an ending to lift the spirit . . . Revelatory in the truest sense of the word: told with a child-pure candor that comes like a bucket of cold water in the lap.”
“As you read about Nazer’s enslavement and her eventual run to freedom in September 2000, you will weep, rage, and shout for justice. I couldn’t put it down.”
—Libby Manthey, Riverwalk Books Limited,
The day that changed my life forever started with a beautiful dawn. I greeted the sunrise by facing east and making the first of my five daily prayers to Allah. It was the spring of 1994, at the end of the dry season. I was about twelve years old (our tribe keeps no record of birthdays). After prayers, I got ready to go to school. It would take me an hour to walk there and an hour back again. I was studying hard because I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up.
This was a big dream for a simple, African girl like me. I come from the Nuba tribe, in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, one of the remotest places on earth. I lived in a village of mud huts with grass-thatch roofs, nestled in a fold of the big hills. My tribe are all hunters and farmers and most of them are Muslims. My father had a herd of fifty cattle, which meant that he wasn’t a rich man, but he wasn’t poor either.
After a day’s hard study at school, I came home and did my chores. Then my mother cooked the evening meal. My father had been out in the fields getting the harvest in and my brothers had been helping him, so they were all very hungry. When we had finished eating, we went out into the yard to listen to my father’s stories. I remember sitting around the fire in the yard laughing and laughing. He was a very funny man, my father, a real joker. I loved all my family dearly.
It was a cold night so we did not stay out for long. I went to bed as I always did, cuddling up to my father. There was a fire burning in the middle of the hut to keep us warm all night long. My little cat Uran curled up on my tummy. My mother lay on her bed, across the fire from us. Soon, we were all fast asleep. But we hadn’t been sleeping long when, suddenly, there was a terrible commotion outside. I woke up, startled, to see an eerie, orange light flickering over the inside of the hut.
“Ook tom gua!” my father shouted, jumping up. “Fire! Fire in the village!”
We ran to the doorway to see flames reaching skyward toward the far end of the village. At first, we thought that someone must have accidentally set their hut alight. It did happen quite often in our village. But then, we caught sight of people running among the huts with flaming torches in their hands. I saw them throwing these firebrands onto hut roofs, which burst into flames. The people inside came running out, but they were attacked by these men and dragged to the ground.
“Mujahedin!” my father yelled. “Arab raiders! The Mujahedin are in the village!”
I still didn’t really understand what was happening and I was frozen with fear. Then my father grabbed me by the arm.
“Go lore okone?! Go lore okone?!” he shouted—“Where can we run?! Where can we run?!”
I could feel my mother standing close to me, trembling. I was terrified. I had Uran clutched in one arm and my father’s hand in the other. Then we started to run.
“Run to the hills,” my father shouted. “Follow me! Run! Run!”
We ran through scenes from your worst nightmare—my father leading, me following clutching his hand tightly and my mother right behind us. I still held Uran in one arm. There were so many huts on fire, the whole night sky was lit up with the flames. Women and children were running in all directions, crying and screaming in confusion and terror. I saw the raiders cutting people’s throats, their curved daggers glinting in the firelight. I saw them grabbing hold of children and pulling them out of their parents’ arms.
“If anyone tries to grab you, hold onto me for dear life, Mende!” my father yelled.
Through the smoke and the flames I realized that my father was heading for the nearest mountain. But as we approached the cover of the forest and the hills, we noticed a ragged line of Mujahedin on horseback up ahead. They were brandishing swords at us and looked completely different from the men in our tribe. They had wild, staring eyes and long, scraggy beards and they wore ripped, dirty clothes. They had blocked the only obvious escape route. I could see terrified villagers running toward their trap. As they caught sight of the ambush, the villagers started screaming and turned back, trying to find some other way to escape. There was complete chaos and terror and the sound of gunfire.
As we turned to run in the opposite direction, I heard my father shouting desperately for my mother. In all the panic and the confusion, we had lost her. Now I was alone with my father, running, running. He was urging me to run faster, faster. But then I tripped and fell to the ground. I remember Uran jumping out of my arms. Then, as I struggled to get up, one of the Mujahedin grabbed me and started to drag me away.
My father jumped on the raider and wrestled him to the ground. I saw my father beating the man around the head, and the man went down and didn’t get up again. My father grabbed me by my arms and dragged me away from the fighting. My legs felt as if they were being torn to pieces by the sharp stones as he pulled me away. But I didn’t care about the pain. And then he hauled me to my feet and again we were running.
“Run, Mende! Run! As fast as you can!” my father shouted at me. “If the Arabs try to take you, they’ll have to kill me first!”
We sprinted back toward the other end of the village. But I was tired now, really tired. I was getting weaker by the minute. My lungs ached. Then, quite suddenly, a herd of cattle fleeing from the fire stampeded into us, and I went down a second time. I felt hooves pounding over me as I lay curled on the ground. I thought that I was going to die.
From a distance, I heard my father’s panicked voice crying out, “Mende agor! Mende agor!”—“Where are you, Mende! Where are you!” I tried to shout back and make him hear me, but my throat was choked with pain and dust. My voice came out as a rasping whisper. “Ba! Ba! Ba!” I croaked—“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”
But my father couldn’t hear me. As I lay there, petrified, with tears streaming down my face, trying to shout for my father, a man seized me from behind. He pinned me down, with his stubbly beard pricking the back of my neck. I could smell the ugly stench of his breath.
I knew that my father was somewhere nearby, searching desperately for me. I kept trying to shout for him. But the man clamped his grubby hand over my mouth. “Shut up,” he hissed, in Arabic. “Shut up and lie still. If you keep shouting, the other men will find you and they will kill you.”
He dragged me to my feet and started to march me through the village. By the light of the burning huts, I could see that he had a curved dagger and a pistol tucked into a belt at his waist.
As I was led away, I’m sure I heard my father still shouting for me, “Mende! Mende! Mende!” My father was the bravest man in the world. I knew that he would save me if only he could find me, even if he had to fight every Mujahedin in the village. I wanted to shout out “Ba! Ba! I’m here! I can hear you.” But the raider kept his hand clamped over my mouth.
As we walked, I could see the village burning and I could hear screams all around me. I saw Nuba women on the ground with Mujahedin on top of them, pawing at their bodies. I could smell the stench of burning, of blood and of terror.
I prayed to God then: “Oh Allah, Oh Allah, please save me, please save me.” And I prayed to God to save my family too. Over and over as I was taken away to the forest, I kept praying to God that we might all be saved.
We arrived at the edge of the forest. Beneath the trees there were about thirty other children huddled together. More Mujahedin kept arriving, bringing young Nuba boys and girls with them. The raiders’ clothes and knives were covered in blood and they had the look of absolute evil about them. As they arrived, I heard them chanting at the tops of their voices: “Allahu Akhbar! Allahu Akhbar! Allahu Akhbar!”—“God is Great! God is Great! God is Great!”
I had no idea if any of my family had escaped, or if they had all been killed in the raid. I had no idea what would happen to me now.
This is how my wonderful, happy childhood ended and how my life as a slave began.
with the Nuba
When I was born, my father chose to call me Mende. In our Nuba language, mende is the word for a gazelle—the most beautiful and graceful animal in the Nuba Mountains. I was my father’s fifth and last child and he thought I was the prettiest daughter ever. Our village backed onto a huge rock that towered over all the mud huts below. Above this rock, the mountains rose high into the sky. In fact, the village was ringed with mountains on all sides. You could walk out of our village and, in just fifteen minutes, lose yourself in the foothills.
Our home consisted of a rectangular compound, with two mud huts that faced each other. This we called the “shal.” The shal was fenced around with a wall of wooden posts interwoven with straw. Two benches ran down each side of the shal, where we would sit in the evening and laugh and tell stories by the fire. Around the shal there was a much larger yard, the “tog.” The fence of the tog was made of strong, straight tree branches and it was as high as the roof of a house. It was to keep out the wild animals that might come into the village at night. I suppose the shal was like a Western house, and the tog was like the garden that surrounds it. Our sheep and goats lived in the tog. We had to be careful that they didn’t break into the shal and steal our food.
I lived in one hut with my mother and father. There were three beds inside, one for each of us. The beds had bamboo frames and rope mattresses made from the bark of the baobab tree. My father always slept by the door to protect us. There were snakes and hyenas in the forest and hills nearby and I was afraid that they would come in and get me. Every night, I would leave my own bed and cuddle up to my father where I felt safe.
In the rainy season we kept a fire burning in the middle of the hut to keep us warm at night. We stacked a big pile of dry firewood in the middle of the hut. When it ran out we’d have to collect damp wood from the forest. Then, the fire would struggle to burn and make the inside of the hut all smoky.
One of my earliest memories is of my father getting me a kitten. She was jet black and shiny. I called her Uran—which means “blackie.” Uran turned out to be a great mouse-killer. At night, when I would jump up on my father’s bed to sleep, Uran would jump up on me. Then my father would wake up.
“I’ve already got you in my bed,” he’d say, sleepily. “D’you think I can sleep with your cat in here as well?”
“Yes, of course you can,” I’d reply, giggling. “I’m sleeping with you and we’re sleeping with my cat. And that’s that.”
“Look. If you want to sleep with Uran, then go and sleep in your own bed,” he’d say, half teasing.
I would always refuse. Then my mother would call from across the hut.
“Come here, Mende. My bed’s big enough for you and me and your cat.”
“No,” I’d call back. “I want to sleep here with my father.”
So began a game of musical beds. I would take Uran to my mother, leave her there and then run back to my father’s bed. But Uran would immediately jump off my mother’s bed and run back to us again. By now, my father would be laughing out loud.
“OK,” he’d sigh dramatically. “You go and sleep with your mother and Uran stays here with me.”
“All right, Ba,” I’d say. I knew how this joke would end.
I would go over to my mother’s bed. But Uran would follow me and jump up in bed with me again. By now, the whole hut would be rocking with laughter.
“So, whatever we do, Uran wants to sleep with you,” my father would say. Then he’d fetch my small bed from across the hut and place it beside his. I would jump up onto my bed, Uran would jump up on top of me and my father would sleep next to both of us. Like that, everyone was happy.
My oldest sister Shokan lived in a neighboring compound with her husband and children, and my other sister Kunyant was soon to be married. My brothers Babo and Kwandsharan lived outside the family compound, in the “holua,” the men’s house. Each family had its own holua, where the unmarried boys would eat and sleep together. At mealtimes, my father would go out to the holua to eat with my brothers.
My father would call out to all our male relatives to come and join him: “Come and eat with us! Come and drink tea!” My uncles and aunts all lived within easy shouting distance of our home. In our tradition, it is very important that you do not eat alone. You share any meal with whoever is around at the time. It may be a family member, a village neighbor, a visitor from another tribe or even a foreigner. It doesn’t matter. Anyone who is in hearing distance is welcome. If they were lucky, my mother would have roasted sorghum and peanuts on the fire and ground them into a delicious paste. Or she might have cooked “kal,” a sorghum mash boiled with water and milk, or “waj,” a curried stew of vegetables and meat.
I lived in a very close-knit community. We had few secrets and there was little need for privacy. When I was very young, I would just go to the toilet behind our yard. But when I was around six, I started going to a special patch of bush, which was the grown-ups toilet. I would crouch down behind a bush with the grass brushing my bottom and grab the nearest leaf to clean myself. But if it was the wet season, the leaves were too tough to pull off the tree. Then I would take a handful of dry raffia palm leaves with me. But this presented another problem. Raffia leaves have very sharp edges and you could end up with some cuts in very awkward places.
One morning, when I was still very small, I went to relieve myself in the bush, accompanied by my friend Kehko. She went to one tree and I went to another. We had just crouched down, when Kehko shouted over to me.
“I can hear something moving, Mende. What d’you think it is?”
“It’s probably just a mouse,” I called back.
But suddenly, out came a huge snake. Kehko saw it a moment before I did and she screamed. Then I saw it too, slithering through the bush. Kehko jumped up and started running with all her pee-pee going down her legs. My situation was even worse and as I was straining to finish, the snake was slithering toward me. There was nothing for it. In a flash, I jumped up out of the undergrowth and started to run. I did a very uncomfortable short sprint, with my bum stuck out behind me (when we were children, we used to go naked most of the time). As soon as we were far enough away from the snake, we stopped, panting and collapsed with breathless laughter. After this, Kehko and I decided we would never go back to that part of the bush again.
Behind our house we had a garden where we grew maize and vegetables like beans and pumpkin. In October, the rains would come and the maize would swell up fat and juicy. My favorite treat was fresh maize cobs roasted over the fire, with homemade butter. When we’d eaten all the food in the garden, we’d send the goats in to eat up all the leftover stalks and leaves.
Three tall, conical grain storage huts, “durs,” stood to one side of our yard. Each had one small entrance, high up in the wall, which was just the width of a man’s body. The only way in was to climb up a ladder and dive through the entrance hole, twisting yourself as you did so, landing in a crouch on the floor. It was designed like this so that no rats or goats could get in. The dur kept the grain dry so it would last us from one harvest season to the next. When we needed some more grain, my father would dive into the dur. He would scoop up a gourd-full of grain and pass it up to my brother, Babo, who would stand at the entrance, perched on a ladder. I would wait down below to take the gourd from him.
Every day, we girls had to go to the mountains to fetch water and firewood. We’d walk for as much as two hours, on little paths that wound through the forest. Because the hills were full of snakes and wild animals, we’d always try to get some of the boys to go with us to protect us. Sometimes, when we arrived at the water hole with our clay pots, there would be girls from another village there too. Then there would often be an argument about who would get to fill up first. Pretty quickly, we’d start to call each other names: “You’re ugly! You’re lazy! You’re a liar!”
Then someone would start a fight. It was all only in fun really. But I’d always call for my brother Babo to save me. “Mende, come and stand behind me,” he’d say. “Now, if any of you want to touch Mende, you’ll have to get past me first.”
When the rains finally came, after the long, hot, dry season, all the children would run outside and dance for joy, singing the rain song: “Are coucoure, are konduk ducre”—the rain is coming, too much rain. We’d wave our hands above our heads and dance around in the warm, balmy rain. It was always a time of such relief, because the rains meant that we would have a good harvest, and no one would go hungry that year.
When I was about six, for the first time in my life the rains failed. Our crops wilted and died. We started running out of food. Week by week, the situation was getting worse. People were very hungry and getting desperate. Soon, all the children were looking thin and sickly and some of the old people started dying of starvation. I can remember that I had never felt so hungry in all my life.
Then, one day, I saw an amazing sight—a huge cloud of dust billowing up from the old track that wound up from the valley floor. As I watched, I saw a line of gleaming white trucks emerging from the dust. Once or twice before, I had seen an old truck chugging its way up into our village. But I’d never seen anything like this shining convoy before. I could see that it was headed for the marketplace in the center of our village. I rushed down there, to find two men getting out of the lead vehicle. But to my amazement I saw that these men had pale, white skins. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever seen a “Hawaja,” a white man. I stood there with the other village children staring at the Hawajas from a distance, wondering where on earth they might have come from. To us they looked like ghosts.
They walked up the line of trucks and began to direct the drivers where to unload. The young Nuba men from our village rushed over to help carry the big sacks, drums of cooking oil, medicines and blankets into an empty building nearby. Each family was entitled to one blanket, one sack of lentils, one tin of oil and some sorghum seeds for planting the following year. My father joined the line of waiting villagers, while we kids just stood and stared and stared at the Hawajas. Eventually, we headed for home, with my father carrying the sack of lentils, my mother carrying the oil and me carrying the big blanket.
“These Hawajas are very good people,” my father said, smiling, as we walked back to our hut. “They come from far, far away—because they know the rains have failed and we’re hungry. But the Arabs don’t help us—even though they share the same country with us.”
All that year, convoys of trucks snaked up the steep mountain pass to bring us more aid. It turned out that all this good stuff was being sent by America—so everyone kept talking about what a good man President Bush was (the first one, Bush senior) to help us like this. One woman in our village even decided to name her son “Bush.” He had been born in the midst of the famine. There was then a rash of copycat naming, so that soon there was a string of little boys named Bush in our village. Then some of the women decided they wanted to name their daughters after Bush’s wife, but no one could find out her name. Another woman composed a song in praise of President Bush. It quickly became very popular and you could hear all the women singing away as they worked. I can’t remember the words exactly, but it went something like this:
Bush, Bush, Bush, Bush,
Bush is very kind,
He helps the Nuba,
With lentils and oil,
If it wasn’t for Bush,
- On Sale
- Apr 28, 2009
- Page Count
- 280 pages