My True Story


By Mende Nazer

By Damien Lewis

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Mende Nazer lost her childhood at age twelve, when she was sold into slavery. It all began one horrific night in 1993, when Arab raiders swept through her Nuba village, murdering the adults and rounding up thirty-one children, including Mende.

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.


Mende Nazer is studying English and intends to become a nurse. She is an active campaigner for human rights and has spoken out internationally against slavery in Sudan. Mende received the Madrid-based Coalition Against Racism's (CECRA) International Award for European Human Rights in 2002 and was awarded an honorary degree from London Metropolitan University in 2005.

Damien Lewis is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. For over fifteen years, he has directed and filmed documentaries on the front line of war, conflict and disaster zones in Asia, South America, and across Africa. Working with agencies Frontline TV and Journeyman, his films have appeared on the BBC, Channel 4, CNN, ABC and a host of other broadcasters, whilst his written work has featured in international newspapers. He has produced over a dozen films about war, slavery and related issues in the Sudan.

Prologue: The Raid

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. 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, nestling in a fold in 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, although he wasn't a rich man, 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 playing 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 skywards towards 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 amongst 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.

'Mujahidin!' my father yelled. 'Arab raiders! The Mujahidin 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?!'

He was desperately trying to see a way to escape. I could feel my mother, standing close to me, trembling. I was terrified. I had my cat 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 and my mother right behind us. I still held my cat 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 grab hold of children and pull them out of their parents' arms.

'If anyone tries to grab you, hold onto me for dear life, Mende!' my father yelled.

I saw the raiders cutting people's throats, their curved daggers glinting in the firelight. I cannot describe to you all the scenes I saw as we ran through the village. No one should ever have to witness the things I saw that night.

Through the smoke and the flames I realised that my father was heading for the nearest mountain. But, as we approached the cover of the forest and the hills, we suddenly noticed a ragged line of raiders on horseback, right in front of us. They had wild, staring eyes, long scraggy beards and they wore ripped, dirty clothes. They brandished their swords at us. They looked completely different from the men in our tribe. They had blocked the only obvious escape route. I could see terrified villagers running ahead of us towards their trap. As they caught sight of the ambush, they 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. I could feel him trying to urge me to run faster, faster. But then I tripped and fell to the ground. I remember my cat jumping out of my arms. Then, as I struggled to get up, one of the Mujahidin grabbed me and started to drag me away. My father jumped on him and wrestled him to the ground. I saw my father beating the raider around the head, and he went down and didn't get up again. My father grabbed me by my arms and started to pull me away from the fighting. My legs felt as if they were being torn to pieces by the sharp stones as he dragged me away, but I didn't care about the pain. And then he hauled me to my feet again and we were running, running, 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 towards the other end of the village, but I was tired now, really tired. I was getting weaker by the minute. Then, quite suddenly, a big herd of cattle fleeing from the fire cannoned into us, and I went down a second time. I felt hooves pounding over me as I lay curled into a ball on the ground. I really thought that I was going to die. From a distance, I heard my father's voice crying out, 'Mende agor! Mende agor!' – 'Where are you, Mende! Where are you!' His voice sounded like it was breaking with grief. 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. As he pinned me down, with his stubbly beard pricking the back of my neck, I could smell the ugly odour 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 have tried to save me if only he could find me, even if he had to fight every Mujahidin 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 Mujahidin on top of them, pawing at their bodies. I could smell the stench of burning, of blood and of terror. I prayed to God: '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.

Leaving the burning village behind us, we arrived at the edge of the forest. Beneath the trees there were about thirty other children huddled together. More Mujahidin 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.


Nuba Childhood


My Home

When I was born, my father chose to call me Mende. In our Nuba language, a Mende is the name of the 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 above all the mud huts below. Behind this rock, the mountains rose above us, high into the sky. In fact, the village was ringed with mountains on all sides. In just fifteen minutes you could walk out of our village and lose yourself in the foothills.

Our home consisted of a rectangular compound, enclosing two mud huts facing 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 gather around a fire in the evening and laugh and tell stories. 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. 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. They had bamboo frames, with a rope mattress 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 had a fire burning in the middle of the hut to keep us warm at night. We kept a big pile of dry firewood in the middle of the hut, and 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. It was jet black and shiny. I called it Uran – which means 'blackie'. Uran turned out to be a good mouse-killer and she was the source of great fun for all of us. 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 manage to sleep with your cat 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 chuckle.

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, '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, and Uran would run back and jump up with us 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.

Three tall, conical grain stores, 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 in, twisting yourself through the entrance hole as you did so. 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 jump into the dur. He would scoop up a gourd-full 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 it from him.

My oldest sister, Shokan, lived in a neighbouring compound with her husband and children, as did my other sister, Kunyant. 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 the men.

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 neighbour, a visitor from another tribe or even a foreigner. It doesn't matter. Anyone who is in hearing distance is welcome. Maybe my mother would have roasted sorghum and peanuts on the fire and ground this 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. When 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 started screaming. Then I saw it too, slithering through the bush. Kehko jumped up and started running with all her pee-pee going down her legs. It would have been very funny were we not so scared. My situation was even worse and as I was straining to finish, the snake was slithering towards 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 far enough away from the snake, we stopped and both collapsed with 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 favourite treat was fresh maize cobs roasted over the fire, with home-made 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.

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 might 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 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, 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 market place in the centre of our village. I rushed down there and saw two men getting out of the lead vehicle. 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 and 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 queue, whilst we 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 it was being sent by America, so everyone kept talking about what a good man President Bush (the father of the present US president) was 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 call 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 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,

We'd all die,

Bush, Bush, Bush, Bush.

One of the worst things about the drought was that lots of our livestock died. In the Nuba Mountains, cows are very important – they are the sign of a man's wealth. You would hear people say, 'Hmmm … That man is a very rich man. Look how many cows he has.' My father had maybe fifty or sixty cows in all. Some of the other men had even more, maybe as many as one hundred cows. During the famine, lots of our cows died. It took my father years to build up his herd again.

Normally, it was Babo's responsibility, as the youngest boy, to look after our cattle, but when he started going to school, my father employed a boy from a neighbouring village to do it instead. He was about thirteen years old and named Ajeka. Ajeka – who we called Ali – carried a spear and an ondo – a musical instrument made from a gourd and three wire strings. All he wore was a string of beads around his waist. Ali would take the cows into the fields or the forest to graze, and stroll around all day long, playing gently to himself on his ondo. After one year, my father would give Ali one cow. That was his wages for the year.

My father's herd of cows was kept about ten minutes away from our house in an enclosure called a coh. It was made of huge tree branches driven into the ground. There was a big coh for the adult cows and the calves had their own smaller enclosure, a cohnih – which means literally, 'house of the small cows'. Before sunrise, Ali and my brothers would get up and go to the cattle enclosure. They would take the hungry calves over to their mothers so they could start suckling. As the milk began to flow the boys would take the calves away again and start milking the cows themselves. The boys would leave a little milk for the calves and carry the rest home to my mother.

Sometimes, we would drink the milk immediately – delicious and fresh and still warm. Or we would put it on the fire to make sorghum porridge. Or I might be sent out with a bowl of fresh milk into the yard, where there was a gourd hanging by a rope from a post in the ground with a fork at the top. I would pour the milk into a small hole at the top of the gourd and seal it with a cork. Then I would shake it backwards and forwards, to churn the milk. I would shake for five minutes and then rest, shake and rest, shake and rest, until I had separated out the buttermilk and the curds. From this we made butter and yoghurt.

People used to say that I looked exactly like my mother. She was very slim and she was very, very beautiful. But my hair was like my father's – much softer and longer than my mother's. In my earliest memories, my mother used to walk about completely naked. For the first eight years or so of my life, no one in our village wore any clothes to speak of. Then my mother took to wearing a short, colourful woven cloth wrapped around her hips. Or when it was cold she might wear a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. I never knew my mother's age, but she looked about ten years younger than my father. In our tribe, a man always married a much younger woman.

My mother had decorative scars all over her body. When my mother was still a child, my grandmother had spent hours with a sharp stone cutting her skin to make beautiful, geometric patterns. My grandmother had chosen to cut spirals and whorls into my mother's breasts and long rows of straight lines on my mother's abdomen. I thought these scars made my mother look very beautiful. Scars are kell in our Nuba language – signs of beauty. Both the men and the women used to have them. My mother had the most beautiful scar on one side of her face – like a three-headed arrow. My grandmother had cut her until the blood had started pouring down her cheek.

'I saw the blood dripping onto the earth, Mende,' my mother told me, touching the scar with her fingertips. 'But we were taught to be brave, so I didn't complain.'


On Sale
Apr 27, 2005
Page Count
368 pages

Mende Nazer

About the Author

Mende Nazer is the author of the international bestselling autobiography Slave that has touched millions of lives and called many to action. Her story has gone on to inspire the motion picture I Am Slave and the stage adaptation of her life, Slave – A Question of Freedom.

Learn more about this author

Damien Lewis

About the Author

Damien Lewis is an award-winning writer who spent twenty years reporting from war, disaster, and conflict zones for the BBC and other global news organizations. He is the bestselling author of more than twenty books, many of which are being adapted into films or television series, including military history, thrillers, and several acclaimed memoirs about military working dogs. Lewis lives in Dorset, England.

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