Sunday, July 14

Friday mornings are always a delight, thanks to Naa Kai. She supplies me with a variety of fresh, local, high-quality fruits. What fascinates me for a high school dropout is her promptness, professionalism, and impeccable presentation of fruit baskets.

But on the Thursday before the first Friday in June, Naa Kai came by the house with good news. She had a job offer as a nanny in Oman. It’s a dream come true for a girl with three younger siblings saddled with financial demands to assist her mother in raising them.

The promise of a better life that lured Naa Kai to Oman is a cruel echo of the false hopes that have enticed countless Africans into the clutches of the Arab slave trade. As I explored the history and impact of this devastating practice, I began to understand the urgent need to address its modern-day manifestations and protect those most at risk.


This piece explores the historical context of the Arab slave trade, its impact on African societies, and its enduring legacy of racism and sexual exploitation. Examining the scale, scope, and practices and the social, economic, and cultural consequences of this 1,300-year-old trade. This article highlights an often-overlooked chapter of history and its disturbing modern-day echoes.


What took me by surprise is that to this day, Arabs continue to enslave and force the transport of thousands of Africans.

While the Arab slave trade was primarily driven by Arab merchants and traders, African leaders and kingdoms played a role. For example, the Sultanate of Zanzibar became a central hub for the Arab slave trade during the 19th century. The Omani Arabs, who controlled Zanzibar, collaborated with local African leaders to capture and sell slaves to work on clove plantations.

Powerful West African kingdoms like Mali and the Ghana Empire were integral to the slave trade supply chain, capturing and selling people as a significant source of foreign exchange.

Historical Context:

Let’s start from the beginning. The Arab conquest of North Africa, also known as the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, was a monumental event that began in 647 AD and concluded by 709 AD. Later on, the majority of those enslaved were from East Africa, including areas that are now Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia, as well as from the Zanj region along the East African coast. Some West Africans were also captured and transported across the Sahara to North Africa (Segal, 2002). In collaboration with African leaders

Scale and Scope

According to historian Paul Lovejoy, an estimated 14 million Africans were enslaved and traded by Arab merchants during this period. That is higher than the number of ancestors the Europeans grabbed from us. You will not believe it, but some estimates suggest even higher numbers. If you have ever gone through the parts of the Sahel, you will understand. The journey across the Sahara was gruelling, with slaves marching in leg and neck chains, their hands tied with bark thongs. Many died of exhaustion and thirst along the way.

Gender Ratio and Sexual Exploitation

One key difference between the two trades was the gender ratio of the slaves. In the transatlantic trade, the ratio of male to female slaves was about two-to-one. Europeans focused on acquiring our dynamic, strong men for labour on the New World plantations. In contrast, the Arab trade favoured women over men at a ratio nearing three-to-one. This was because the Arab men wanted them for sexual satisfaction. They were often turned into concubines and servants in harems. A harem traditionally refers to a part of a Muslim household reserved for the family’s women, including wives, concubines, and female servants. This area is typically segregated from the rest of the home and is off-limits to men.  

Brutality and Conditions: A monster brooding over Africa

The Arab slave trade was ruthless in its treatment of enslaved Africans. Accounts from European explorers like David Livingstone provide a glimpse into the horrific conditions endured by enslaved people during their forced march across the Sahara. Livingstone witnessed the execution of a pregnant woman who was unable to keep pace with the caravan. The Arab traders sliced the baby into pieces because the mother could no longer carry the child due to exhaustion.

Another practice was the systematic castration of male slaves. Male slaves, on the other hand, were frequently brutally castrated and turned into eunuchs to guard harems. Our men had only a 10% survival rate after castration. The mortality rate was extremely high, with six out of ten individuals dying from their wounds.

Resistance and Rebellion

Despite the brutal conditions and overwhelming power imbalance, our enslaved ancestors did not passively accept their fate. There were numerous instances of resistance and rebellion against the Arab slave trade. One notable example is the Zanj Rebellion, which took place in southern Iraq, Basra, during the 9th century. The uprising was led by enslaved East Africans who worked in the region’s salt marshes. It lasted over 14 years and posed a significant challenge to the Abbasid Caliphate. Just as fought through rebellions during the transatlantic Slave trade, the courage and resilience of enslaved Africans in the face of oppression is never in doubt.

Impact on East African Demographics

The impact of the Arab slave trade on East African societies was particularly devastating. With a disproportionately high number of women and girls being enslaved. Many communities were left with a severe gender imbalance. This demographic distortion had far-reaching consequences, leading to the stagnation and decline of populations.

In some cases, the pressure of supporting a surplus male population combined with the hardships of drought and famine drove desperate families to offer their daughters into slavery as a means of survival. The loss of so many of our women and girls not only deprived communities of their reproductive potential but also disrupted social structures and family units.

Legacy and Contemporary Issues

Like African Americans, the Caribbean, Latin or North Americans, Afro-Arab populations in the Middle East and North Africa often face ongoing racism and marginalisation (Hunwick & Powell, 2002). In recent years, some Arab states have begun to acknowledge and confront their role in the slave trade. For example, in 2018, Tunisia became the first Arab country to criminalise racial discrimination. This move was seen as a step towards addressing the legacy of slavery and racism in the region. Additionally, in 2020, the United Arab Emirates announced plans to introduce legislation to combat discrimination and promote tolerance, including measures to address the country’s history of slavery. However, in parts of the Sahel and Sahara, vestiges of slavery and human trafficking unfortunately still persist (Hahonou & Pelckmans, 2011).

Sexual Exploitation

Meanwhile, the sexual exploitation of African migrants continues in parts of North Africa and the Middle East. The centuries-old practice of exploiting vulnerable Africans has evolved, but the fundamental cruelty remains unchanged. Today, countless African girls find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of deception and abuse, lured by false promises of employment.

In a chilling parallel to the Arab slave trade, women and children are trafficked to countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia. In March 2024, over 50 Malawian women were rescued from slave-like conditions in Oman. Similarly, the harrowing experiences of Ethiopian migrants like Diinee, who faced brutal abuse at the hands of traffickers in Somalia and Yemen. What about the plight of Ugandan women flown out of Saudi Arabia after enduring horrific mistreatment underscores the urgent need for action?

These three examples, spanning from 2016 to 2024, are but a snapshot of the countless lives shattered by modern-day slavery. The insidious nature of this trade often hides behind the guise of legitimate employment. However, one thing is clear: the legacy of the Arab slave trade is alive and well.

Tiger’s Roar

Naa Kai’s story is not unique. Countless young women like her, full of hopes and dreams, are lured into the nightmare of modern-day slavery. These experiences rob our women and children of their dignity and freedom.

We cannot ignore this ongoing tragedy. Our moral obligation is to act and be a voice for the voiceless. We must support organisations that provide aid and rehabilitation to victims and advocate for stronger anti-trafficking laws and enforcement.

Do not encourage or push our young women and daughters to go to the Middle East to take on these so-called jobs. All of us have to be vigilant. Contact the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), an organisation that works against trafficking and sexual slavery, striving to end human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. By supporting initiatives that empower communities, provide educational opportunities, and promote gender justice, we can help break the cycle of vulnerability and prevent more lives from being shattered.

We forced Europe to look within themselves. It is about time we push the Arabs to do the same.

Moreover, we must address the root causes that make individuals like Naa Kai vulnerable to exploitation, such as poverty, lack of education, and gender inequality. Our Narcoqueens and Godfathers, aka African politicians, are so clueless they cannot fix the mess they have created. Hence, Africa has become unhabitable for many Africans. They have to seek primary livelihood anywhere, but in the shithole, they find themselves.   Let us demand accountability from the leaders who lead our respective countries.

Every action, no matter how small, can make a difference. Let us honour the memory of those who suffered under the Arab slave trade by working towards a future where no one must endure such horrors.

In the words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”


The Arab slave trade was a harrowing, centuries-long enterprise that enslaved millions of Africans and inflicted immense suffering. Its emphasis on sexual exploitation, particularly of women, has left enduring scars. This often-overlooked chapter of history continues to reverberate in complex ways. The next time you think of slavery, do not demonise the white man alone. Look deeper at the Arabs closer to us; they have been equally barbaric, perhaps even more.

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