‘How I escaped child slavery in Sudan’
Johannesburg - His tribal scars are the first thing you notice about Simon Deng.
He sits suited and collared and tied - a small blue pin on his lapel reading, “Freedom is not free.”
But it’s the line of scar tissue - 20 or so bumps stretching across his brow, from ear to ear - that catch the eye.
The first thing he did after escaping slavery was to have the markings of South Sudan’s Shilluk tribe cut into his flesh.
“For all those years that I was a slave, the dog lived better than I did,” he says.
“My slave master told me that to be treated like a human being, I must do three things: convert to Islam, take an Arab name, and become their son. To give up my identity. Now, nobody can take my identity away.”
Deng was nine when he was abducted, put on a boat going up the Nile and given to a northern Sudanese family as a “gift”.
For the next three-and-a-half years, he was the family’s beast of burden, doing chores, walking to and from the river carrying water.
“I was made to do things a child cannot do physically. It wasn’t easy, but did I have a choice? I was punished if I did not fulfil all my tasks.”
He was beaten, bullied, threatened. Run away and your legs will be cut off, he was told.
It’s difficult to imagine now. Deng sits in the restaurant of an upmarket hotel, pouring warm milk into his coffee - an award-winning abolitionist activist travelling the world to share his message that slavery is not history; that it is happening now.
But it was only after 20 years of freedom that Deng began to speak up.
For former slaves, speaking about their ordeal is taboo - shameful, says Deng. Even when he became a Sudanese long-distance swimming champion, he kept his experiences to himself.
But in 1993, having relocated to the US, he read a newspaper article that brought back the pain of his childhood.
“It said in Sudan you could buy a human being for $10. I could not believe what I saw. For three nights I couldn’t sleep. It haunted me. These were my people. This was my country. This was the very situation I had walked away from. But I was living in denial.”
Deng organised several walks across the US to raise awareness about slavery in his country, and to push for the independence of South Sudan.
“To look back and see where I am now, I consider myself a lucky victim. So many kids like me who went through what I went through will never have this opportunity, to go all over the world and speak to free people as a free person. I have a moral obligation to speak out on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves.”
It is a moral obligation that extends to countries with clout, he says. Countries like South Africa.
South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, yet the fighting between north and south persists.
“The AU is always sitting down to discuss Sudan - but the solutions do not materialise. Africa needs a fatherhead to look up to and South Africa is in a position to play that role. If South African leaders turn a blind eye to a child calling for help, that itself is immoral.”
South Africa has forces in Darfur, western Sudan, as part of the UN-AU operations in the region.
For Deng, freedom came in the form of the same tribal marks he now bears. Sent to market one day, he saw three men with the scars he’d seen back home.
“It was like the sun rising out from nowhere,” he says.
He approached the men, spilled out his story, his name, the names of his parents, his village, his tribe, speaking in his native tongue to convince them he was one of them. They knew somebody from the same village. Over the next few weeks, Deng’s escape was plotted.
Then, suddenly, he was on a steamer heading south and standing outside his mother’s hut and his sister was screaming and his mother was crying and the son they thought was long dead - the son who had been missing for three-and-a-half years, whose father had offered a reward of 10 cows for information on - was home.
Deng is still based in the US, but travels to South Sudan as often as he can. As for the north? “Never,” he says.
But that’s the point, having that choice.
“There was a time when I couldn’t say no, when all I knew was yes - and yes to everything. Now, without fear of torture or punishment, I can choose. I can say no. I am a free man.”
* For every 1 000 people in Africa, four will be pushed into modern-day slavery.
According to the International Labour Organisation, an estimated 20.9 million people around the world were victims of forced labour between 2002 and 2011.
Of these, 4.5 million were victims of forced sexual exploitation, while 14.2 million were forced into economic activities of the kind Simon Deng experienced, like agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing. Ten percent were at the mercy of state entities, like prisons or the army, or rebel forces.
More than half the victims were women and girls, and a quarter were children under the age of 17. Most of these victims were found in Asia, but in an unwelcome second place - with 3.7 million people in forced labour - was Africa.
Source: ILO 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour