NIAMEY, Niger — When Ilguilas Weila left his village at age 7 to go to school in a distant town in southern Niger, other children's parents asked a question that burned his ears: "Who owns that boy?"
They were surprised to hear that he belonged to no one. The casual, indifferent way in which people talked about slavery was almost as shocking to him as the fact that it was practiced in Niger, one of the world's poorest countries.
"I was horrified to hear that somebody could own a human being. I never lost that memory. It changed my life completely," said Weila, 47, who went on to found the anti-slavery organization Timidria in 1991.
Authorities in this country south of the Sahara deny that slavery exists, although opposition lawmakers say that about 10% of the members of parliament keep slaves or are from slave-owning families.
Niger made slavery a criminal offense in April 2004, but the government has done little to enforce the law. Critics say government efforts to suppress or downplay reports of slavery have made it difficult for activists to expose the practice or win the release of slaves.
Niger's slave caste, known as the bellah, is made up of descendants of villagers seized as slaves by victorious chiefs in tribal wars centuries ago. They aren't locked up, but they're held captive by bonds that are just as strong: fear and tradition.
No guards watch over the slaves as they fetch water, shop in the market or do other chores, but Weila says they keep returning to their owners not only because they are afraid to run, but also because they cannot imagine themselves as anything else.
"They always come back. They were born in the family of the master. They know nothing else," Weila said. After generations in servitude to one family, he said, a typical female slave could not imagine freedom nor her right to it.
"Psychologically for her, it is her duty to serve her master up until death," he said. "She thinks that even in paradise she is going to serve this master."
In Niger, pale- and dark-skinned tribes alike keep slaves; what sets masters apart from slaves is often the quality of their dress and ornaments. Slaves wear the roughest clothing, and their children are often naked.
Some slaves endure beatings and humiliation. But others live almost as low-caste extensions of the master's family. Their food and living conditions are inferior, but it is the only existence they know.
The slaves do all the domestic work and animal herding for their masters, who also decide when and who they can marry. Often masters take girls as concubines, known as "fifth wives." Muslim law allows men to marry four women. A slave's children belong to the master and are sometimes sold or given away to other slave-owning families.
Educating communities -- masters and slaves -- that slavery is wrong and illegal will take years, Weila said.
The British human rights organization Anti-Slavery International reports that there are at least 43,000 slaves in Niger, which has 11.8 million people. But the organization says the real number could be much higher. Weila's group, Timidria, has helped release just over 200 people.
Last September, a Tuareg tribal chief named Arrissal Ag Amdagh in remote western Niger announced that he would set free 7,000 slaves held by 23 tribal chiefs, including himself. He wrote to Timidria seeking financial support, and the organization helped organize a ceremony to free them.
But the ceremony never took place, and the fate of the slaves is not known. Timidria and Anti-Slavery International claim that government officials warned slave owners they could be prosecuted if the ceremony went ahead.
Niger's authorities accused Weila and another Timidria activist, Alassane Biga, of trying to dupe Anti-Slavery International into providing funds to support the released slaves. The British organization rejects the claim. Weila and Biga, arrested on fraud charges, have been released on bail but could still face trial.
Garba Lompo, the head of Niger's government-appointed National Commission for Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties, insists that there is no "real" slavery left, only psychological slavery.
"Slavery doesn't exist," Lompo said. "It is not the masters who sought out the slaves. There are people who go to a master and say, 'I know my great-grandfather was your family's slave and now I am your slave.' Even if they have no salary, they refuse to leave the master because they are at ease with the master."
But Romana Cacchioli, an activist from Anti-Slavery International, says that slavery in Niger takes many forms, from quasi-serfs working a master's land, receiving a cropping income and paying an annual tithe, to what she calls "pure" slavery, where people work hard each day with no income and no rights.
All forms of slavery exact "a cruel toll on an entire class of people whose inferiority is a given in Niger society," she said.