A precise date of birth cannot be given for Adrien Atiman but it is believed to have been between 1866 and 1868 in a village on the banks of the River Niger near Timbuktu, in present day Mali. At that time Timbuktu was a stronghold of the Tuareg tribe who were noted for their deep involvement in the slave trade.
In his address to the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in London in 1888, Cardinal Lavigerie referred to the situation: "The Tuaregs are the most frequent purveyors of these troops of human beings. Their hearts are as hard as the iron of their lances, and a handful of raw sorghum each evening, with a drop of water, are all that they give to the Slaves who travel, carrying the horrible Slave yoke. If anyone falls it is instant death - the experienced eye of the merchant can judge whether his victim is likely to escape from him by death before the end of the journey. If he feel sure of this, he finishes him off with one blow of his club - the hyenas and the jackals will come and devour their flesh, leaving blanched skeletons to mark the road to the markets of Morocco or Fez."
It was the Tuaregs who kidnapped Adrien Atiman when he was a young child: "I had already lost my front teeth, which naturally fall out at the age of seven or eight." Years later he guessed he must have been around 10 years old and went on to describe his capture: "One day after a feast at which mutton was roasted over a big fire, some pale-faced men, who I think were Tuaregs, were quite near by. My father lifted me up and took me to a village, whose name I do not know, where I remained for 2 or 3 weeks. Afterwards I was brought back to Toundurma.
"Possibly one month passed, when I was spirited away to the village where I had been hidden the previous month. A few days later, about midday, I was taken and hidden behind some large sacks of flour covered with palm leaves. Then a Tuareg entered by force, discovered me, seized me, put me on the back of his camel and left at a gallop."
For three weeks Adrien remained in a Tuareg encampment and after that was sold to slave traders in Timbuktu for a jug of salt. The Arab who bought him put him in a sack and took him on a trek of over 1,100 miles to Metlili in Algeria. However during the journey he was sold to another Arab, with whom he completed the journey and found himself in Metlili. In his old age Adrien recollected that he was reasonably treated.
Two White Fathers, Frs. Deguerry and Delauney, spotted Adrien for sale at the salve market in Metlili. They had been instructed by Archbishop Lavigerie to buy slave boys in order to free them, educate them, and hopefully encourage them to become missionaries to Africa. Cardinal Lavigerie realised early on that 'foreign' missionaries would never suffice to carry out the enormous task of bringing the Gospel to Africa. They would never be able to enter completely into the heart and soul of the African.
Adrien was the first black African the priests had purchased in Algeria; the others had all been Arabs. He was sent to Algiers, together with 5 others who had been ransomed at the same time, and was put in an orphanage of ex-slaves to begin his education. Archbishop Lavigerie took great personal interest in their training and, when an old man, Adrien gave his impression of him in the following way: "The Cardinal was an imposing figure, tall, with a severe face and a large beard, like his photograph. Proud in bearing, with a voice making all to tremble. His eyes were in keeping with his voice, and no timid person could withstand him."
Eventually, Adrien was chosen to continue his studies at St. Eugene, a junior seminary. However, it was soon discovered he was too young for studies there so he was sent to the White Sisters at Birmandreis. While with them, he showed that he had a mind of his own and was not prepared to be moulded and shaped as others would have him. Quite soon he was ready to return to St. Eugene.
With the advice of the seminary staff, Archbishop Lavigerie suggested to Adrien that he should study medicine. The initial training was to be in Carthage. The idea was to train the boys to become 'Doctor-Catechists' so that they could return to their own countries, if possible, with the missionaries. Adrien agreed to this and thus his religious education began in Carthage. There he was admitted to the catechumenate on his third request.
In July, 1881, Adrien was sent with some of his companions to Malta to receive his medical education at the institute established by Archbishop Lavigerie. Their tutors were University professors and their practical training was undertaken at Malta's Central Hospital. While in Malta, on the 12th. July 1882, Adrien and his companions were baptised at their own request.
During the celebration of Pope Leo XIII's golden jubilee in 1888, Cardinal Lavigerie led a pilgrimage from Africa to Rome, taking Adrien and his companions along. They were received in audience by the Pope on numerous occasions and it was during this Roman visit that Adrien decided to offer his life to the service of God and mankind.
On his return to Malta, Adrien completed his medical course and received a certificate proclaiming his competence in Medicine, Surgery and Midwifery. Before leaving for Africa, he and his companions, also trained as 'Doctor-Catechists', accompanied Cardinal Lavigerie on his anti-slavery crusade in France, with obvious dramatic effects.
Adrien chose to join a White Father caravan for East Africa, setting sail from Marseilles for Zanzibar on 16th. July, 1888, with Bishop Bridoux, several other White Fathers and 'Doctor-Catechists'.
used are from the White Fathers archives. Picture One: The first class of
the Medical Institute, Malta, 1881-82. Amongst them is Adrien
Picture Two: Cardinal Lavigerie in Malta.
Picture Three: The pilgrims to Rome in 1888 on the occasion of Pope Leo XIII's jubilee
This article first appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK), issue
304, of June-July 1992.
It may be published freely with due acknowledgements to the "White Fathers - White Sisters" magazine.
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An Ex-Slave - Adrien Atiman Part Two