By Celeste Hicks
BBC News, Mali
Iddar Ag Ogazide is taking a break from digging and shovelling in 40C Malian Sahel heat. He is happy just to be working.
"Today I am a free man, I am longer a slave. I am among men who are the same colour as me who consider me as a man. I earn 1,000 CFA ($2, £1) a day, and that covers my needs," he says.
The idea of a salary is something Iddar is just getting used to, having dramatically escaped from his life in the hamlet of Intakabarte, outside Gao, in February this year.
According to Iddar, his grandmother was bought as a slave by the Tuareg Ag Baye family, and from then on she was listed as taxable property on the Ag Baye's religious tax form.
Iddar says he was inherited by his master, beaten several times, and never received pay or an education.
The final straw for Iddar came when his three-year-old son Ahmed was taken away to work for a niece of the Ag Baye family.
"I decided I would have to go and get him so I hatched a plan. I told my master that I needed to take Ahmed to his grandparents," he says.
"I said we would both return the next day, but we never went back."
Iddar was fortunate to find members of the Bamako-based human rights organisation Temedt to help him when he fled to Gao, about 1,200km north-east from the capital, Bamako.
According to Temedt, there may be thousands of people still living either in slavery or slavery-like conditions in modern Mali.
"The situation has not changed with the arrival of democracy," says Mohammed Ag Akeratane, the president of Temedt.
Although the government formally ended slavery in the 1960s after independence, Temedt says it is still practised in the far north of the country between Berber-descended Tuareg nomads and darker-skinned Bella or Black Tamasheq people.
It is also believed to exist in other groups such as Songhai and Peul.
But many argue that the situation cannot truly be described as slavery.
Life is harsh in the Sahara's hinterland - in towns such as Ansongo and Menaka much property and livestock remains in Tuareg hands.
Some argue that with few jobs and opportunities, it may be easier for some Bella to live within what is regarded as the protection of a Tuareg family.
"For example, I have an encampment and many people have come to live with us, seeking refuge from war and famine," says Mahmoud Ag Hattabo, the Tuareg mayor of Tinahamma near Gao.
"They help us with rearing the animals and general work.
"But this is not slavery like you would find in the Koran."
'Free to leave'
The Malian authorities seem to agree.
Iddar and his wife may seek compensation
"The Bella people are free to leave their masters if they wish," said a source, who asked not to be named, in Mali's Territorial Administration department.
"If people came out to declare openly that they are slaves then of course the state would do something."
But for Temedt, which means solidarity in the Tamasheq language of the north, it is time for Mali to face reality.
"Slavery is taboo, no-one wants to talk about it," says Mr Ag Akeratane. "Particularly at the level of the authorities they will not accept that it persists."
The case of Iddar Ag Ogazide, and several other escapees in Gao, is clear-cut for Anti-Slavery International, a London-based human rights organisation and campaign group which supports Temedt.
"Like his parents before him, Iddar was born a slave, a status ascribed to him at birth, and grew up under the total control of a master who exacted labour from him for no remuneration", says Anti-Slavery International's Romana Cacchioli.
"In my view Iddar's case is a clear case of slavery."
Temedt has instructed a lawyer to work with Iddar to see if he has a case for compensation.
But this is difficult because although Mali has signed international conventions against slavery and the nation's constitution states that all men are born equal, there is no domestic law banning the practice.
"The difficulty of constructing a case for Iddar demonstrates the need for a law criminalising slavery in Mali," says Mr Cacchioli.
To hear more about slavery and identity in Mali listen to African Perspective on the BBC World Service on Sunday 24 August 2008 at 1106 GMT and 2106 GMT. The programme will be available for a week on the website.