(Published in Leadership magazine, Uganda, February 2017)
Josephine Margaret Bakhita, was born in 1869 in the western Sudanese region of Darfur; in the village of Olgossa, west of Nyala and close to Mount Agilerei and died on 8 February 1947. Josephine was her baptismal name and the popular name Bakhita, meaning Fortunate was given by her slave-kidnappers. She was a Sudanese-born former slave who became a Canossian Religious Sister in Venice, Italy, living and working there for 45 years. In 2000 she was declared a saint by the Catholic Church by Pope St. John Paul II.
Bakhita belonged to the prestigious Daju people; her well respected and reasonably prosperous father was brother of the village chief. She was surrounded by a loving family of three brothers and three sisters; as she says in her autobiography: “I lived a very happy and carefree life, without knowing what suffering”.
Slaves do not have names or history, so does Bakhita. Sometime between the age of seven to nine, probably in February 1877, Bakhita was kidnapped by Arab slave traders, who already had kidnapped her elder sister two years earlier. She was cruelly forced to walk barefoot about 960 kilometers (600 miles) to El Obeid and was already sold and bought twice before she arrived there. Over the course of twelve years (1877–1889) she was resold again three more times and then given away. It is said that the trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her own name; she took one given to her by the slavers, bakhita, Arabic for lucky. She was also forcibly converted to Islam.
Bakhita has gone through all sorts of torture and humiliation that is part of slavery. According to her, the most terrifying of all her memories there was when she was marked by a process resembling both scarification and tattooing. As her mistress was watching her with a whip in her hand, a dish of white flour, a dish of salt and a razor were brought by a woman. She used the flour to draw patterns on her skin and then she cut deeply along the lines before filling the wounds with salt to ensure permanent scarring. A total of 114 intricate patterns were cut into her breasts, belly, and into her right arm.
The ownership of Bakhita’s slavery changed hands several times. Finally she was bought and relived of slavery by the Italian Vice Consul Callisto Legnani in 1883 who treated her humanely. When he returned to Italy two years later she travelled with him. After a difficult journey through deserts and ports she reached Genoa in April 1885. Later she became a part of the household of Augusto Michieli and Signora Maria Turina Michieli, where Bakhita became a family nanny. The family accommodated her in the beautiful town of Venice.
The kind family even took her to the Sudan for few months. During one of their travels they left Bakhita in the custody of Canosian Sisters in Venice. When the family returned Bakhita firmly refused to leave the convent and the superior of the institute with the help of Italian government authorities formalized her stay and finally Bakhita was allowed to remain with the Canossians. On January 9, 1890 Bakhita was baptised with the names of Josephine Margaret and Fortunata On the same day she was also confirmed and received Holy Communion from Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, the future Pope Pius X.
With God’s grace Bakhita entered the novitiate of the Canossian Sisters and once again Cardinal Sarto received her vows on 8 December 1896. Later she was assigned to the convent at Schio where she spent the rest of her life. She spent her life visiting other Canossian communities in Italy, talking about her experiences and all the great things the Lord had done for her. A strong missionary drive animated her throughout her entire life – “her mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa”. She also helped and prepared young novices and Sisters for missionary work.
During her 42 years with the Canossian Sisters she did humble jobs such as the cook, sacristan and door keeper which made her to be in close contact with the local community. Her gentleness, assuring and loving voice and friendly smile gained her name as Sor Moretta (Little Brown Sister) or Madre Moretta (Black Mother). Together with human qualities she exhibited a high degree of sanctity. Her humble yet profound life soon became popular throughout Italy. During the Second World War she shared the fears and concerns of the local community and prayed for them unceasingly.
Though having suffered humiliation and torture Sr. Bakhita lived a serene and composed life. She never expressed any anger or hatred towards her tormentors. A young student once asked her: “What would you do, if you were to meet your captors?” Without hesitation she responded: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today”. This was possible only due to her prayerfulness and holy life.
On 1 December 1978, Pope John Paul II declared Josephine Venerable, the first step towards canonization. On 17 May 1992, she was declared Blessed and given February 8 as her feast day. On 1 October 2000, she was canonized and became Saint Josephine Bakhita. Now she is the patron saint of the Sudan. Let us pray that this patron may bring peace to the Sudan and bring freedom and consolation of all persecuted people of God.