A Slave in Sudan
Josephine Bakhita was born around the year 1869 in the troubled region of Darfur in the Sudan. The region has been a zone of conflict between Arabs and Africans for centuries, and this conflict would shape Bakhita’s life. In about 1875, Arab slave traders kidnapped her older sister and sold her into slavery; two years later, she was kidnapped herself and began a horrific, 12-year ordeal as a slave.
The slave traders forcibly converted her to Islam and marched her from her home to the city of El Obeid, a distance of about 600 miles. The kidnapping so traumatized her that she forgot her own name; she adopted the name the slavers gave her: Bahkita, meaning “lucky.”
During the march, she was sold twice; when she arrived at El Obeid she was sold again to a wealthy Arab merchant who assigned her as a maid to his two daughters. They liked her and treated her well, but at one point she accidentally broke a vase, which resulted in the merchant’s son beating her so badly that she could not leave her bed for days.
She was then sold to a Turkish general. She was expected to serve his mother-in-law and wife, both of whom treated Bakhita with extreme cruelty. She was whipped daily; she commented later that as soon as one wound from the whip began to heal, others would come. As they had done to their other slaves, they also inflicted scarification on her: They outlined patterns in flour on her breasts, abdomen, and right arm and then proceeded to cut the lines deeply into her skin with a razor. This was followed by rubbing salt into the wounds to guarantee that the cuts would produce visible scars. Bakhita had 114 scars on her body from this abuse.
The Mahdist War
The Turks were governing Sudan through their control of Egypt, but many Sudanese were unhappy with their rule. The Turks were seen as lax in their practice of Islam, and they allowed foreigners, including Sufis and Christians, into high government offices in the region. As a result, in the 1870s a Muslim cleric named Muhammad Ahmad began preaching a message that combined religious renewal and freedom from foreign control. He gained a following and began a revolt against the Turks, at which point he declared himself the Mahdi, essentially a Muslim Messiah.
By 1882, the Mahdists, as Muhammad Ahmad’s followers were called, were closing in on the city of El Obeid. Bakhita’s owner made preparations to return to Turkey, and so sold most of his slaves. He did keep ten of them, however, including Bakhita, to sell in Khartoum on his way home.
In Khartoum in 1883, Bakhita was purchased by her fifth owner, Italian Vice Consul Callisto Legnani. Unlike her previous masters, Legnani treated her kindly. When the Mahdist Revolt threatened Khartoum, he made plans to return to Italy. Bakhita begged him to let her come with him, and so in 1884 during the siege of Khartoum by the Mahdists, they slipped out of the city with Augusto Michieli, a friend of Legnani. They then made a very dangerous 450 journey by camel back to the port city of Suakin. The party set sail from Suakin and arrived in Geno in April, 1885. Michieli’s wife Turina greeted them there, and Legnani gave Bakhita to her as a gift.
Italy, Conversion, and Freeeom
Bakhita served the Michieli family for about three years, primarily in their villa about 16 miles west of Venice. Once again she was treated well. Her primary role was as a nanny for the family’s daughter. Michieli had commercial interests in the Sudan, and at one point the family moved there with Bakhita for nine months before returning to Italy. Then he acquired a large hotel in Suakin and decided to sell his family’s holdings in Italy and move the family permanently to Sudan. The sale was delayed, however, and Turina decided she wanted to see her husband, so in November, 1888, she left her daughter and Bakhita in the convent of the Canossian Sisters in Venice.
Through her time in Italy and especially in the convent, Bakhita came to know God. Pope Benedict XVI tells the story:
Coming to know God had been her heart’s desire since she was a child. She explained, “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see him, to know Him, and to pay Him homage. . . .”
When Turina returned to collect her daughter and Bakhita, Bakhita refused to leave the convent. Turina tried to force the issue, but the convent went to court to protect Bakhina. The Italian court ruled that since slavery had been outlawed in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth, and since slavery was illegal in Italy, Bakhita had never been legally a slave and thus was free to decide her own fate. She opted to stay in the convent and was baptized on January 9, 1890. She took the names Josephine Margaret and Fortunata (the Latin translation of Bakhita). She was confirmed and received Communion the same day from Giuseppe Sarto, the Archbishop of Venice and future Pope Pius X.
The Canossian Sisters
Three years later, she began the process of formally joining the Canossian Sisters and took her final vows as a nun in 1896. She was assigned to the convent at Schio in Vicenza in 1902, where she would remain for most of the rest of her life. While at this convent she worked as a cook, sacristan, and doorkeeper, and had regular contact with the community outside the convent. She was so kind and gentle that she was widely regarded as a living saint, to such an extent that the town thought her presence would protect them during World War II. (As it turns out, Schio was bombed but there was not a single death from the war.)
The only time she spent away from Schio was from 1935 to 1939, when she stayed at the Missionary Novitiate in Milan. She spent her time visiting Canossian convents and helping prepare sisters as missionaries to Africa. African missions work was very important to Josephine; her biographer said of her that “her mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa.”
Death and Canonization
Toward the end of her life, Josephine was confined to a wheelchair and suffered much sickness and pain. At one point, she had a flashback to her time as a slave, but through it all she maintained a remarkable peace with her circumstances. When asked how she was, she invariably replied, “As the Master wills.”
Josephine Bakhita died on February 8, 1947. Thousands came to pay their respects. She was canonized on October 1, 2000, and is the patron saint of Sudan. As is common practice in Catholicism, her feast day is February 8, the anniversary of her death, which has therefore been named as the International Day of Prayer to Stop Human Trafficking.
When asked by a student what she would say to her captors if she had the chance, Josephine replied instantly, “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 [i.e. a member of the Canossians] today.”