The Sudanese Slave Who Became a Servant of God
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s a good reason why she is the patron saint of human trafficking victims.
By Dan Peleschuk
Considering the ordeal she lived through, Josephine Bakhita couldn’t have been bestowed a more ironic name by her Arab captors. Kidnapped from her childhood home in Sudan’s Darfur region by slave traders in the late 19th century, Bakhita (meaning “fortunate one” in Arabic) spent more than a decade in captivity.
In the end, the name proved uncannily prophetic. Winding up in the possession of a European diplomat, Bakhita embarked on a journey that led her to an Italian convent and, eventually, to freedom and a new life, one marked by her devotion to faith.
Bakhita, the patron saint of human trafficking victims, is one of the more remarkable characters in the history of the Catholic Church. Described by Pope John Paul II as “a shining advocate of genuine emancipation,” her saga still resonates as her home country continues to struggle with its painfully recent legacy of slavery. “This is the longest-running type of abuse that human societies have exacted upon some of the weaker portions of those populations,” says Jok Madut Jok, a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University and co-founder of the Sudd Institute in South Sudan.
A life marked by hatred and despair became a model of love and hope.
Raymond J. de Souza, a Catholic priest, on Josephine Bakhita
Born in 1869 into a relatively comfortable Sudanese home, Bakhita wasn’t the first member of her family to endure forced labor. Several years before Bakhita’s abduction at the age of 8 or 9, her sister was also snatched from their village. A lucrative slave trade in the region was being contested by rival foreign rulers. When Bakhita was kidnapped, she was playing with a friend in a field near her home.
Legend has it that Bakhita was so traumatized by the episode that she couldn’t remember her birth name, spurring the traders — possibly in mockery — to bestow her with her new one. Bakhita spent the next 11 years or so being passed from owner to owner, none of whom showed much mercy. “I do not recall a day that passed without a wound,” she later said about her time with a Turkish slave owner. During her decade of enslavement, Bakhita accumulated many scars.
But Bakhita’s fortunes began to change in her late teens, when she was purchased by an Italian consul to Sudan named Callisto Legnani. So began her journey to Europe.
Gifted by Legnani to another Italian family in need of a caretaker for their daughter, Bakhita accompanied the young woman when she left Sudan and entered a convent school near Venice run by the Canossian Daughters of Charity, a religious order. There, Bakhita was given a crucifix; one of the first things she ever owned, it is believed to have helped spark her curiosity about Jesus Christ and the tenets of Christian faith. Perhaps even more important was the kindness extended to her by the sisters, the sort of kindness she hadn’t received in years.
The experience wasn’t without its tribulations, though. Technically still a slave, Bakhita was ordered home by the Italian family. By then, however, she had been swayed by the sisters, who helped make her case to an Italian court, which declared that slavery was illegal in Italy — and that it had been banned in Bakhita’s homeland before she was even born, according to the Encyclopedia of Blacks in European History and Culture. She was finally freed.
Baptized shortly after, and following a few more years as a resident of the convent, Bakhita took her vows in December 1896. She spent the next several decades performing odds jobs around the convent, from cooking and cleaning to welcoming guests.
It’s unclear whether she performed any miracles, usually a key requirement of sainthood. Rather, church historians note, Bakhita’s experiences — especially her refusal to return to slavery — served as examples. “A life marked by hatred and despair became a model of love and hope,” wrote Raymond J. de Souza, a Catholic priest, in the National Catholic Register earlier this year. Bakhita died on Feb. 8, 1947, a date which later became her feast day. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000.
Fast-forward a few decades, and few things have changed in Bakhita’s homeland. Yes, Sudan and South Sudan are no longer torn between foreign conquerors as they were during Bakhita’s lifetime. But the vicious civil war that precipitated their split was marked by violence inflicted on often innocent locals, especially by the Sudanese government, as leverage against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. “In a sense,” says Jok, “you were fighting a war by destabilizing communities of the noncombatants.”
Bakhita herself harbored no grudges. Asked later in life if she would face her captors, she said she’d “kneel down to them to kiss their hands.” Why? “Because if it had not been for them,” she said, “I would not have become a Christian and religious woman.”
- Dan Peleschuk