Josephine Bakhita - an African Saint

Josphine Bakhita. Painting in the Cathedral of El Obeid (Sudan)Content 
» Childhood 
» In slavery 
» Becoming a religious woman 
» Bakhita, the nun 
» From slave to Saint 

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- If I was to meet those slave raiders that abducted me and those who tortured me, I'd kneel down to them to kiss their hands, because, if it had not have been for them, I would not have become a Christian and religious woman.

On 1 October 2000, the Catholic Church, and especially African Catholics, were enriched with another Saint. Josephine Bakhita, born in Darfur (Sudan) in 1869, died in Schio (Italy) 8 February 1947, was canonized by the Pope in the Vatican, calling her Our Universal Sister. This amazingly strong women made it from an ill-treated slave to a unifying symbol for African Catholics and women.

Bakhita is the first person ever from Sudan to be canonized, or even beatified. She is the first African to be canonized since the early centuries of Christianity, when several North Africans (one of the cores of Christianity before it turned Muslim) were declared Saints. She already has been a symbol of faith and unity for Christians in the war-ravaged country of Sudan for long time, and 8 February is celebrated all over the Christian parts of Sudan. 

Her canonization has given great pride to the Christian community of Sudan. Therefore, in celebration of this historic move by the Catholic Church, presents a short biography of the life of this great, Sudanese, holy woman.

The real name of Bakhita is not known, nor her date of birth, but it assumed that she was born in the small Darfur village of Olgossa in today's Southern Sudan in 1869. There, she grew up with her parents, her three brothers and her two sisters, one of them a twin sister. 

Still a little girl, she experiences an omen of what is going to be her destiny. While she helps out her parents in the fields, Olgossa is attacked by slave raiders and her sister, looking out for an infant at home, is captured and abducted. In her autobiography Bakhita later writes: "I remember how much mum was crying and how much we too were crying."

Outside the established empires where protection was given, the entire Sudan belt at that time still constituted a raiding ground for various groups of armed slave raiders. The slave trade had, at this time, turned from the American market (the trans-Atlantic slave trade was practically abolished) to Arab markets in the north, and internal slavery in African empires. Darfur nominally belonged to the British-Egyptian Dominion of Sudan, were the slave trade had been forbidden in 1856. The trade, however, was not checked by government, and outside the colonial centres, the only places with a strong European presence, slave raiding went on as it had still for decades. Only after the effective occupation of the Sudan interior, early 20th century, the practice of slave raiding slowly was abolished in practical terms. Slavery, on the other hand, has persisted until our days.

Bakhita tells about her personal meeting with these slave raiders. 

I was approximately nine years old when I, one early morning, walked around the fields, a bit far away from home, with a companion. Suddenly, we saw two strangers appear from behind a fence. One of them told my companion: 'Let the small girl go into the forest for me to pick me some fruits. Meanwhile, you continue on your walk. We'll catch up with you soon'. His objective was to fool my friend so that she wouldn't give the alarm while they were capturing me. 

I, of course, did not suspect anything and hurried to obey, which my mother had accustomed me to do. Once we were in the forest, I saw two persons behind me. One of them briskly grabbed me with one hand, while the other one pulled out a knife from his belt and held it to my side. He told me "If you cry, you'll die! Follow us!" with a lordly voice.

Bakhita means "fortunate one" - a name given her by the same slave raiders that forcefully removed the nine year old girl from her family and village. The girl was so traumatized by the experience that she was unable to remember her name. The abductors reportedly noted her special charisma and chose the name Bakhita for her.

In slavery
Bakhita was taken to the Kordofan town of El Obeid and held as a slave by the Arab slave traders that had captured her for a few years. She was soon sold on the slave market, however. All in all, she was subject to this trade in humans five times, on the slave markets of El Obeid and Khartoum, the colonial capital. She tried to escape several times, but did not succeed. Her fourth owners, in Khartoum, were those who treated her worst and subdued her to various forms of humiliations and torture. Her most terrifying memory was that of being tattooed with the age of 13, she later recalled. All in all 114 marks were cut into her body and treated for one month pouring salt into the wounds. "I felt I was going to die any moment, especially when they rubbed me in with the salt," Bakhita wrote in her biography.

Her fifth and last buyer was the Italian Consul and trader Calixto Leganini. Calixto bought Bakhita on the Khartoum slave market in 1882, and for the first time was treated well. "This time," Bakhita wrote, "I really was the fortunate one, because the new master was a very good man and started to like me. I was not punished or whipped, so that it all seemed unreal to me, being able to enjoy such peace and tranquility." 

As the Mahdist troops reached Khartoum in 1884 and expulsed the Anglo-Egyptian colonists, Laganini, along with other Europeans fled the Sudan. Bakhita begged Leganini and finally was allowed to follow her fleeing patron and one of his friend, Augusto Michieli, to Italy.

Arriving Italy, Michili's wife expected them at the harbour. On the sight of the accompanying African servants, Mrs. Michieli begged to obtain one of them, and she was given Bakhita. Thus, Bakhita followed her new "family" to Ziango, a village in the province of Venice. During the three years she lived together with the Michieli family, Bakhita served as the nanny and friend of their daughter Minnina. However, in 1888, the family bought a hotel in Suakin, the Red Sea coast of Sudan, and Mrs. Michieli followed her husband to help maintaining the hotel. Bakhita stayed in Italy.

Becoming a religious woman
Taking advice from the order of the Canossa Sisters of Venice, Bakhita and Mimmina, Michieli's daughter, went to live in the Institute of Catechism in Venice. The congregation had been founded in 1808 by the holy Magdalena Gabriela di Canossa, which called it the Institute of the Daughters of Charity, but it is more commonly called the Canossa Sisters. Their aim was to educate poor girls, serve in hospitals and catechize in the parishes. 

Here, in the Institute, she learned to know the God of the Christians, and she said that here, she recognised the God that she had "experienced in her heart without knowing who it was" since she had been a child, and which had given her force while in slavery. She was baptised on 9 January 1890, and received, at the same time, her first communion and confirmation by the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice. At this occasion, she took the Christian name Josefina Margarita Afortunada

It is told that Bakhita did have problems expressing her joy. But the joy she experienced through her religion was often observed at the font where she was baptised, kissing it and saying: "Here I became one of the daughters of God!" Here biography expresses that she, for each day she spent at the Institute, became more and more aware of who this God was, "that had lead here to him in such a strange way." 

As Mrs. Michieli returned from Sudan, she came to take the daughter and Bakhita with her to Africa. But, with unheard of firmness and courage, Bakhita said she would not go, and that she preferred to serve her God together with the Canossa Sisters. It is said that this very much infuriated Mrs. Michili, and that she insisted on that Bakhita went with her. However, the Institute leader contacted the Cardinal and the Royal Governor, which declared that, since slavery was illegal in Italy, Bakhita was free to make her own, autonomous choices. Thus, she stayed in the Institute, and soon realised her vocation to become a sister of the order. She reached that goal on 7 December 1893, 38 years old.

Bakhita, the nun
Her remaining 50 years of life, she served as a nun. In 1902, the was transferred from Venice to Schio, in the Northern Italian province of Vicenza, were she worked as a sewer, cook and porter and took care of the poor. Soon, she got a reputation for being a holy person. However, she was known for neither miracles nor supernatural experiences - on the contrary. She is known to have been modest and reserved, taking the faith into her spiritual inners and performing the most usual day to day routines. 

Therefore, it is a hardship for her, being ordered to write her autobiography and to travel around to tell about her incredible life story. She started on her memoirs in 1910, and they finally were published in 1930. In 1929, she was ordered to go to Venice and start telling about her experiences. After the biography was released, Bakhita soon became a famous personality all over Italy, and she had to travel around the country making speeches and collecting donations for the order.

On her old days, Bakhita was troubled with a failing health, and she was forced into a wheelchair. However, she continued traveling and figuring a model of charity, even if her last years were marked by pain and diseases. In her pain, she went through the terrible experience of slavery once again, and reportedly told the nurse taking care of her several times "Please loosen the chains ... they are so heavy!" When she died on 8 February 1947 in Schio, her last words were "Madonna! Madonna!"

Her dead body was put on lit-de-parade for three days. Thousands passed her bier to express their mourning and respect. She had become famous for her charity and piety all over the country. The mourning crowd is said to have noted that her joints stayed flexibles all these days, and mothers took her lifeless hand and put it on the heads of their children praying for salvation. Her reputation as a holy woman had been consolidated. Josephine was for ever to be remembered and respected as "Our Black Mother", nostra Madre Moretta, in Schio.

From slave to Saint 
As the popular voices arose to sanctify her, in 1959, already 12 years after her death, the local diocese started its investigations whether Bakhita could be found honourable. The investigations turned out positive, and she was declared Venerabilis (Honourable) on 1 December 1978. Thus the process of declaring her a Saint could start, and on 17 May 1992, she was beatified. 8 February was declared her official day of worship.

On the occasion of her beatification, Pope John Paul II praised her for "leaving us a message of reconciliation and evangelic forgiveness in a world so much divided and hurt by hatred and violence. She, that was the victim of the worst injuries of all times, namely slavery, herself declared: 'If I was to meet those slave raiders that abducted me and those who tortured me, I'd kneel down to them to kiss their hands, because, if it had not been for them, I would not have become a Christian and religious woman'."

On 1 October 2000, she is canonized, or made a Saint of the Catholic Church. Catholic missionaries has been in contact with state that this was a long needed symbol to honour African Christianity, African women and making a statement against the brutal history of slavery, were also the Catholic society once was deeply involved.

- What can this African Saint teach us people of today? the Spanish missionary journal Mundo Negro asked. The editor José Luis Lisalde answers by saying that "Bakhita taught us the path of liberation. The path she followed and that lead her from slavery to freedom still has to be walked by so many people that are subject to a variety of forms of slavery."

Bakhita is truly the most African Saint, and her life story is a story of the Continent, concerning Catholics, Protestants, Muslims or followers of traditional African religions. Her spirituality and endurance makes her Our Universal Sister, as the Pope called her. 

Sources: Mundo Negro, Vatican, Katolsk Tidsskrift, Kirchenlexikon, etc.

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