Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869 in a small village in Darfur. Her uncle was a tribal chief of the Daju people and from all accounts, she had a relatively prosperous early childhood. In February 1877, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders and forced to walk 600 miles to a slave market. For the next 12 years, she was bought and sold several times. She was often beaten and tortured. Through the trauma, she forgot her name. At some point she was forcibly converted to Islam.
In 1883, she was sold to the Italian Vice Consul. He took her back to Italy, where she was given to another family to serve as a nanny. When the family traveled, Josephine was placed in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. The Canossians were founded just a few decades earlier, and they had done mission work in Hong Kong, Macau, and other parts of East Asia.
With the sisters, Josephine learned more about God and devoted her life to him. When her owners returned to Italy, she refused to leave the sisters. The sisters petitioned the court on Josephine’s behalf, and the Italian court determined that Josephine was not a slave (slavery had already been outlawed in Sudan when she was first kidnapped), and she was free to live her own life.
In 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and took the name Josephine Margaret Fortunata (Fortunata is the Latin translation of the Arabic name Bakhita). The bishop who gave her the sacraments was the future Pope Pius X. Josephine joined the Canossian Daughters of Charity and worked as a cook and doorkeeper. She also prepared missionary sisters for work in Africa.
Josephine was known for being cheerful and agreeable. It’s hard to imagine how one could find happiness after a life of such pain and dehumanization. It was said that “her mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa.” A book on her life published in the 1930s made her popular in Italy. When she died in 1947, thousands came to pay their respects. Her story has a happy ending, but it still feels bitter, because I know so many of her people never found their freedom.
St. Josephine Bakhita’s feast day is February 8. She is the patron of Sudan.