Saint Bakhita’s Lasting Legacy

By MA Student Ngoltoingar Sunshine Chantal Bayor

In this essay, we will explore two lives, Saint Bakhita’s and mine, to understand and share the unique connection between her story and mine.

There is a historical relationship between the people of South Sudan and Chad. Eastern Chad and Western Sudan populations established social and religious ties long before either nation’s independence. These nations maintained strong ties despite disputes between governments. Muslims in eastern Chad often traveled through Sudan on the hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and many young people from east Chad studied at Islamic schools in Sudan. However, relations between Chad and Sudan have been strained due to the conflict in Darfur and a civil war in Chad, which both governments accuse the other of supporting.

Saint Bakhita’s life is an extraordinary story that I discovered in 2017. A priest from the Marian Brother’s community gave me her film, and I was happy to know that she was from South Sudan, the same community in Africa as me.

I ran into my room and started watching her movie. But I could not finish it the first time, because I was crying. It was so hard to watch. The film of Saint Bakhita was the trigger for my healing. Although suffering is not a comparable thing where one can attest that there is a lesser form than another, her life helped me realize that there are worse things on earth, and I have learned to put mine into perspective. Life is God’s gift and should be pleasant and beautiful; no human must suffer to live.

Saint Bakhita was sold at seven years old. I was raped at eight years old. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, security is the first need of a human being at this age. Saint Bakhita and I were not given that privilege. This need for safety was been brutally broken.

At the age of 11, I was forced by my paternal aunts to be mutilated. According to their belief, custom, and tradition, every girl should be introduced to this ritual in order to be protected by ancestral tradition and learn to become a girl. This ritual consists of being taken to the bush between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. and having the girl’s clitoris cut off without anesthesia to shed blood and invoke the protection of the gods on the girl. This cruel ritual was imposed on me at 11 years old. The traditional practitioner of the ritual made me swear never to reveal the truth; if I did, I would die. They performed the ritual early because they needed pure blood for their sacrifice, but I was not pure, and they did not know it. Maybe that is the reason why I can reveal the secret.

Bakhita, at age 14, was acquired in 1883 by the Italian consul in Khartoum, Calisto Legnani, who gave Joséphine’s middle name and treated her more humanely.

At age 14, I had to negotiate with my father, who was Muslim at the time, to convert to Christianity. He accepted, but with the condition that I must be among the top five in my class. So, I made it my academic goal to obtain the grades I needed for the freedom to choose my religion. My dad was a Muslim, and although my mother was Christian, we were automatically born Muslim, and we had to follow Islamic rules. But I had the grace to negotiate and obtain my freedom at 14; I was first in class, and I was able to be baptized on December 8, 1990, at a Baptist church. I became the first Christian child of my family.

On December 7, 1893, having expressed her wish to become religious, Bakhita joined the Sisters of Charity’s novitiate at the Venice catechumenate institute. She pronounced her first vows on December 8, 1896, in Verona. In 1902, she transferred to Schio, province of Vicenza in North-East Italy, where, for more than fifty years, she took care of the kitchen, laundry, and concierge. She also traveled to other convents to share her knowledge of Africa and prepare other sisters to go there. On January 9, 1890, she was baptized, confirmed, and received her first Holy Communion.

On March 7, 2015, I left my country following the tragic death of my daughter. It is important to note that my daughter was born disabled following the consequences of excision because my genital parts were destroyed, and I cannot give birth by standard delivery. I needed a cesarean, but the doctors did not know this and did not perform one. They waited too long. My daughter came out without oxygen and was therefore disabled; she lived 12 years without speaking or walking, with many health problems. Then, her death was one more shock that brought me back into trauma. I had to run away from my country and relocate to the United States to seek healing because I was disgusted and empty of all strength and will. I no longer had the courage to fight.

In 2017, seeing the film of Saint Bakhita not only made me cry seriously for the first time, but I didn’t know if it was her story that made me cry or if her story helped me to see my life through her and compelled me to cry. Her story opened my life to healing.

I realized in writing this article that, seven years ago today, God chose the film of Saint Bakhita to heal me and free me from the chain of pain. From the vicious and pernicious slavery that my parents put me through in the form of excision.

The Female Genital Mutilation effect is a horrible form of slavery. FGM is not only a blood sacrifice but a submission through the ritual by the little girl’s parents and, finally, a preparation for the girl to accept polygamy without question. The girl has been empty of all her essence of femininity and traumatized since her childhood. Then, the little girl quickly becomes an object, manageable in the hands of her parents and then of her “husband,” whom she must share silently and incisively with “four others” or even more depending on the financial capacities of her husband to acquire goods, wives, and materials. After having emptied the girl of all of her essence of femininity and humanity, she is ready to be considered, in this part of the world, less than the furniture in “the house.”

Saint Bakhita underwent the same ritual. Afterward, still a young child, she was kidnapped from her family and enslaved by Arab slave traders in early 1877. The terrified girl was bought and sold at least two times over the next few months and forced to walk hundreds of miles on foot to a slave market in Al-Ubayyiḍ in south-central Sudan. Over the next decade of enslavement, Josephine was passed from owner to owner, bought and sold so many times that she forgot her birth name.

The goal of all these pains and attacks on Saint Bakhita’s life and mine was to make us lose our identity, our femininity, and our humanity. She lost her birth name, and at some point during her captivity, she was given the name Bakhita, which is Arabic for “fortunate.” How can one be “fortunate” and suffer like this? Saint Bakhita was fortunate because the meeting with the religious sisters was the beginning of a new story in her life. For me, the meeting with the Marian Brothers and the film of Saint Bakhita have been the keys used by God for my healing and the beginning of a new life in the United States of America.

In 1927, Saint Bakhita pronounced her perpetual vows. She was given the nickname Little Black Mother (Madre Moretta).

In 2017, I converted to Catholicism and embarked on a new way of seeing life and, above all, healing. My choice was not conditioned by successful school results but a free and peaceful choice in a free country where the freedom of religion is in the Constitution, especially with the blessing of my mother, who is Protestant. She said, “You choosing to be Catholic is just going back to the source because all religions come out of Catholicism!” She only asked me not to stop my devotion to prayer and my unconditional love of Jesus Christ. I like to pray, and I was happy to know that my mother knew it. I became Catholic and obtained my Confirmation supported by the priest who had offered me the film of Saint Bakhita. He became a friend, a brother in Christ, and my spiritual father.

My son Emmanuel was born on October 13, 2004, in France, and Saint Bakhita was canonized on October 1, 2000.

On February 8, 2015, my daughter Amalia passed away. And Saint Josephine Bakhita died February 8, 1947, in Schio, Italy. 

Since February 8, 2022, God has given me the new and divine grace to realize that my daughter Amalia was not dead, but she was born in heaven. Since then, I have decided to celebrate February 8 as her “heavenly birthday” and also to join the Church and have a double celebration with Saint Bakhita, as she is the patron saint of Sudan and of victims of human trafficking.

Amalia’s life has been a school of patience. Her death was a high-level school of perseverance and love of God and others. If she had not been born in heaven on February 8, 2015, I do not believe that I would have come to the United States, leaving everything behind me and seeking healing and peace, which God offered me through the film of Saint Bakhita.

Saint Bakhita and I found our safety and the meaning of our lives in Jesus Christ on the Cross. He chose to renounce His divine life, His security, and His divine authority and come to the earth, to suffer and die on the cross so that we can have healing, freedom, and eternal life.

The Bible says in the book of John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal, slaughter and destroy; I came so that the sheep have life and have it in full.” Saint Bakhita and I can testify to that word of God.