Bakhita: A Novel of the Saint of Sudan

Written by Adriana Hunter (trans.) Veronique Olmi
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

This profoundly painful, beautifully written, and deeply moving fictional biography of Africa’s first canonized Catholic saint plunges the reader into the bottomless evil of institutionalized slavery. In 1876 (roughly, she’s not sure) a happy, cherished seven-year-old village girl in Sudan is seized by slavers while gathering rushes by the river. For the next nine years she will be sold and resold, tortured, chained, whipped, scarred, raped, stripped of all dignity, forgetting even her birth name—yet her humanity endures. Named Bakhita (“the fortunate one”) by her captors, she finds beauty in the world and shards of human compassion. At 16, she is bought by an Italian diplomat and taken to a village near Venice. Housed in a convent of the Canossian Sisters, she discovers not only Christianity but also the possibility of free will. Eventually taking vows to join the sisterhood, Bakhita becomes a teacher, cook, and mentor to generations of abandoned children, bearing witness to the possibility of forgiveness and faith in unimaginable circumstances.

While her story was co-opted by Mussolini as a justification for imperial expansion to Africa, Sor Moretta (“the little brown sister”) was increasingly revered for her sanctity. After her death in 1947, proceedings for canonization began, completed by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Chilling, uplifting, achingly vivid and tender, this beautifully rendered translation from the original French should be widely read. Bakhita is significant not merely as a historical document, but as a window into the lives of the estimated thirty million people held in involuntary servitude around the world today. She is the patron saint of Sudan and human trafficking survivors.