Bakhita: A Novel of the Saint of Sudan

Bakhita: A Novel of the Saint of Sudan

Bakhita: A Novel of the Saint of Sudan

Bakhita: A Novel of the Saint of Sudan


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Inspired by the true story of a former slave who became a saint, this poignant novel explores how a human being can survive the obliteration of her identity, and how kindness and generosity can be born out of profound trauma.

She recalls little of her childhood, not even her own name. She was barely seven years old when she was snatched by slave raiders from her village in the Darfur region of southern Sudan. In a cruel twist, they gave her the name that she will carry for the rest of her life: Bakhita, "the Lucky One" in Arabic. Sold and resold along the slave trade routes, Bakhita endures years of unspeakable abuse and terror. At age thirteen, at last, her life takes a turn when the Italian consul in Khartoum purchases her. A few years later, as chaos engulfs the capital, the consul returns to Italy, taking Bakhita with him. In this new land, another long and arduous journey begins—one that leads her onto a spiritual path for which she is still revered today.

With rich, evocative language, Véronique Olmi immerses the reader in Bakhita's world—her unfathomable resilience, her stubborn desire to live, and her ability to turn toward the pain of others in spite of the terrible sufferings that she too must endure.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590519776
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 04/16/2019
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Véronique Olmi is an actor, playwright, and stage director who has written several novels, including the critically acclaimed Beside the Sea and Cet été-là, for which she received the Prix Maison de la Presse in 2011. She has also published two plays, Une séparation and Un autre que moi.

Adriana Hunter studied French and Drama at the University of London. She has translated more than eighty books, including Véronique Olmi’s Bakhita and Hervé Le Tellier’s Eléctrico W, winner of the French-American Foundation’s 2013 Translation Prize in Fiction. She lives in Kent, England.

Read an Excerpt

From Slavery to Freedom 

She does not know her name. Does not know in what language she dreams. Remembers words in Arabic, Turkish, and Italian, and speaks various dialects. Several are from Sudan, another from Veneto. People call it “a jumble.” She speaks a jumble of languages and is hard to understand. You have to say it all again, using different words. Which she doesn’t know. With slow, passionate application she can read Italian, and she signs things with wobbly, almost childlike writing. She knows three prayers in Latin. Religious incantations that she sings in a deep powerful voice.  

She has often been asked to tell the story of her life, and has told it again and again, from the beginning. It is the beginning they are interested to hear, so terrible. In her jumble, she has told her story, and that is how her memories have returned. By relating in chronological order the events from so long ago, so painful. Storia Meravigliosa. That is the title of her life story. A serialization in a periodical, and later a book. She has never read it. Her life as told to them. She was proud and ashamed of it. Was afraid of how people might react, and loved being loved for this story, for what she dared to say and what she left unsaid, things they would not have wanted to hear, would not have understood, and that she has never actually told anyone. A wonderful story. In the telling of it, her memory came back. And yet she has never remembered her name. Has never known what she was called. But that is not what matters. Because who she was as a child, in the days when she went by the name her father gave her—that she has not forgotten. Like an homage to childhood, she still harbors within her the little girl she once was. The child who should have died in slavery but survived; that child was and still is what no one has ever succeeded in taking from her.

When she was born, there were two of them. Two identical little girls. And she was always her twin’s double. Even though she did not know where she was, she lived with her. They were separated, but together. They grew up and grew old far apart, yet alike. At night she was particularly aware of her presence, sensed the body that should have been next to hers, its breathing. Their father was the village chief’s brother, in Olgossa in Darfur. The name of her village and the region were supplied by other people, when she told them her story and they cross-referenced maps, dates, and events. So it was in Olgossa that her father bared them, her twin and her, to the moon in order to protect them; and it was to the moon that he first spoke their names, which were reminders for all time of how they had come into the world, so that for all time the world would remember them. She knows this is how it happened, she knows it infallibly and for all time. When she looks at the darkness of night, she often thinks of her father’s hands, and wonders in what corner of this vastness her name lives on. In Olgossa in the evenings, when the sun had slipped behind the rocky uplands, when the men and their flocks had come home and the goats were lying under the trees, when the donkey’s braying sounded out its tuneless music and the ground had not yet cooled, the people of her village gathered around the fire. They talked loudly like the crowds in small markets. She sat on her father’s knee and rested her head against his shoulder. When he spoke, his voice made her skin tingle. A prolonged shiver, a shiver that had a smell, a melody, and a warmth all its own. Her twin would sit on his other knee and felt the same fear as she did in the gathering darkness. She thought so often of those evenings, of the sweet sensation of their protected fears. She closed her eyes on the recollection. And kept to herself her indefinable sadness, a sadness she could not possibly explain. She did not have  the vocabulary to describe it; the words she knew were concrete and rough-hewn, they each identified an image or a shape but could not represent the elusive or the ever-present. It was only in the expression in her eyes that you could see the contrast between her strength and her innocence; in her expression too that you could see what she had lost and what her inner life had allowed her to reclaim. Her life. Which she protected like a gift.

Her mother’s face must have been beautiful, because she herself was beautiful. Because she was always chosen for this, her beauty. Her mother must have been tall with high cheek-bones, a wide forehead, and black eyes with that blue starlike spark at the center of them. Just like hers. Her mother smelled of grilled millet, the bitter sugar of sweat, and milk; smelled of the things she gave to others. She knows her mother smelled like this because she has come across this combination several times, and it knocked the breath out of her. It was terrible not being able to hold on to it, suffering the shock of it without savoring its comforts. It was terrible, but it also felt good being jolted like this, a few seconds she simply had to accept, like a painless mystery. Of the eleven children her mother had brought into the world, four died. Two were abducted.  

She was five when it happened for the first time. Five, six, or seven, how to know? She was born in 1869. Perhaps a little earlier. Or a little later, she does not know. Time has no name for her, she does not like writing numbers, cannot tell the time from a clock, only from the shadows cast by trees. People who asked her to tell her story from the beginning calculated her age in relation to wars in her native Sudan, that species of violence she would meet again elsewhere, because every part of the world is the same, born of chaos and explosions, falling apart as it moves forward.  
She is about five, and it is the end of the world. This particular afternoon bears a light never seen since, a peaceful happiness, resonant and yet unnoticed. No one knows it is there. People live within this happiness like busy little birds, and on this afternoon the children in her village play in the shade of the great baobab, and the tree is like someone they trust. It is a center and an ancestor, a source of shade and an immutable point. The elderly are asleep at this time of day. The men are harvesting watermelons in the fields. On the edge of the village the women beat sorghum, the soft music of a peaceful village that tends its fields, an image of a lost paradise that she will nurture to convince herself it existed. She is from this place, this site of massacred innocence, of goodness and rest. That is what she wants. To come from a fair life. As every life is before it is acquainted with evil.
Her older sister, Kishmet, has come over from her husband’s village to spend the afternoon at home with them. She is fourteen, or there-abouts. She has not brought her baby, her mother-in-law is looking after the child, who has a slight fever, and so, for a few hours, she can be her parents’ daughter again. She is having an afternoon nap with the twin in the women’s hut. She is sad that she lives in another village, that she belongs to her husband now, not to her father, but she is proud to have a child. Her breasts are full; before falling asleep the twins drank a little of her milk, it soothed them both.
The women’s humming as they beat sorghum is like the buzz of insects. She is five years old and she is at her mother’s side, playing with her small pebbles. Doing what all children do, being inventive, bringing to life inanimate objects, stones, plants, orchestrating and imagining. These are her very last moments of innocence. Awareness is about to strike her down in a single blow and turn her life inside out like a glove. Her mother sings a little more slowly than the other women, she can hear this discrepancy, her mother’s thoughts are elsewhere, because her eldest daughter has come for the afternoon. Soon she will be a grown woman. She already has a baby. Will have another. And then another. A married woman’s life. Her mother’s slower singing betrays pride, quiet concern. And tenderness.
She is five years old and she is afraid of snakes. Her older brother often draws long ribbon shapes in the sand with the end of a stick. He laughs when she screams, it’s a game, a big brother’s joke, and she will always associate her brother with snakes. She will miss this unequal game, her brother waiting eagerly for her fear, his eyes laughing in anticipation, the taunting look he gives her, granting her a fleeting importance. On this particular afternoon, it is just when she sees some snake tracks—tracks her brother may not have drawn—that she hears something appallingly loud. Unfamiliar. She doesn’t understand it, but the women immediately stop beating their sorghum, they look up, scream as if calamity were already upon them, and they run to catch up with the sound. Her mother grabs her without even looking, as if she were a bundle of clothes, snatches her up like an armful of dry grass, and then drops her, runs off screaming. Forgetting her. Leaves her there, suddenly, in the disfigured village, surrounded by flames, and races into the hut where Kishmet and the twin were sleeping. Now she is alone. Surrounded by fire and dead bodies. A terror of abandonment takes root within her. She calls for her mother. Shrieks her name, but her cries are lost in the furious roar of the fire, the thudding sounds as the men beat it down with pitchforks. They pour buckets of water over it, smoke shrouds the village, chokes it. The child coughs and calls her mother, but neither her sobs nor her outstretched arms are answered.   

When her mother reaches the women’s hut, she looks for Kishmet but finds only the twin. Alone and alive. She shakes her. Kisses her. Pushes her away. Then hugs her close. Panicky, incoherent behavior. Tell me what you saw! She screams at the child. Saying it again and again in a shrill voice, repeating her demand through hysterical sobs: Tell me what you saw! The child does not utter a word. The mother knows what happened. She herself was born in a time of war, she knows how slavery works, knows why her daughter has been taken and what she will be used for. What she wants from the young twin is one last image of Kishmet. Tell me what you saw! means: Tell me you still see her! But the child does not move. She is silent. Her face has changed, expresses a new awareness, one she does not yet have the words to communicate.
The abductors stormed in at a gallop that afternoon, with fire, rifles, chains, yokes, and horses, and they took everyone they could. The young, mostly. Boys to make soldiers of them, girls for pleasure and servitude. They worked quickly, this was routine for them. They knew the village, informed by allies who had told them how to get there and who may have been from the neighboring village. They knew what they would find there.
The men and women of Olgossa have arrived home too late. Their sons and daughters tried to run away, to hide, but they were taken, wounded, killed, and their voices were smothered in the great blast of the flames. There are bodies on the ground, dismembered, burned, groaning as the life ebbs out of them in large pools of blood. There are stray goats, whimpering dogs, and birds fallen silent. There are destroyed huts and broken slave yokes, evidence that the raiders have been here. The fire is still spreading from one point to another. The familiar signature left by slave traders.

The village is in disarray for several days, like a field after a storm. She does not recognize her own twin, does not recognize the place where she lives. Olgossa is filled with the moaning of the injured, on and on it goes, a constant repetition of suffering, like an endless round of slow, despairing supplications. She does not recognize the people with whom she lives. The villagers have gathered up the dead and counted the missing. They found decapitated old men, children with amputated limbs. Found devastation and pillage, ravaged fields, dying cows, the river water tainted by bloated corpses, every sign of life wiped out. And the women clutched and scratched at their own bodies till they drew blood, beat their foreheads on the ground, howling sounds the child had never heard. The men took up their lances and tom-toms, and set off into the night. The witch doctor came and made sacrifices. After many days and nights, the men returned. But did not meet their womenfolk’s eyes. In front of their sons too they looked away. Confronted with rifles and gunpowder, their bows and arrows served only to indicate their impotent presence. Such irony.   

For a long time the smell of bodies and burned straw hung over the village, and ash flittered about for several days before disappearing on the wind. And when the ash had gone, it was all truly over. But in the sand outside the women’s hut, her older sister’s body had left a snake trail as wide as a baobab branch. She still sees it. Even when others have walked over it. Even when the rain changes the red earth into clods  of mud. She sees this image of her brutal, mute absence. A warning. And she still harbors that naked fear, the fear of her own screams that her mother did not hear. This is a new danger: Losing her mother’s protection. A mother she no longer recognizes. An anxious, nervous, sleepless woman.

Of course the inhabitants of Olgassa considered leaving the village, because it was now known to the traders and their agents would surely come back. And then they thought of those who had done so before them, who had fled their ransacked villages, abandoned their crops, lost their flocks, had left for another place that they never actually reached. They had been found starved to death at the foot of hills, on plains, and in forests. And so the inhabitants of Olgossa stayed. Living in fear of going to fetch firewood, going to fetch water, fear of seeing their children stray away, their women grow too beautiful, fear that rifles and gunpowder should come galloping back. At any moment. By day. Or by night. And their happiness became a faltering thing, muddied by grief and powerlessness, and by this newfound wariness of strangers, but also, and most important, of those who were not strangers and had readily explained where they could be found.

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