From Slavery to the Priesthood

By Terence Walz
This story was first featured in Comboni Missions Magazine Fall 2020 edition.

Daniel Sorur, a former [enslaved person] who converted to Christianity, became the first Dinka to be ordained a Catholic priest. He was destined for a brilliant career in the Catholic missionary movement in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. The great hope of his Comboni missionary mentors was that he would be the agent for the evangelization of his people and other black Africans. Unfortunately, poor health undermined and curtailed his activities, eventually cutting short his life before he could fulfill his promise.

Roots in Sudan
Daniel Sorur was born Farim Den[g] in 1859 or 1860 in a homestead he called Wen de Meren in the Bahr al-Ghazal province of the Egyptian Sudan (now the country of South Sudan). He was a member of the Jur, one of the Dinka groups then occupying the western bank of the White Nile and the southern side of the Bahr al-Arab River that borders on southern Kordofan province.

Farim’s name means “the saved one” and it was given to him because he was born on a day when the “Arabs” attacked the Dinka. His father Piok Den[g] died in a hunting accident in 1868 when Farim was perhaps eight or nine, and following the Dinka custom, his mother Aquid married Piok’s older brother, Akhol. Farim’s older (and only) half-brother, Kog, died a year later (1869), making him the nuclear family’s sole surviving son.

Despite losing his father and elder brother, and despite periodic illnesses, occasional cattle-thieving, and the constant need to seek fresh pasture land for the herds, Farim considered the early years of his life uneventful. In an unpublished manuscript he wrote about his people, he recounts several early adventures leading to his gradual understanding of the world. One recounts a journey with a cohort of Dinka herders to the farther reaches of the Bahr al-Ghazal River where they encountered the Baggara. He was startled to realize that not all people were as black as the Dinka were. They bartered spears, grain, and sheep for metals and metal-based goods.

Enslaved
Farim was captured by Baggara in 1871, when he was eleven or twelve. Thus began a brutal new chapter in his life, resulting in a journey he could never have imagined as a young boy. What he relates of his capture is typical of the enslaved narratives that the Comboni missionaries collected and published in La Nigrizia, but the particular details are nonetheless deeply moving.

The family’s house was located not far from the river, which herdsmen and tillers used to cross in order to tend the land on the opposite bank. They were also not far from the dry grasslands, and in times of emergency, men and women and their children used to flee into it in order to escape slave raiders. In the months leading up to their enslavement, the Dinka had escaped or fought off several marauding groups.

The day of his capture, the men folk of Farim’s family were away tending the herd and the women planting a crop when they were surprised by Baggara and Jallaba on horseback and quickly surrounded. Fearing enslavement and being separated from her children, Aquid, whom Farim portrays in his writings as a strong and fierce woman, gathered the girls around her and put up a struggle. However, she was wounded by her attacker and all of them were soon captured.

In a panic, Farim ran into the grasslands and climbed up a tree to hide. However, the tree was already sheltering another Dinka boy, and both were spotted by the Baggara horseman who was pursuing the fugitives. They were brought back to the encampment where Farim and his mother caught sight of each other. Though hoping to stay together, Aquid and her daughters wound up with different enslavers, and eventually were separated, never to be seen again. Aquid knew the slavers didn’t like keeping mother and children together, but she persuaded her slaver to trade one of his young captives to Farim’s slaver in exchange for her son — without letting him know they were related — so that at least the two of them could face the bleak future of enslavement together.

After an arduous trip from the Bahr al-Ghazal region, during which additional Dinka clans (the Twic, among them) were attacked and enslaved, Farim and Aquid arrived in El Obeid, the capital of Kordofan. They were left in the compound of Assemani (Uthman), an agent for the principal slaver who was named Abdallahi. Assemani treated him and his mother relatively well. It was Assemani who gave him a new name, “Surur” (Sorur), which means happiness. It was a common name given to [enslaved people] at the time.

Sorur remained enslaved for two years. He served his enslaver in a variety of capacities — shepherd, doorman, shopkeeper, tailor — and was often entrusted with special duties. Assemani and Abdallahi decided to return to the South Sudan on a new slaving expedition, and Aquid volunteered to go as the cook on the chance she might find her daughters and bring them back. Assemani didn’t agree with this idea, and so both she and Farim remained in the camp.

However, shortly before Assemani and Abdallahi were due to return, Farim or Sorur (as he was now called), was accused of a minor crime and threatened with a harsh punishment. He feared for his life and decided to escape, either into the grasslands to die or to the newly established Comboni mission house in El Obeid where he understood that [enslaved people] were given refuge. (He also feared he might be eaten, as this was rumored about whites among Sudanese slaves.)

He opted to take his chances with the missionaries. He was welcomed into the house by then-Monsignor Daniel Comboni, who was then in El Obeid and later repeatedly protected Farim against his former [enslaver]. In a dramatic scene, Assemani brought Aquid to the mission in an effort to persuade him to return to servitude. Farim refused, and Aquid angrily turned her back on him, saying in harsh terms that she would never see him again. Indeed, he never saw her again and no doubt their last scene together could never be forgotten.

Joining the Mission
Sorur started learning Italian and Arabic at the Catholic mission in El Obeid, and also began catechism classes. He was baptized by Comboni himself in 1874. Comboni had become his mentor and had given him his name; henceforth he was known as Daniel Sorur. He studied for a further year at the Khartoum Mission School, and then was selected in 1876, along with Arturo Morzal, a formerly enslaved man from Darfur, to be sent to Verona for further studies.

Comboni petitioned Pope Pius IX asking that both be admitted to the Collegium Urbanum, Rome, and his request was granted; both boys entered the college in 1877. Sorur studied philosophy and religion in a course of studies that would lead ultimately to the priesthood; Arturo dropped out, opting instead to study medicine.

By the end of his formal studies, Sorur had not only shown considerable intellectual capacities, but was also fluent in Italian, French, German and English. He had established himself as a spokesman for the conversion of Africans to Christianity, a role for him that the Comboni Missionaries must fervently have sought.

In 1883, however, Sorur fell seriously ill and was sent to recuperate in the warm and dry climate of Cairo, where the Comboni mission had constructed a new church and two mission schools in the new and fashionable quarter of the city known as Ismailia. After seven months there, he was deemed well enough to finish his studies at the Jesuit University in Beirut, which he did in 1886. In the summer he went to Ghazir, a village in the Lebanese mountains, to undertake further studies in Arabic and to teach French and Italian.

Return to Africa
Later in 1886, he returned to Cairo, where he was ordained the following spring by Bishop Francesco Sogaro at the Sacred Heart Church in downtown Cairo. According to his autobiography, his ordination caused jubilation among the city’s Catholics and Sudanese, being the first “black” to become a priest. 

With his studies now completed, Sorur was kept busy in Cairo teaching Arabic to Sudanese and other Africans while the Comboni Fathers decided what to do with him next. Trained as an evangelical priest, they wanted him to begin work in the Sudan. However, at this time only Sawakin and the eastern Red Sea coast
remained free of Mahdist control. In late 1887 he was posted there and put in charge of its mission school. Although his stay was short, it was a highly eventful time.

Fund-Raising Sojourn in Europe
Sorur spent only eighteen months in Sudan. The mission in Verona seems to have realized his value as the spokesman for the Combonis’ work in Africa and they brought him back to Europe in 1889 to participate in a major fund-raising trip for the mission to raise money for the Central African Mission’s institutions in Cairo and for the construction of churches. Fluent in French as well as in Italian, German, and English, Sorur enjoyed great success as a speaker and proved especially popular in Austria and Germany. His ability in languages and his gentle demeanor won him many friends. Many Europeans had never seen a black person before, and were often stunned by his appearance.

Return to Cairo and Final Years
Ill health was probably the reason for his return to Cairo in 1891, where Sorur remained during the final period of his life, teaching at the mission schools in Cairo and later Helwan, where most of his students were Egyptians or sons of Europeans.

Sorur died in Cairo at the Abbasiyya Hospital on January 11, 1900. He is believed to be buried in the common grave of the Comboni brothers and sisters in Helwan, but in fact his name is not mentioned in the plaque in the mausoleum. A brilliant career as an evangelical among his people eluded him. After he died, the Comboni missionaries were able to return to the Sudan, and in 1930, his autobiography was translated into English, though never published. Clearly the missionaries believed the truncated career of this unusual man deserved to resonate with their new converts.

This is an abridgment of Terence Walz, Sorur, Daniel Deng, Dictionary of African Christian Biography, https://dacb.org/stories/south-sudan/sorur2-daniel/. Used by permission.