Earlier this year, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe won the UN Women of Impact Award. She was a winner of the inaugural CNN heroes awards that celebrates ordinary people making extra ordinary difference around the world. She has held talks across the world and has received honorary degrees for her work, the most recent being an honorary degree from the largest catholic university in the U.S De Paul University.
Then, there is the documentary Sewing Hope, which has shown at several film festivals in the US since it was released in November last year. There is also the eponymous book that came out around that same time narrating the nun’s story of working with returnee abducted girls and their children of war.
Sister Nyirumbe has travelled the world for that cause and has brought more big names to this corner of Uganda than any other person or cause has. From Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and Forest Whitakker.
Not a surprise as such
This is why those who are familiar with her work are not the least bit surprised by her being recognised on CNN’s prestigious list. “She has always had a large heart for the sidelined and vulnerable and she has dedicated her life to caring for these girls,” says Archbishop John Baptist Odama, who is in charge of Gulu Ach diocese and has known Sister Nyirumbe for over a decade.
It has been a long journey to world recognition though, from when the nun was appointed as the director of St Monica Girls Tailoring School in 2001. She has been working to rehabilitate girls who had been abducted by the LRA rebels. Girls who escaped to go back home only to find themselves shunned and unwanted.
It is her work with these girls at the vocational centre that landed her on the pages of TIME magazine as one of the world’s most influential people. The culmination is that she has brought to the fore a group of people who had been abandoned to the recesses of society.
During the TIME honoree’s dinner in New York, she held a room of who is who in rapt attention and challenged them to think about the other half of the child soldier narrative. The lost girls.
Scanty is available on the nun’s life but at least, it is established she spent her early life in Paidha where she was born. She joined the congregation of the Sacred Heart Sisters of Moyo in 1976 when she was still in her mid teens.
An article on her at CNN.com says her father was a carpenter and that in her initial years, she trained as a midwife but never completed the course. Arch Bishop Odama also mentions that the 53-year-old has a degree in Social Studies and Development from Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.
She has also worked as a surgeons assistant though it is not clear where and that those skills came in handy when the LRA broke out and the Sacred Heart Sisters held out for a while in Gulu taking in the wounded and sheltering people fleeing the violence.
The story goes that the tough as nails Nyirumbe would defy rebels to shelter fleeing children at the home of the Sacred Heart of Moyo Sisters compound saying they would have to go through her first to get to them.
The sisters eventually left Gulu, but by then, Sr Nyirumbe had seen all she needed to see. The death and destruction. The children whose childhood and education was interrupted when they were taken away by the rebels. She says in an interview in the US newspaper Edmond Sun in 2010 that she always felt those children’s plight was somehow tied to her life’s work.
Her work with the girls
Gulu at the dawn of the century was still a ghost town of sorts, its inhabitants scattered all over by the war. Saint Monica Girls Tailoring School was limping along with just a handful of students when Sr Nyirumbe returned to Gulu as its director.
If she had stopped at running the school, we probably would not have heard of her right now. But this was a woman on a mission to give the girls who were all but dead inside, another chance at life. The task was huge seeing as these were girls who had been through untold pain.
They had killed in cold blood, watched people die, been raped and abused. They were now being ostracised in the very homes they risked life and limb to go back to, labelled killers and mothers of the children of killers.
Her message to these girls was simple, but to make sure it reached as many as possible, she went to the radio. “I said, ‘If you have nowhere to go, you come to us, we will open the door for you, we will train you’,” She is quoted in an article on uscatholic.org. And over the years, the girls did come, in the hundreds, bringing with them the children born in the bush to the vocational school.
Obviously, Sr Nyirumbe went beyond her duty and turned into a mother for all these girls. According to Archbishop Odama, the vocational centre under the Sister’s watch now boasts a kindergarten and daycare for these girls’ children as well as a dispensary and accommodation facilities. She revised the teaching programme to accommodate the needs of these broken lost girls.