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.
Also, the girls when they eventually leave the centre have been able to find meaningful employment, a fact that makes the nun immeasurably proud. They are tailors, working in hotels as caterers, they make crafts and bags, all skills the centre teaches in the hope that they will end up being self-reliant.
Like a proud mother, she travels with the products the girls makes and markets them wherever she goes. The most recent project is purses made from the pop tops from canned drinks and threads, which she learnt how to make and taught the girls.
Leaving a mark
The broad smile radiates through her every picture. It seems to be her trademark, an ever present accessory like her white veil. Easy going, tech savvy (she has active twitter and face book accounts), and funny are some things that keep popping up when you do a google search on her. She even managed to sneak in a joke in her TIME speech.
She seems to leave an indelible mark on whoever she meets. Reggie Whitten, who founded the charity Pros for Africa and who met the nun around 2002, says in a 2013 interview that “she has this unique talent to drain the suffering of others away and take it on herself.”
Archbishop Odama says back in Gulu, the over 2000 girls who have been through the centre consider her as a mother. “She does not stop at training and counselling them, but works at helping then reintegrate and monitors them after they have left the centre,” he explains. Today, Sr Nyirumbe is overseeing another similar centre in Atiak and another for affected girls in Torit Southern Sudan is still under construction.
The war may be long over in northern Uganda and people may be resuming their lives there, but for some, the suffering is not over yet. And these are the people Sr Nyirumbe is standing with, those trying to fight their way back into life.
who is she?
She is a nun in the congregation of Sacred Heart of Jesus Sisters which was founded in 1954 and whose headquarters is in Juba Southern Sudan. In Uganda these sisters are known as the Sacred Sisters of Moyo because their main house has always been in Moyo Arua.
Sister Nyirumbe was born in 1961 in Paidha. She became a nun at the tender age of 15 and received training as a midwife as well as a theatre nurse. She has served in various capacities including helping out in a theatre at a hospital, running a health centre in Northern Uganda before eventually going to Saint Monica Girls Tailoring School as a director in 2001.