TORONTO (CCN) — Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe’s firmly believes that a woman’s most valuable asset is her resilience.
Women, she says, have the inner strength that can overcome any hardship. She is living proof of that — her own resilience has changed the lives of more than 2,000 Ugandan women and girls.
“Sister Rosemary is one of the most outstanding African nuns that is living today and it’s not just an overstatement,” said Rev. Stan Chu Ilo, founder of Canadian Samaritans for Africa. “She personifies the Gospel values in its highest form through the sacrifices she has made to the development of African girls and women, her commitment to eradicate poverty in Africa, but also her commitment to build a culture of peace.”
Nyirumbe is a spunky ball of energy known to many as the African Mother Teresa. The five-foot tall Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus first caught the world’s attention when she was awarded the 2007 CNN Heroes Award for her work as director of St. Monica Girls Tailoring Center in Gulu, Uganda.
The story of her fight to restore hope to her war-torn country began to gain traction when the 2013 documentary, Sewing Hope, received critical acclaim. The documentary was about the Sewing Hope Foundation, an organization she established in 2012 to build a sustainable business for girls, selling handmade pop-tab fashion bags.
The documentary was followed by a book of the same name in 2014, when she was also named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
Last July Nyirumbe was among the inaugural recipients of the Veritatis Splendor Award during World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. The award, named in honour of John Paul II, is presented for lifetime achievement and service to the Catholic Church.
“Sometimes you hear these strange titles being given to me and I always find myself taken by surprise that I have been called this and that,” said Nyirumbe. “But on the other hand, I find that I’m not going to be buried in these titles. I like them because they have given me a platform that I can use to bring a voice to the voiceless.”
On Nov. 5, Nyirumbe was the guest of honour at the Canadian Samaritans for Africa’s annual African Awareness Night in Mississauga, Ont. Chu Ilo invited Nyirumbe to speak to Canadians about “supporting the African woman in Africa’s march to modernity.”
“One of the greatest values of African women is resilience, and of course, I must speak about the young women I work with is resilience,” said Nyirumbe. “We are to teach them by giving them practical skills to sustain their life and to sustain their children.”
Nyirumbe said her mission has always been to dedicate her life in service of Africa’s future. By helping girls who were forcibly enlisted as child soldiers by warlord Joseph Kony and his guerrilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Nyirumbe and her small Catholic school became a beacon of hope for a new life.
Decades of brutal conflict, which began in 1987, left a deep scar in the Ugandan people. Kony and the LRA have been implicated in abducting at least 66,000 children and forcing them to become armed soldiers against their own families and communities.
Young girls were especially valuable, both as soldiers and sex slaves for commanding officers. At the age of 13 or 14, these girls would be forced to become “wives” to the rebel men. Many of them became pregnant.
Kony and the LRA are now on the run, but in their wake they have left thousands of children tormented and broken.
When these young women returned to their homes, they faced a cultural belief that women and their children belong to their husbands. The girls were often rejected for having children of LRA rebels. They had nowhere to go.
“It was a demand-driven idea,” said Nyirumbe. “Some having children, some expecting children and of course, they didn’t really know where to go and they needed somebody to rely on. For me, I felt it was a great opportunity that God had put us there as religious women. And not just as religious women, but African religious women who could show these girls exactly how to be mothers again.”
When Nyirumbe first came to St. Monica’s as director in 2002, she knew instantly that she had to open the school doors to these girls. The school, which originally opened in 1982 to help school dropouts, had a capacity for 300 students. Only 30 girls were enrolled.
Nyirumbe and her fellow Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus faced many challenges, including hostility from the community for taking in former child soldiers and their children. To help fund the school, Nyirumbe worked as a driver for her sister, a government minister.
When she wasn’t doing that, she drove around looking for girls living on the streets.
Nyirumbe believed that the best way to help the young women through their trauma was to teach them practical skills. Learning to sew became an allegory to help girls stitch together a new livelihood for themselves.
In 2012, she established the Sewing Hope Foundation with Rachelle Whitten. The organization promoted a trendy global brand that sells pop-tab fashion bags. Funds raised were used to pay the girls that sewed each bag by hand.
“I like to talk about these bags with a lot of joy and pride,” Nyirumbe said. “These bags are made by pop tabs thrown away by people and once they are collected, the girls use just needle and thread. It represents these young women who were once discarded and are now rebuilding their own lives.”
The Sewing Hope Foundation has allowed St. Monica’s to expand its training programs that include agriculture, basic computer skills and hairdressing. Nyirumbe expanded the catering program to include a restaurant and a catering business. A local health clinic also operates within the building. Recently, the school added a daycare and a kindergarten for the girls’ children.
The school that was once a humble refuge has become a central hub for the town of Gulu. Graduates from St. Monica’s are able to find jobs in local hotels and community centres. Many have even started their own businesses.
My hope is to replicate what she is doing in many places in Africa,” said Chu Ilo
Chu Ilo and the Canadian Samaritans for Africa are working with Nyirumbe on a new venture to expand the Sewing Hope Foundation to other regions. He is also hoping to strike partnerships with Catholic school boards in the Greater Toronto Area to create an experiential learning program that might give students the opportunity to go on volunteer mission trips to St. Monica’s school.
“The Catholic social teaching, sometimes, we think of texts of document . . . but really, Catholic social teaching is the everyday experience,” said Chu Ilo. “That is exactly what we see Sister doing and what we try to inspire now. “