Ugandan sister mends lives
Image: “Africa is being saved by African women,” Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, S.S.H.J. says.
It takes more than courage to defy a warlord and his rebel soldiers, but sewing machines? That is one of the ingenious tools Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, S.S.H.J. put to use to undo the damage of the reign of terror that has decimated a generation of Ugandan and Sudanese people.
Nyirumbe, a member of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus based in Juba, South Sudan, has helped more than 2,000 girls who were abducted, raped, tortured, and forced to kill their own family members by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.
Nyirumbe has answered the call to serve these girls—who have been shunned and persecuted by their own communities for bearing their captors’ children. As the director of St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring Center in Gulu, Uganda since 2002, Nyirumbe provides the girls with safe sanctuary and job training in tailoring and other trades so they can become self-reliant.
A native of Uganda, Nyirumbe began serving the people of her country after joining the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1976. Currently, about 250 girls and 250 children live at the center. Nyirumbe also oversees a second school in Atiak, Uganda.
Nyirumbe’s work is the subject of Sewing Hope, a documentary narrated by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker and a book with the same title. In 2014, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. She even appeared on the TV talk show The Colbert Report with host Stephen Colbert two years ago to encourage social activism.
Love begets love
Some might think they can’t relate to a person such as Nyirumbe, given the atrocities she’s witnessed, the daunting obstacles she’s helped others to overcome, and her admirable strength and fortitude, but she hardly sits on an unreachable pedestal. She smiles and laughs easily and admits to doubts and fears. If she weren’t so disarming and humble, she wouldn’t have been able to care for so many scared and broken young people.
In fact, her vocation story began, simply enough, by caring for kids while she was still a kid herself. It was this nurturing that first sparked her inner joy and compassion. Born in 1956, the beloved youngest of five siblings, Nyirumbe was, by her own account, adored and pampered. Her oldest sister had eight children, and Nyirumbe was responsible for helping to look after her nieces and nephews.
Religious life was not a given for her right from the get-go. She said that she never thought she’d become a religious sister “in a million years”—that is, until she witnessed the work of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who were helping refugee children in her war-torn homeland during the dictatorship of Idi Amin. After that, there was no stopping her as she barreled toward her vocation. At 15, Rosemary announced to her mother that she was going to join a convent. At 19, she took her vows, lying about her age so that she could become a nun one year earlier than she was allowed to.
“It was so hard for me to part with my family, even to go to school, because I was so, so attached to them. When I heard God’s call, I didn’t believe it, because I didn’t want to leave my family,” Nyirumbe says. “But my vocation brought so many more children into my life, and I am so attached to them now and to my community.”
Women helping women
As the keynote speaker at the Catholic Media Conference in Buffalo, New York in 2015, Nyirumbe explained how her love of children was an almost childlike impetus for her vocation but over time matured into so much more.
“Africa is being saved by African women,” she told the conference, and she is certainly one of them. Part of her mission is raising awareness all over the world of the plight of her girls, to give them a voice, to “let these girls know life can be changed” and to “be sure that it does not happen anywhere else.”
Back home in Uganda, out of the limelight she reluctantly endures, Nyirumbe practices the empowerment she preaches.
The guerilla campaign being waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group since 1987 is one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts, resulting in an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths, 1.5 million civilians displaced, and 20,000 children abducted. Nyirumbe has dedicated her life to the discarded victims of this war. Her own life has been in danger many times. She’s hidden people under her bed and turned away terrorists at her door. She’s flat-out lucky that LRA thugs never killed her.
As she came to the aid of girls who had lived in captivity and escaped, girls who missed out on the chance to go to school and get an education, she decided to provide them with practical skills they could use to support themselves and their children. She started teaching sewing and later cooking classes. Their new skills not only help the girls get jobs, they help restore their dignity and self-worth.
But mending their severe emotional wounds is an enormous challenge, Nyirumbe says, and she does what she can: listens to their traumatic stories, accepts them for who they are and what they’ve done, and tells them of God’s boundless compassion. “You don’t need me to forgive you,” she says she tells them. “God has already done that.”
Presenting the good news
One thing she doesn’t directly teach the girls, though, is her religion. “I believe in the gospel of presence,” she says in her book, “in working with people to minister to their needs and meet them where they are.”
The charism of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is exactly that, making Christ known and keeping him present among the most needy and abandoned through personal life witness in solidarity with the poor. Their mission is educating as a means of liberating people from ignorance, poverty, and low self-image. The sisters have branched out into pastoral work, social work, and health care as well.
Her community was founded in South Sudan in 1954 by the then-Bishop of Juba, Sixtus Mazzoldi, a Comboni Missionary. There are more than 150 members serving in Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya.
Even though Nyirumbe lives with consuming strife, she must also, as a sister, balance her ministry with the other main tenets of religious life. “I am deeply engaged in community life, and prayer is a top priority. This is where my personal growth happens. I can’t grow outside of community and prayer. I can’t grow in ministry alone,” she says.
“My sisters are all called to the same thing. But I don’t please everyone. Sometimes they don’t want what I want, but I am accepted always,” she says. “My job isn’t hard. My sisters share the biggest part of what’s hard. I do very little. Together we are always looking for who is most neglected and what we can do about it. Together we look for new challenges and we try new ideas.”
“I am a dreamer,” she says, “and my future is full of dreams.” Next on deck: an orphanage at the school in Atiak using a new childcare model. The Sewing Hope Children’s Village, will have a caretaker-to-child ratio of eight to one, with each small group living in individual homes. “We don’t want them to feel like orphans but part of a family,” she explained. The children will also be integrated into the community at large because nearby kids also attend the school.
Divine care comes with faith
It is Nyirumbe’s faith that keeps her going through ongoing exposure to very dark realities. “When you say yes to God, he will take care of you,” she says.
Her trust has paid off in many ways, but it is perhaps nowhere more evident than at the day-care center at St. Monica’s. It was opened to the public to generate income and integrate the children of rebels into the community. At first few families wanted to enroll their kids there, but when they saw what a happy environment it was and how the children of rebels were thriving, they gradually conceded and their kids now play there, too.
Hope for the next generation and the joy it brings has left her with “no regrets” about the sacrifices and challenges she has chosen. “My life is simple,” she says. “Middle of nowhere is where I belong.”
Related article: vocationnetwork.org, “Joy I never expected,” Vision 2011.
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