Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe: Giving a Voice to the Voiceless in Uganda

The Ugandan religious sister helps disadvantaged girls regain their dignity.

(photo: Time magazine)

KAMPALA, Uganda — Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe joined the Sacred Heart Sisters in 1972. The congregation, established in the Sudan in 1954, moved to Uganda in 1964 following the tumultuous civil war that ravaged Sudan. The sisters settled in Moyo district (now the provincial seat of the order) in northern Uganda.

Sister Rosemary in 2002 came to St. Monica’s School and Tailoring Center in Gulu, Uganda, to teach literacy and vocational skills to underprivileged Ugandans, whose safety is regularly threatened by paramilitary forces in Sudan and Uganda, particularly Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, who would regularly abduct and rape young women and detain them as sex slaves. 

Sister Rosemary said she joined the congregation not for any material reason, “but for the love of what they did.” Her sisters at that time taught at the mission schools and worked at an orphanage and a babies’ home. She assists in teaching in the congregation’s mission schools, as well as helping at the sisters’ orphanage and home for young mothers. Sister Rosemary received notice from Time magazine that she was one of its “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Sewing Hope, a new documentary about Sister Rosemary’s work, is currently being shown at film festivals throughout the United States. She spoke recently to the Register.


What have been some of your challenging experiences since you took over the leadership of St. Monica?

I was posted to St. Monica just after graduating with a bachelor of arts in development studies and social ethics. I knew nothing about professional catering, which is one of the key courses offered at the center. So, practically, I did not know what to do.

But soon my first professional training in nursing and midwifery became handy. As “night commuters” (villagers who run for safety from Joseph Kony’s rebels to the mission at night and return home during the day) started pouring in. I realized I had to lend a hand and keep them secure by providing first aid and maintain good hygiene at the center.

Another challenge was that I took over St. Monica at the time when there was an outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in Gulu, and the result was tragic. Everyone lived in the fear of contracting the fever, and that meant there was need for proper hygiene. But being a medical person coupled with my knowledge of the culture and language (I had worked in the diocese before) helped a lot.


As you are dealing with a group with limited resources, how do you deal with the girls’ inability to pay for their training and upkeep?

First of all, the school, which had a capacity of 300 girls, only had 30 girls enrolled at the time when I took over headship. That meant there was no money to do anything, let alone clean the spacious compound.

So I began by employing myself as a driver. My biological sister, who at the time was a government minister, came to Gulu for a one-week’s workshop, and I offered to drive her to and from the workshop at a fee.

So, every evening, when drivers lined up to sign for their day’s payment, I would line up with them too.

I recalled that during the first days, a gentleman who saw me in the line told me, “Sister, this line is for drivers,” and I adamantly told him I was a driver. At the end of the week I earned an equivalent of $150 U.S. I used the money to clear the ground — there were a lot of trees, which made it look like a forest.

Once the ground was cleared, I took to the local radio stations, inviting institutions and organizations to hold their workshops and meetings at our center, assuring them that the center would take up the catering.

Soon, the district education officer (DEO) of Gulu took up the challenge. He personally came to the center and told me, "I want you to prove that you are able by hosting all the teachers in the district for a two-week workshop." There were over 200 teachers, and it was to be residential.

When the DEO told me the number of the participants, I thought it was quite overwhelming, but I was determined to host them. But the problem was we had no money, let alone mattresses and bed sheets for the participants.

So I went to shopkeepers around town to get food stuffs, cleaning detergents, mattresses and bed sheets on credit, promising to pay after two weeks.

My community of the nuns, together with the 30 girls, took up the challenge; and at the end of the workshop, the center was paid 10 million (Ugandan shillings) by then, equivalent to slightly over $5,000 U.S. I immediately went to clear the debt, and the remainder I used to run the center.

But most importantly, the skills’ training has been very important. In that, when the girls make dresses, bags or knit sweaters, they are paid for it, and their school fee is removed from there, while they can use the balance for other needs.

We have also introduced what we call “work for education.” So, while others who can afford the fees go home for holidays, those who are sponsored by the school remain behind to work. They do things like cleaning and cooking for workshops, etc. In this way, no one is left without education due to lack of fees.

Then, as a member of the Justice and Peace Commission of Gulu Archdiocese, I brought members of the commission to visit the center after an international meeting held in Kampala. After seeing all that I was doing, they asked where and how I was getting money to run the institution. I told them we don’t have donors and that whenever I wrote I don’t get any response.

One of the officials offered to write the application, as I told her the story of St. Monica’s. She was overwhelmed by the experience, and she broke down crying. She eventually wrote the project and sent it to Scottish Catholic Aid, and we received 17,000 pounds (more than $28,000); and the amount kept on increasing for the next seven years, until 2013, when the funding stopped. Part of this money has been used for sponsorship of formerly abducted girls.


How does St. Monica’s handle the issue of child mothers to ensure that they don’t lag behind in their training?

When I started seeking out formerly abducted girls to come for training at St. Monica, I called on the girls to come with their children. This was a big relief to the child mothers, who were assured of the safety of their children.

The community often took it out on the innocent kids, accusing them of being children of murderers — the rebels. At times, people threatened to revenge on the girls and their children the atrocities the rebels committed against them.

I used our first donation of $5,000 U.S. to construct the first building for the day-care center. Once ready, child mothers safely took their children to the day care while they concentrated on their studies. But the building soon became too small.

Sometime later, the then-Netherlands ambassador to Uganda was on a working visit to Gulu, and she chanced to come to St. Monica. She asked what was going on at the center, and I told her to come and see.

When the ambassador came, she saw so many little babies with their caretakers seated under trees, all over, while their mothers studied. Moved by what she saw, she gave the order to a construction company to construct a day-care center and only hand over to me the key of the building.


Can you explain what is involved in the training/rehabilitation of the formerly abducted girls/child mothers?

Since the enrolment at the school was below capacity, I began driving the streets to see what was happening, and if during my drive I got one girl, it was quite enough for the day.

Then, among the 30 girls whom I got there, I discovered one was a former rebel commander, and she couldn’t look me in the eye. One day I asked her why she couldn’t look me in the eye, and she said her eyes were paining. I got closer to her, and soon she was able to relate why her eyes were paining. She said while in captivity she suffered from gun smoke during a fire exchange between the rebels and the government soldiers. At that time, she was at the frontline.

This experience seemed to have left an indelible mark on her. She spent much of her time alone, and she could not concentrate on her classwork. This affected her performance.

Although counseling is one of the subjects taught and offered at the school, those who have special problems are seen individually. I make it a point to have a one-on-one talk (counseling) with girls who are affected. At the end of the day, many are able to share things that trouble them.

And on the course content, the girls initially offered certificate courses in tailoring and secretarial courses sent from the Uganda National Examinations Board. But with the experience of this girl, I realized that since these girls’ formal education had been tampered with, practical skills would be better.

Although I have not done any course in catering and tailoring, I introduced catering and practical dress-making. Surprisingly, this same girl, who was at the bottom of the class in terms of performance, emerged as the best in her class of dress-making.

Other courses taught at the school include agriculture, hairadressing, basic computer skills and sweater-weaving, in addition to secretarial course and tailoring.


How does St. Monica’s help the girls to cope with trauma, rejection and stigma from the community?

It has been our policy to expose the girls to the community. During workshops, meetings or celebrations hosted at the center, the girls are the ones who cook and serve. This brings them in contact with the people, and the people have appreciated their work. It rids them of the prejudices that the community harbors against them.

But above all, it is the love we give them — what I give them is tough love, and the girls have come to understand that. It is difficult to teach love until you learn to love, and that is how I deal with them. I also tell them that the past is gone and that they need to start living their lives again.

And what is more, I tell them to love their children. This is particularly important, because many tend to hate their own children fathered by rebels who abducted, raped and forced them to commit atrocities against their own people. So, many think keeping the children reminds them of the awful experience they went through.

Life outside there is very harsh because many don’t have anywhere to go. Some people still don’t trust them, and the community blames them for the atrocities they committed while in captivity. But with the skills acquired from St. Monica, the girls are able to set up their own businesses and start a home.


During your speech at the gala for your award from Time magazine, the girls were the focus of your speech. Why was this important to you? 

I wanted to speak for a group of girls who inspired me. I spoke as a mother, and a mother does not have any preference for any of her children. People speak of the “lost boys,” but who cares about the lost girls?

These girls are fighting trauma inflicted on them by men who raped and used them as sex slaves, and I want them to fight back, not with guns, but with sewing machines and needles.


Is there any contribution that former students/beneficiaries make to St. Monica’s?

The former beneficiaries contribute by giving back their knowledge. Many of the staffs at the center are former students. They work as course instructors as well as support staff.

There is also an advocacy group created by former students, and they help to identify formerly abducted girls and bring them for training at St. Monica.

In the past, I gave the challenge of identifying formerly abducted girls to Church officials in parishes, but some officials started bringing their own relatives who don’t fulfill the criteria.


In relation to your work at St. Monica’s, are you aware of the plight of the girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria?

Boko Haram wants to destroy the girls from the point they can rise — abducting school girls. The similarity here is that women were used and targeted purposely.

But the whole the plight of women is a global issue, which needs to be identified and addressed. What if the Chibok girls all returned safely today? Is there any way in which they will be helped to overcome the trauma and stigma they suffered at the hands of the militants?

Register correspondent Sister Grace Candiru,

of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church,

writes from Kampala, Uganda.