Rosemary Nyrumbe considers herself to be a fortunate woman. She wasn’t kidnapped, sold as a sex slave nor given as a reward to military men. She’s “simply” a religious sister who, for the last 20 years, has been saving the world, one Ugandan woman at a time, giving a voice to the voiceless.
“Sure, you cannot save Africa, you cannot save the world. But you can save one person, one child. At most you can try, make that attempt,” Nyrumbe said.
When violence in Uganda broke out in the 1990s, sparked by Joseph Kony and his so-called “Christian” militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Nyrumbe knew she had to dedicate her life to rescuing the girls who were being taken from their homes and then rejected by their own families if they were lucky enough to return.
“Realizing how lucky I had been, because I got to grow up in my family, I was protected by God, the LRA never abducted me, I was able to complete my education…” Nyrumbe told a group of reporters in Rome last week.
The young women abducted by Kony and his minions are still trying to fend off the stigma and trauma of the two decades of terror. The rebel army created lifelong scars and repercussions, Nyrumbe said, such as forcing the abducted children to commit atrocities in their own village - including killing their loved ones.
This had a two-fold consequence: the newly recruited soldiers had no one to turn to, and the village or their extended families would turn their backs on them in shame and fear.
“For me, the most painful part is that when these children go back, society is afraid of them because of what they’ve done,” Nyrumbe said.
Another tactic the LRA used was raping the girls, who then gave birth to children who were rootless outcasts. “We come from a patrilineal society, the children belong to their father, and the father is supposed to take care of them,” she said.
It was against this background that Nyrumbe, a member of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, felt the need to act.
After she first encountered a young girl who had been recruited by the army and had been impregnated, she sent out an appeal through a local radio station. In it she called on all girls to attend her school, St. Monica Tailoring School outside Gulu, Uganda, saying they would all be accepted as they were.
“I tell them: we won’t give you theory, but practical skills, in dressmaking and cutting. To me, it’s a way of giving them their dignities back, and also to restore their lost childhoods,” she said.
The sister soon learned tailoring in order to teach it to the young women she was able to rescue, together with other practical skills such as cooking.
With the help of the U.S.-based Sewing Hope foundation, the women began producing handbags made of throwaway materials such as soft-drink-can pull tops and crocheted colored thread.
The bags are now sold online all over the world.
Nyrumbe sees the connection between these bags and the girls who make them. These girls were also thrown away, “but after being accompanied and accepted, they feel beautiful again, just like the bags.”
Nyrumbe was in Rome as part of a month-long tour to present the Italian edition of her book, Sewing Hope, which she co-wrote with U.S. lawyer Teggie Whitten, a patron of her work since 2003. Her life also inspired a documentary, under the same name, narrated by Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker.
Her trip to Italy also included talks at different religious orders, to present her work. On Sept. 20 she even received a blessing from Pope Francis, during his visit to Assisi.
Nyrumbe and her work have attracted attention through the years. In 2007, she was honored with a CNN Heroes award. Seven years later, Time magazine put her on its “100 Most Influential People” list in 2014. For her, these aknowledgments - together with the translation into Italian of her book - are part of her mission to make sure people “have no excuse” to say they never heard about the violence in northern Uganda.
Her new project is an adult education literacy and writing program, to give a voice to the women affected by the Ugandan conflict, so they can speak for themselves.
Asked about what advice she’d give to the religious sisters who like her are today working with women who’ve been kidnapped as sex slaves in Iraq, Syria, or other African countries, Nyrumbe said that “there’s no formula” for success when helping victims of conflict.
Restoring the dignity and self-respect of these women, she added, means “being present, walking with people, listening to them, accepting them, not judging them.”
“When they feel they are loved, they will open up and they will begin to mend their brokenness,” she said.
Echoing Francis’s words in Assisi, Nyrumbe said all are called to be peace-builders, because “peace is the threat of hope,” and the only way to prevent the atrocities that happened in her country from happening somewhere else, which, according to her, can happen anywhere.