Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe teaches young women how to make accessories out of soda can pull-tabs at the vocational centre she runs in northern Uganda. CNS photo/EMI, Italian Missionary publishing house

Sister keeps faith, hope alive in Africa

  • February 23, 2024

Once described as the “heart of darkness” by Polish-English author Joseph Conrad, Africa, despite its undeniable challenges, is now considered a continent of hope for the Catholic Church.  

“The Church is young and growing. Today, almost one in eight priests, more than one in eight religious sisters and almost a quarter of all seminarians worldwide live on this continent,” says a recent newsletter of Aid to the Church in Need, Africa.

And religious sisters like Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe of Uganda play a significant role in keeping that flame alive with their courageous humanitarian work inspired by faith, hope and love.

A member of the Sacred Heart of Jesus sisters, she has been described as the Mother Teresa of Africa and has single-handedly raised the profile of African religious sisters by transforming the lives of children, particularly girls who were subjected to egregious atrocities during long, brutal civil wars that have plagued countries such as South Sudan and Uganda for decades.

 Although she was named one of TimeMagazine’s 100 Most Influential people in the world in 2014, was the winner of CNN’s 2007 Hero Award and is the protagonist of an award-winning documentary called Sewing Hope, Nyirumbe exudes humility as she speaks of her indefatigable efforts to bring hope and new life to girls who, with broken bodies and souls crushed by unspeakable cruelties, were left to live out their lives without hope or love.

“We African women are in a good position to effect transformation because we can reach out to them like mothers,” she told The Catholic Register in an interview from the U.S. shortly after she attended the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 1.

The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was founded in 1954 in Juba, South Sudan (then Sudan), by Italian missionaries to respond to the needs of the poor and the neglected. Driven from their original home by Islamists, the fledgling congregation fled to Uganda, where Nyirumbe was born and raised.

The charism (special spiritual gift) of her congregation is love and compassion drawn from the pierced Heart of Jesus, and the sisters are called up to serve the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized.

Nyirumbe has responded to the call. She has turned girls — once enlisted as child soldiers against their will, forced to carry machine guns and even murder their own siblings — into skilled seamstresses working at sewing machines at St. Monica’s Training Centre in Gulu, a town in northern Uganda, 175 kms from the capital, Kampala.

“I encourage them to stitch themselves together after they have been torn apart,” she said. “Machine guns destroy lives, but sewing machines rebuild them. At the centre we sew hope in broken lives.”

The centre also offers training in hair cutting and agricultural skills, healing their wounded spirits and restoring them to lives of dignity, independence and purpose.

In addition, Nyirumbe provides a safe shelter for the girls at St. Monica’s.

“I prefer to call it a children’s village rather than an orphanage,” she said. “We have 10 houses with 10 girls and a mother to look after them. These girls are returning after being trafficked and held in captivity but at the village they live as a family.”

Years of violent conflict led by Joseph Kony, commander of the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army, has placed Uganda’s most vulnerable children, particularly girls, in an unimaginably challenging situation. Many of them had been forcibly “married” to rebel army commanders, but they escaped and returned to their villages with young children born of rape. The girls had barely completed elementary school and were now single mothers with no education or social support because their families rejected them.

With infinite love and compassion, Nyirumbe brings them from a place of fear and hopelessness to one of trust and peace within themselves, helping them to move forward from the traumas of the past.

Her voice resonates with deep joy as she narrates the story of one such girl who stitched her life together after the most harrowing experience.

“She was abducted along with her sister,” said Nyirumbe. “She had to stay with the rebels as they traversed the country fighting the government forces. As they were about to cross a river, her sister became too heavy to carry. The rebel soldiers forced her to kill her own sister. When she came to us in St. Monica’s she was consumed by guilt, but I became her friend and convinced her that God has forgiven her completely because she was forced to do it.”

The girl was eventually rehabilitated, regaining her trust in people.

“And now she is married with two beautiful children of her own,” said Nyirumbe.

Part of Nyirumbe’s work these days is mentoring and training other sisters to work with these children; another is telling the world not to forget them and to convince people that it is important to save lives despite daunting challenges and overwhelming numbers of people devastated by war and displacement.

A sought-after speaker, Nyirumbe has spoken before international audiences, giving voice to the most vulnerable in Africa, whose stories are, at best, only sporadically covered by the international media.

Although Uganda now is relatively peaceful, South Sudan, birthplace of the congregation of Sisters of the Sacred Heart, continues to face overwhelming challenges, she pointed out. After nearly a decade of conflict and despite half-hearted efforts toward implementing a peace agreement, the country is still prone to outbursts of violence, chronic food insecurity and devastating flooding, leading many displaced people, including children, to flee on foot all the way to neighbouring countries such as Uganda.

Nevertheless, Nyirumbe embodies the joy and hope, as well as the faith that makes her and other sisters of the Sacred Heart accomplish miracles of healing and rehabilitation.

 “We can do a lot in Africa,” Nyirumbe said. “We are not poor. We are rich in love; we have energy and a sense of community. Our motto of the Sacred Heart of Jesus sisters is ‘Live, Love in Truth.’ And I believe in divine providence.”

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