, 25 March, 2020 / 7:01 AM
Some day in 1986 when the Lord’s Resistance Army, an infamous rebel group that terrorized people in the northern parts of Uganda, was at the height of their activities in the East African landlocked nation, a young Catholic nun who had just professed as a religious felt hopeless at the sight of the torture that people underwent at the hands of the rebels.
In one of her numerous talks, Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe of the Religious Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus recounts that the rebels snatched children from their parents at gun point, turning young boys into child soldiers and forcing girls into sex slavery.
In an interview with ACI Africa, Sr. Rosemary recounted how, on returning home pregnant for rebels, the girls were shunned by the society that “didn’t want anything to do with children of rebels”.
“When these young girls were plucked from their schools, married off to the rebels and became pregnant, no one wanted them back. The society didn’t want anything to do with the children of rebels and so they were shunned even by their families,” says Sr. Rosemary.
Filled with sympathy and a deep desire to change the lives of the young girls whose education had been cut short, the Sacred Heart of Jesus nun obtained the permission of Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Uganda’s Gulu Archdiocese to start a school that would take in the underage mothers who were considered society rejects.
“Archbishop John Baptist did not just give me the blessing to start St. Monica Girls Training Center for the girls. He became my biggest source of strength as I commenced the project,” she recalls.
And now, what started in 2002 as a humble vocational training center by a nun who did not have prior training in vocational training has become a model school offering hands on business skills, secretarial studies, sewing and catering, with an impact on more than 2000 young women who have been absorbed by top recruiters in Uganda.
It is for this niche in training and impact on women and their children that Sr. Rosemary has attracted global attention on various platforms, delivering speeches across the world and winning top awards.
And now, the 64-year-old Catholic nun is eyeing the most coveted award in the teaching profession, the 2020 Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize where she will wrestle some 49 other teachers drawn from across the globe to walk away with US$1million, a year after Kenya’s Franciscan Brother Peter Tabichi won the award.
Expressing her excitement about the nomination, Sr. Rosemary said the news cheered her up amid the COVID-19 “terrible news.”
“Being shortlisted for the biggest teachers’ award is the best news I have heard in many days considering the fact that the world has been dominated by terrible news about the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says and adds, “I actually didn’t expect to emerge on the list of finalists. I know it is just a shortlist but I am excited I made it to the list anyway.”
The 50 finalists, according to information that was provided on the Global Teacher Award website, were arrived at from a list of 12,000 nominations that were drawn from over 140 countries across the globe.
“Rosemary has been teaching in Uganda since 2002, a challenging setting for any teacher,” reads the information about the Catholic nun on the Global Teacher Award website in part.
It adds, “Political unrest in the country has created many obstacles, not only for education but also for ordinary living. As a result, Rosemary’s chief aim has been to empower young women and their children whose schooling was cut off due to abduction by rebel fighters.”
When she began teaching at St Monica’s Girls Training Center in 2002, according to information provided on the website, Sr. Rosemary first took time to learn about what skills and knowledge would practically help young women in the region.
“Since then, she has enrolled more than 2,000 women aged 15-20 in her vocational school to learn business skills, secretarial studies, sewing and catering. These skills all help her students to become economically self-reliant, a hugely important form of independence, and many of her graduates have subsequently found good employment in the high-end hotel industry,” the account details.
The nun is hailed for showing “consistent ingenuity in creating projects that benefit both the school and its students.”
Some of her projects highlighted include a restaurant she started on campus to teach catering skills while also generating further income for the school.
Additionally, she started the Sewing Hope Foundation as a nonprofit organization to rehabilitate child soldiers from the civil war, aiming to change the mindset of people who have experienced conflict and transform them into peacemakers through education.
The facility that hosts a kindergarten, a secondary school and a vocational training center has also been providing a learning environment for children of the underage mothers who come to the educational facility to learn.
“I decided to start a kindergarten for the children of the former sex-slaves when I realized that no one offered to take care of their children back at home when they came to school to learn,” Sr. Rosemary tells ACI Africa, adding, “I wanted the students to feel comfortable that their children’s academic needs were also being taken care of as they concentrated on their own studies as well.”
Other innovations have included building houses and infrastructure out of leftover plastic bottles, and manufacturing pop tab purses with her students which are now sold worldwide to help support the other programmes at the facility.
Today, St. Monica Girls Training Center, which admits girls aged between 15-20 enrolls all vulnerable girls including school dropouts and victims of early pregnancies.
According to Sr. Rosemary who grew up in a family of eight children in Paidha district, North of Uganda, the school has opened doors to victims of violence in South Sudan who come seeking refuge in Uganda, a country that has been named the friendliest to refugees in East Africa.
“None of my parents was educated. And although my father was a humble carpenter, he toiled to ensure that all of us went to school,” she says.
The best part of little Rosemary’s childhood was spent babysitting her nephews and nieces, a role that the nun now says must have played a part in the person she eventually became.
“I believe that God calls us from our environments and mine was from looking after my nephews and nieces. I saw the vulnerability that surrounded children and this shaped my whole person,” she says, adding, “But again, I learnt a lot from sisters who came to Uganda from South Sudan as refugees. I saw how they were filled with so much love in the exercise of their calling.”
“But my calling has always evolved,” says the nun who joined religious life in 1972 and professed in 1976. She adds, “As a teacher within my congregation, I am called within my call.”
The award-winning nun was listed as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2014 for the work she has done empowering women and children in Uganda.
She has travelled around the world to explain her approach and has been awarded four honorary doctorates, while pursuing her own doctoral qualification in Structural Education and Leadership.
The Ugandan nun has also contributed to panels at the World Economic Forum, established partnerships with Notre Dame and Oklahoma State universities, and won the 2007 CNN Heroes award.
“I am always booked for talks here and there, in Africa and beyond. I think it is good because I enjoy talking and inspiring other people,” says the bubbly religious sister.
She says that the money in the Global Teacher Prize package has already been planned for, should she win it.
“I will use the prize money to build libraries in all my schools and support students who cannot afford learning materials. I also recently initiated a project to build an agricultural college, which will boost the production of crops to sustain the school and raise further income. Only money stands in the way of achieving the goals of this project,” she says.
The positively ambitious nun also divulges to ACI Africa her plans to start a project she refers to as “Learn and Earn”, where students will be encouraged to sew blankets for hospitals around the country in their learning objectives and make some money while at it.
“There is just so much to do with the money should I win it,” she says, adding, “I’ve once won US$100,000.00 and when I was asked what I intended to do with the money, I told the judges that every penny of it was already spent even before I got it.”
With all her accomplishments, Sr. Rosemary passes for an individual who has lived up to her dreams and more.
Asked whether there is one thing she feels she hasn’t done, she says, after one hearty laughter, “As a normal human being, I am pushed to do one more little thing every day. Every day I wake up, I purpose to live up to my calling, that is, promoting livelihoods among the poor, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. And since I feel called especially in the area of education, I try, together with my fellow sisters, to do little things for these groups of people.”
Rome has described Sr. Rosemary as the Mother Teresa of Africa for rekindling hope in thousands of women in Uganda who were labelled ‘society rejects’ for their involvement with the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army, a certain rebel group that terrorized Uganda after they abandoned rebel groups.
The Mother Teresa of Africa is a title that the Ugandan nun laughs of heartily saying, “I have heard it said that my work resembles that of Mother Teresa. But I am nowhere close to Mother Teresa even though I regard her as my role model. She inspires me to do little things to make an impact in people’s lives.”
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ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa