A stitch in time

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe talks about Sewing Hope and working with Forest Whitaker.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sister Rosemary with a Sewing Hope bag: "I am a physically strong person and I strongly believe in work ethics."
Sister Rosemary with a Sewing Hope bag: "I am a physically strong person and I strongly believe in work ethics." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Academy Award, Golden Globe, and BAFTA winning actor for his performance in Kevin Macdonald's The Last King Of Scotland, Forest Whitaker narrates Sewing Hope, Derek Watson's vital documentary on the life-changing work Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe is doing in Gulu, Uganda with her St. Monica Girl School.

At a luncheon, held in her honor by executive producer Reggie Whitten in Manhattan, following an invited screening and discussion of Sewing Hope with Sister Rosemary and her director, I had a chance to talk with her. I congratulated her on the galvanising work she has accomplished and told her how much I love the additional fact that the bags shown being sewn in the film are made out of garbage. "Yes, exactly," she said, "and these girls who make them were also considered garbage. We need to take care of our world."

She said: "I used to get funds from Scottish Catholic Aid but, of course, they have got their time frame, they have also stopped that. Before actually stopping they told me they wanted to give me a so-called exit fund."

Sister Rosemary with director Derek Watson: "As the film describes, it's an up-hill battle and Sister Rosemary fights it…"
Sister Rosemary with director Derek Watson: "As the film describes, it's an up-hill battle and Sister Rosemary fights it…" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Sister Rosemary works with young women who escaped hell on earth from rebel terror. The girls were physically, mentally, spiritually broken. They themselves had to become "soldiers" and were told to kill at least five people. Their own shame became a weapon to control them. With padlocks through their lips, if unruly, many of the girls were forced to be sex slaves, bearing the guerrilla members' children, while still often children themselves.

Sewing Hope includes interviews with women who recount unfathomable cruelty inflicted upon them by members of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). "Kony prized young girls especially," the film states, before one of the school's young pupils explains what that means. She was abducted together with her younger sister and "they asked me to cut her to pieces," she says. Another kidnapped woman tells the camera that she had three children with Kony.

Following the screening Sister Rosemary and the director Derek Watson spoke about what the challenges are for Sewing Hope.

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe: I strongly believe money comes for a reason… I am putting humanity at the center of what I'm doing. I strongly believe in divine providence that money will come whatever it's needed for… There are some others who are doing this but they are Non Governmental Organisations with their policies and also their time frame. And oftentimes they will come and say - our time frame is one year - and this is where I really get problems. Because after one year, what next? I don't blame them. They are doing a good job, but it is all shut down. What we are doing is something long-term. Honestly, thinking of a person whose life had been taken away, whose dignity had been taken away for the last 20 years and to think that in one year you can bring the person to be normal. It's a dream, a negative dream, I should say. Our work remains quite unique because we continue working there and the most important thing is our presence.

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe: "The war is in the hearts of people. People are still struggling with many things."
Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe: "The war is in the hearts of people. People are still struggling with many things." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Derek Watson: There are several organizations that work with Sister Rosemary and try to help tell her story. One is PROS for AFRICA, there is also a book with the same title as the film. All of the proceeds go to help these girls. As the film describes, it's an up-hill battle and Sister Rosemary fights it, literally, with a lot of grace.

Sister Rosemary's school takes the girls and their children in with the goal of making them self-reliant.

Sister Rosemary: My emphasis is really on sustainability. Even if someone gives me today a million dollars and I just spend it like that, it will not affect the future of these people and I will not have planted something. The best I can do is to get money and kind of recycle it. Move it around and let people understand that they could work for this money. They've got to know that it's not going to come on a silver plate. I am a physically strong person and I strongly believe in work ethics. Imagine that I am working with people who have lost their dignity, who have been taken captive as sex slaves and so forth. I keep on telling them, you have to work for this and by working, you will get your dignity and you will always know it's what you have done. Selling the purses, selling the books, all the money goes back to the girls.

In Sewing Hope we see the children singing together in school and Sister Rosemary is particularly happy that "there is no difference now. You wouldn't know which child was born in captivity." She brings healing and empowerment. She instills confidence by teaching the women skills so they can make a living. They sew uniforms for schools in the area and make bags that are sold internationally through Pros for Africa. The hand-made bags out of pop tabs from cans are beautiful.

Sister Rosemary: A good number of the girls go out and start their own businesses. The girls we train in catering, in the hotel industry they are in demand. I'm telling you, in the whole of Northern Uganda there's not a single restaurant you'll not get a girl from St. Monica. There are hotel owners calling me, Sr. Rosemary, do you have girls who are ready to be employed? How much are you going to pay them? I tell them. Sometimes when I go to a small market, I find my students. They have a shop, they are sewing, they are in business. And then I also have some who teach others. I call them my cream, they help each other.

Sewing Hope at work: "I keep on telling them, you have to work for this and by working, you will get your dignity…"
Sewing Hope at work: "I keep on telling them, you have to work for this and by working, you will get your dignity…"

Sister Rosemary speaks of the girls' "double victimisation." When they returned with their children to the villages they were abducted from, no one was there to help them. One of the main tribes in Uganda, the Acholi, traditionally considers the children property of the father, not the mother and children by non-Acholi fathers are "deemed unworthy", while the mothers are stigmatised as part of the rebels.

Sister Rosemary: There is no way we could do this without the medical clinic. What I have started to engage in - promoting health and education for children and women. My own students, most of them have been sexually abused and I would love very much to let them get a place where they can be treated with respect. A place where they can accept health care. In Uganda to get proper care you have to pay a lot of money and I'm trying my best to work against that by giving people really good medication and care and they've got to pay very little for it. Very, very little. The reason why I want them to pay this little is that I don't want them to get used to free things. It's the direct opposite of what is happening in public where you spend hours you are not attended to, you are not even given the right medication or you have no one to listen to you.

The director explained how Forest Whitaker came on board as narrator.

Derek Watson: Forest Whitaker was at a foundation gala and was chosen to introduce Sr. Rosemary because of his connection with Uganda. He has a school called Hope North which does similar things as Sr. Rosemary but caters to boys. He immediately fell in love with her. And Sister just asked him, "Hey Forest, would you narrate my film?" Forest has been incredibly gracious and they talk almost every day.

Sewing Hope narrated by Forest Whitaker: "I said, 'No, no, tell Forest it's Sister Rosemary'."
Sewing Hope narrated by Forest Whitaker: "I said, 'No, no, tell Forest it's Sister Rosemary'." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Sister Rosemary: I find him [Forest Whitaker] so simple and so humble and it was amazing for me to meet him. At one time in Uganda, I went to a school where he was with his people and I told one of them I want to see Forest. And he said It's going to be difficult for you to see Forest . I said, "No, no, tell Forest it's Sister Rosemary." I was talking to him just yesterday.

Since the late 1980s with Kony's LRA terrorising the region around Gulu, she had many encounters with rebels and saved lives. "Showing weakness disarmed the strong," is what she says worked for her. Sister Rosemary is working with those who find it difficult to forgive themselves and need someone else to forgive them. Mothers were turning their anger towards their children, who remind them of the fathers who often tortured and raped them.

Sister Rosemary: There still is fear from the LRA. The simple reason is Kony himself is still alive and at large. So you actually remain thinking is this real experience or can he come anytime? A lot of people say the war has ended. I say that is a weak statement. The war is in the hearts of people. People are still struggling with many things.

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