Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe is arguably the world’s most famous living nun. The Ugandan sister has a raft of international awards, and TIME included her in its 2014 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Her story is the subject of a recent documentary narrated by Forest Whitaker. She may be diminutive in stature, but her presence fills the room of a five-star hotel in Manhattan, where she stayed while here as a headliner at the Women in the World conference. Her work couldn’t be further from this glamorous setting, but she says she’ll take whatever opportunity she can to get her story out.
Sister Rosemary took on the feared warlord, Joseph Kony, and his Lords Resistance Army, openly challenging them during their two-decade long reign of terror in Northern Uganda. And she did so armed only with sewing machines.
She has rescued some 2,000 girls, many of them abducted and shockingly abused by the LRA. One girl said she was forced to kill her own sister. She and other recovering girls have been living at Sister Rosemary’s school, St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring School in Gulu, Uganda. There they've been learning to sew.
“The comparison between machine guns and sewing machines was great for me, because the machines are used for sewing clothes,” Sister Rosemary says. “I knew that these girls had their lives all broken, taken apart from them. And I knew teaching them and training them how to sew clothes would be exactly like helping them to mend their own lives, too.”
The girls make clothes, and also fashion purses from the tabs of aluminum cans, and sell these items to support themselves and their families. Sister Rosemary is teaching life skills, economic independence and self-respect to women and girls who lost everything but their lives to Kony and his men. She says she learns from her students as well.
“I live with the people who have lost part of their bodies, limbs, and they’re able to forgive,” she says. “I learned to forgive from them.”
Sister Rosemary has decided to move to South Sudan, where she has seen how women and children are suffering in similar ways to their Ugandan neighbors from the impact of war.
“There are a lot of similarities in terms of suffering and abject poverty,” she says. “As far as children and women are concerned, in terms of education, they are totally left behind.”
Sister Rosemary takes her recent fame in stride. It doesn’t make her taller, she says with a smile. But it is a great platform, she notes, adding, “I want to make sure that I shout to everybody to participate [so] we change the lives of these young women and children.”
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.