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Meet Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe

Sister Rosemary sitting outside on tires

Feb. 18, 2020

Lupe Davidson, Woodburn Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Director and Academic Collaborator for Social Justice Affairs for the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, corresponded with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe in advance of her visit to campus in March. Davidson, who has worked in Uganda, asked Sister Rosemary about her personal history, her activism and her plans while visiting West Virginia for Visions of Justice: Northern Uganda and Appalachia.

Lupe Davidson: Can you talk a bit about your life? Where did you grow up? Do you have any siblings? When did you decide to become a nun?

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe: I grew up in a village called Paidha, Uganda which is close to the Congo border and about 442 kilometers from the capital, Kampala. I am the seventh of eight children in the family. My parents were not educated. My dad was a carpenter. I realize and can say my parents had a lot of knowledge which they acquired through many different ways. Half of my teenage years were spent with my eldest sister who was like a mom to me. Later on, I became a babysitter for her; this work I loved with all my heart because it brought me closer to my nieces and nephews. This was a job which prepared me for a future task without my knowledge; that is, working with vulnerable children. I decided to become a nun when I was 15 years old. Now I can say I was only 15! But at that time, it was clear to me that I was mature enough to follow God’s call to continue doing what I was doing. When God calls, he does not give you a new job, but he wants you to continue with what you have been doing.

How many languages do you speak? 

I made up my mind to learn different languages for the sake of communicating with different people better. So, I can speak six languages fairly well. 

A lot of people don’t know this, but you are in your last semester of doctoral course work in the College of Education at the University of Oklahoma (and you have a MA from Duquesne University, my graduate alma mater, as well). What has it been like being a graduate student again? How do you manage school with your other international obligations?

Being a graduate student has been a very big challenge for me because I had to choose to do something which will hopefully be useful for the women I work with. I have been struggling to give these women a voice, and I found that education and literacy would be the only way of making the women become advocates for themselves. One of my challenges is that I have to continue being part of the projects back home by raising awareness about our work through speaking engagements from time to time. I needed to set the example by “walking the talk.” How can I convince the women that they can still learn if I do not show them the way? I wanted to be an example of life-long learning for my students. While at the same time, I want my study to be a small contribution to the decolonization of education. If I had thought of this earlier, I would have told you my parents were educated because they had cultural knowledge of so many things. Again, I am not studying to look for a job, because I have a lot of jobs! But I want to validate the indigenous knowledge of these women.

I have been fortunate enough to be with you in Uganda, and I have seen the way that students take to you and just love being in your presence! You are like a rock star with students. How are you able to connect with young people?

Connecting with young people is easy, because my spirit is always young. I learn a lot from young people, even from children. By hanging out with young people, I master their language and I make them feel respected, too. I don’t know why we adults often think we must be very far from young people. I live in a dorm, and when people hear about it they get very surprised, but I don’t because I am used to young people and they totally respect me. I chose to live in a dorm because I feel safer with people around me than being alone in an apartment or commuting daily to class. That is not my life, I know I am a social being and find it so hard to live alone.

For years you worked with women and girls who have been adversely impacted with war. What brought you to that work?

What started me on working with women and girls who are victims of the Lord’s Resistance War, first I was sent by superiors to run a tailoring school, and yet I had never had any training on that subject. Seeing the painful situation of young women and children, who escaped from the rebels who abducted and trained them as child soldiers while serving as sex slaves, too, I knew I had to do something which can restore hope in these women. It was all about accepting these women with their children with compassion in our school. This was all how I got started on giving them many practical skills which could help restore their lost dignity and also make them become self-reliant.

What are you looking forward to during your visit to WVU?

I am very delighted to visit WVU, and what I would love to see growing is the partnership and involvement of WVU in bringing hope to Northern Uganda and communities in post-conflict situations. We are all challenged to find how we can mend the broken lives of people and point to a better future.

Do you have a favorite song or “theme song”? Also, do you know the John Denver song "Country Roads"? (If not, I’m sure you’ll hear it while you’re visiting.)

I would love to hear John Denver’s song by all means! I love the songs "Touched by a Rose" and "Just as I Am" by Jaïa.  

Sister Rosemary will be on the Morgantown campus from March 9 to 12, 2020, and public events will kick off with her keynote, "I Believe in Who I Am," on Monday, March 9. Learn more about the "Visions of Justice" event series and plan to attend.