The Gender Security Project
When Life Gives You Scraps, Stitch a Dress Together
By Samyuktha PC
Sister Rosemary in Atiak, Uganda. Photo by Donald Milller. Source: Centre for Religion and Civic Culture
What is hope when our histories are so deeply wounded by perpetuating violence? What is hope when everyone tells you the violence is over, but you still feel it in your body and your soul? What is hope when the violence of war is followed by the violence of poverty, stigma and hunger? How does one form a togetherness of love and care that transcends boundaries as an ongoing resistance to assert one’s right to existence? Is it truly possible to forget the past and move forward?
“Showing weakness is my strength and oftentimes it disarms the strong,” - Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe
Dictators, Rebels and A Kindness
African nations have had a long shared history of violence, and cannot be studied in isolation. With national boundaries etched by colonial powers through their invasive games of bartering stolen territories to exploit labour, resources, and foreign policy, clans within these borders were goaded into war amongst themselves to shape the idea of the State that must govern their communities.
In the 1890s, Uganda became a British protectorate and its borders were drawn without considering the ethnic groups living within them. The colonial rule ended in 1962, and Uganda gained independence, but its history has been marked by political instability, civil wars, colonial plunder, slave trade, indentured labour trade, and human rights abuses.
Before home could be made, albeit by the socialist dictatorship of Milton Obote, in 1971, Idi Amin Dada, brutally seized power through a military coup and wielded a regime characterized by human rights abuses, ethnic discrimination and economic mismanagement, leading to the genocide of over 300,000 people.
In the decade that followed, the rule of President Yoweri Museveni, who rules Uganda to date, has been characterized by political repression, human rights abuses and corruption. The government has often cracked down on opposition and protestors, leading to violence and deaths among the civilians. In the 1980s, ethnic socio-political and economic oppression led to the rise of rebel groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) mainly asking for a multi-party democracy.
While this started as a guerilla rebellion, the amassing of troops and funding proved to be difficult against the internationally supported and celebrated Museveni, and it soon turned extremely radical. Joseph Kony who leads the Lord's Resistance Army asserted that the movement will be a forceful insurgency to make sure the State follows the Ten Commandments, and soon morphed it into one of the most violent insurgencies in the world. The LRA abducted children who were forced to kill their own loved ones and trained as child soldiers. It captured young girls who were made into sexual slaves and repeatedly impregnated. It plundered homes and manipulated peace talks to re-arm itself and continued its rampage across the northern and western regions of the country. The LRA insurgency took vicious control of the state and its violence was hardly known or spoken about outside Uganda, while Museveni was lauded by foreign powers. The United Nations estimates that the LRA killed over 100,000 people and displaced over 2 million during its 20-year insurgency.
During this civil war, one young Catholic nun called Rosemary Nyirumbe took her vows and moved into the Sacred Hearts Convent in Gulu. She hid there with her sisters, trying to live her dream of serving people, amongst the rain of bullets and screams. One day, while they had spent several hours hiding in a corridor, Sister Rosemary decided to brave the day and step out into the kitchen to look for some food against everyone's caution. There she found an LRA soldier hiding, because his gun had malfunctioned. She gave him what little food they could share, some medication with instructions and asked him to leave as the Ugandan military could kill her if they saw her helping an LRA soldier. The soldier left. But in a few moments, he returned to remove the bullets he had hidden in the oven so it wouldn't hurt anyone who cooks there. Sister Rosemary deeply believes in the power of the few moments of kindness both of them managed to exchange. The sisters tried to stick together with this kindness, until one day there was no way to exist other than to escape Gulu.
The Young Mothers Stitching Wounds Together
In 2002, Sister Rosemary was asked to return to Gulu, as the LRA began receding into South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was tasked with reviving the St. Monica's Tailoring Centre to provide vocational training to young girls wounded by the war. She began with fifteen girls and as she focused on providing them economic self-sufficiency, she understood they had been deeply traumatized by the LRA. As sexual slaves and child soldiers, these women had returned with children who were stigmatized as murderers' children. Their memories and the crimes they were forced to commit haunted them, and continued to hurt these children who were mothers and their children who had no idea of what was causing the hurt they were experiencing.
In this light, Sister Rosemary began to throw open the doors of the center to women survivors around the region. A day care facility, computer classes, and cultural activities were added on to her one-on-one coaching with these students. Each growth came from a survivor who found courage to open up and ask for help in the safety that had been created together. Economical sustainability was slowly expanded by taking up contracts for school uniforms and hospital sheets. Now, the school could also pay their students and make them into self-sufficient entrepreneurs. The center was then consolidated into the Sewing Hope Foundation, which allows it to accept stronger funding and move beyond the border. She has internationally networked to find new markets and alliances that will broaden the horizons for these women. It began from a downtrodden school that needed as much saving as its peoples and is now a community and a methodology of connecting, surviving, healing, and hoping together across boundaries in Uganda, South Sudan and beyond.
The Two States and the Individual
Since 2006, Uganda has implemented a Truth, Reconciliation and Justice Commission (TRJC) with the aim of promoting healing and forgiveness among communities affected by war and conflict. The commission's work includes documentation of human rights violations and offering reparation to the victims of the conflict.
However, it was Sister Rosemary’s tireless work as an individual caught between the violence of Joseph Kony's atrocities and Museveni's manipulations, with a fervent belief that everyone deserves healing, which brought attention to the long-term effects of the insurgency in Uganda and the need for continued support for the survivors. The past is not easily forgotten or forgiven, or it needn't be for the sake of the future, but this sister stands in the firm belief that hope is practical. Hope is what you work for at an individual level, to assert our right to life and dignity and safe communities. It begins with understanding those you can help around you, by quietly listening. And one circle will soon give birth to concentric circles of sisterhood, healing, truth and support.
Sewing Hope [Film]. Director, Derek Watson. Narrator, Forest Whitaker. (2015) http://www.sewinghopefoundation.com/film.html
A Brilliant Genocide [Film]. Director, Ebony Butler. Atlantic Star Productions. (2016) https://abrilliantgenocide.com
Cagney, Erin Michelle, "Post-Conflict Cultural Revival and Social Restructuring in Northern Uganda" (2011). Chancellor’s Honors Program Projects. https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_chanhonoproj/1417