A Conversation with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, A Sister in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Congregation
February 4, 2023
Background: Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, SHS, a Catholic religious sister from Northern Uganda, is aptly described as a “force of nature.” She symbolizes the compassion, zeal, and courage that look unspeakable tragedies in the face and find solutions. Renowned for her efforts during the time when Joseph Kony terrorized the region where she worked, today she continues her work, especially with girls, traveling widely to convey her core messages of hope.
This conversation with Katherine Marshall took place when Sister Rosemary was visiting Washington, DC, in February 2023 to participate in the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast. Sister Rosemary reflects on her path – religious, operational, and academic—and her commitment to opening (or creating) better futures, especially for girls. The theme of women’s empowerment is a central part of her life and work and, through the successive steps that compose her own life, she exemplifies both challenges and opportunities. She is a living example of the remarkable work of Catholic sisters in Africa. Her order, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Congregation, emerged when Comboni missionaries encouraged sisters in South Sudan to form their own African community and elect the first African superior general. With their motherhouse in Yuba, South Sudan, the sisters also live out their motto, “Live Love in Truth,” in Kenya and Uganda, where most Sacred Heart vocations come from.
The Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship amplifies the visibility, vitality, and voice of Catholic sisters in responding to the complex challenges and opportunities faced by women religious leaders within their organizations and communities. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, and the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University have collaborated in the design and delivery of the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship. Funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Sister Rosemary is a fellow in the inaugural cohort, and this discussion forms part of a series of exchanges with the sisters in that context.
Let’s begin with where you're from, and how you became a sister? How did you end up doing the kinds of things you do? Your story has been written about in many places, but please give us a start.
I'm Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a name that always presents some problems to pronounce! I am from Uganda, and, precisely, northern Uganda.
That's where you were born and raised?
Yes. I cannot start my story with when I became a sister, because my story starts well before that. When I was growing up, I was always a babysitter to children: my sisters and brothers and others. I love children a lot, and being almost the last born (I'm the second to last born in my family) made me grow closer and closer to children than any other person. When I heard about the sisters from South Sudan who came to Uganda as refugees, it touched me. I had not thought at all about becoming a nun. My whole idea about joining them was what I heard about the care the sisters gave to vulnerable children, their care for orphans and elderly people. That resonated with me a lot. I thought, “I can join these sisters and I can continue caring for children.” It was difficult for me to detach myself from caring for my nieces and nephews, but I knew I would continue caring for children. That is how I joined them.
The order you joined was founded in South Sudan?
The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was founded in Juba, by a bishop who later founded other congregations: Brothers and Priests, Apostles to Jesus, St. Martin Brothers, then Evangelizing Sisters of Mary. But ours was the first one he founded. He did not continue with it for long, however, because the missionaries in South Sudan were all expelled by Arabs. When they were expelled, he came to Uganda, with his sisters. And in my village, we started hearing about these sisters who came to Uganda as refugees and their good work.
That was in what year?
1964. The mission (a missionary congregation) was started in 1954, and after 10 years they moved to Uganda. They didn't really have a mother house or a house. In Uganda, they were put in an old school. I was very young when I joined, one of the first people in my hometown who joined this congregation from South Sudan.
Joining the congregation, in Moyo, was a very different, often difficult step for me. I found living with so many nuns a very different world, one I had never seen before. So many women together! I came from a mixed school, boys and girls. So here I was with only women. I was a little girl who loved everything to do with beauty. I had all sorts of things. I had all my hair plaited well and so forth. When I reached the convent, they told me, no, you cannot braid your hair. You have to remove the bangles, you have to do this and that. I thought, “Oh my goodness!” but accepted all that. But I loved my long hair. The Mother Superior persuaded me slowly, because she realized I was so attached to my beauty. She said, "Rosemary, we need to shorten your hair, because when you're in the chapel it is very distracting to others." And they shortened my hair without a mirror in front of me. I didn't know they were going to cut it so short. When I looked at my hair later, I really wanted to cry. But I said, “Okay, no problem.” I came to love it like that.
The next challenge I had when I joined the convent was sleep. For me, sleep is really precious, up to today. And every morning they were waking us up with the bell at 5:30, and I would say, goodness, this is early for me to wake up! How long am I going to do this in my life? Waking up at 5:30 every day? And many times I was late to the chapel because it was so difficult for me to wake up. One time the Mother Superior punished me and said, “Rosemary, you are always late in the chapel. I don't want to see you late. You can go to the main church. I want everybody to see that you're a lazy girl; you are oversleeping. Go and walk there and pray there alone.” She thought she was punishing me, but I was very happy as it gave me extra time to sleep. So I did that for two weeks. Little by little, I had to learn to wake up early, and now I find waking up is not a problem.
I realized that joining the religious life is really a process, and it's something you have to grow in. You cannot say, “I've been called, I've been given the vocation.” I didn't realize that. Even within the call there's another call. And for me, I realized over time that within the call I received, there has always been a call to take care of the vulnerable women and children. And that's what I'm doing up to today. And I still believe God keeps calling and saying, continue this journey.
Wonderful. How does this life journey fit with the history of Northern Uganda? You've had several waves of violence and conflict. How did that affect you?
The history of Northern Uganda is quite painful. If I look at a person like me, I realize that there has not been a single time when I worked in a situation of peace. Throughout my life I've worked in difficult situations, and that is exactly my upbringing. That is what molds and puts the history of Northern Uganda together.
The conflict started way back in the '70s, with Idi Amin. Later on, so many different presidents came in. There's always been bloodshed, some incidents of either leaving your home, running away, or hiding and so on. Or not allowing people to be together. That has been a reality throughout. I realized that that really fitted in my life, because you grow up in a place where you were born and you have seen its history. It's what can make you give yourself more to finding a solution. For me, the solution is my being present in that situation and my knowing the situation and knowing that that is my background. I always say I need to do my best to make people who come after me have it a little better. That's why I'm always determined that the women and children whose history I share should be better. I should act myself, to make their life a little better, by finding another way.
Poverty is one example. I have done many different studies and earlier in my life I did midwifery. As soon as I completed my midwifery studies, I went to the convent to start working. That was a time when the war broke out again, and things were so difficult. There was not a single hospital available. The clinic I was running was like a hospital. Luckily enough I was brought in by a priest who was the doctor; he used to work with me in the operating theater. (He is now beatified and they are, I’m sure, going to canonize him.) He taught me so many things in the theater. He used to tell me, "Rosemary, you need to learn everything I'm teaching you now, because it'll be useful for you for the future." Later I realized what he said was correct, because when I started working in the situation of war, there was no hospital and it was me who was running a clinic as a hospital. I had to save lives, I had to stitch wounds, I had to stop bleeding, all these things, without fear.
That came out in another part of my life when I was doing studies. I asked myself then whether the work I had done, giving medicine, trying to help people and so forth, was all I was supposed to be doing? I came to ask why people were getting sick. I need to know why people remain poor. And that twisted and turned my mind, and I decided to go into development studies and ethics.
Tell me about your own education route. You said that you grew up at a time and place when girls couldn't go to school.
Yes, it was very difficult at the time I was growing up. Northern Uganda as a whole is not a place which favored education of girls, because the girls are looked at as people who should get married and bring wealth to the family and so forth. That stereotype and mentality are deeply rooted in people. But one thing that worked in my favor was my family. My mother was someone who really valued the education of her children, though she was not educated herself. My dad was a bit drawn to the mentality of everybody there, that the girls should get married and so forth. But my mother stood firm, saying “Children, if your dad cannot pay your tuition, I will brew beer, I'll do everything, I'll even sell my clothes, even walk naked, I don't care. I'll give you money for your tuition. Our first born, my oldest sister, became the first teacher in our village. And when she became a teacher, my mother said, “now you begin to look after your brothers and sisters.” She started paying the tuition of my brothers and sisters. She was so smart and she has kept on paying. She also got scholarships for everyone. Her own scholarship was enough to pay for her and pay her brother who came after her. So she completed her studies, and my brother who follows her, completed his studies and became an accountant. And so the trend went on and on. They helped one another.
I think I was one of the luckiest ones in the family. I didn't have many problems with education, because everybody was supporting me and paying for me. My mother was very firm. Then when I went to the convent, I kept going on with my studies.
How did that work?
I did secondary school in segments. First, I stopped in senior two, and went and did midwifery. Strangely enough, I was studying with girls who had much higher levels of education but I never felt any challenge. I was leading them in the class, though nobody could tell I had stopped. When I finished my midwifery studies, then worked for a time, I realized that I needed to continue with my studies. And then the war broke out again, and made it difficult to work in the community.
Where did you study?
In Northern Uganda.
I was trapped in Gulu at the time, in a small house with three other sisters. We could not study; we could do nothing much. Meanwhile, they put me as the superior for the other sisters in the house, I was the youngest, but I thought that if this was what God wanted me to do, no problem. Eventually, we managed to escape from that place, to go back to the mother house. I had expected to continue there with my studies, in a peaceful place, but they elected me to be the Delegation’s Superior, thus a Provincial Superior. I wanted to study but they kept giving me leadership positions! How was I to combine it all? I asked my spiritual director about this difficult position. The response was: "You can do it, you are capable. Just say yes." And I just obeyed. I took up the responsibility and I worked as the Provincial Superior for six years.
During the time when I was serving as a leader, my focus was the education of sisters. I made sure I sent them to higher studies. By the time I completed my office, after six years, I had educated 36 sisters, in higher education. My conviction was, I am one person. If I remain behind, I will study later. I have no problem, let them study. When I made my report, I cited the 36 sisters who I educated and who were ready to be appointed and serve in other places. At the end of the six years, nobody knew what to do with me, and I told them, “Now I'm going to do my studies.” They were not sure I was serious. When I was working as a leader, I kept on doing home studies. I went straight to sit for a Senior 4 examination and I passed.
I then went to a very prestigious school in Kampala, in the city, to do my A-Levels, for two years. I passed, and I was taken to the University in Uganda, Martyrs University, the Catholic University. That is where I did Development Studies and Ethics.
When I finished after four years, I went back to the convent in Moyo. I went to the clinic and orphanage we ran there. Things were not moving well. The health center had functioned well during the war but it had gone downhill. Something was wrong. I told the superior that I could work there as a volunteer to put them in order. I asked her to give me sisters and said I would do the administration. I got one sister. I agreed to write up a strategic plan to revive it. In the meantime, a group of donors from the UK, the International Refugee Trust, came to visit the orphanage and the clinic. They were withdrawing because they were not functioning well. I felt so sad. So that night I worked. I did the organogram, strategic planning, everything. I met the group before they got to the clinic and said that I was new and could not give them a full report, but handed them a one month report. They looked at it and said, "We wish all the places we are supporting could do this kind of thing. No problem, we can continue supporting for three more years.” I was so happy. When I left, the health center and the orphanage were functioning well.
I was then posted to Gulu. I had run from Gulu during the most difficult time and now was sent back there. But no problem: if that is God's will, I will go wherever he's sending me. And if he wants me to make a life on top of water, I will go. So I packed my things, and drove myself to Gulu in the pickup. And I have remained there until today.
What was the situation then in Gulu?
It was difficult, especially because I knew the area. My fear was that the rebels would know me. In Moyo, there were government soldiers and they were causing a lot of problems, and fighting there. In Gulu, the soldiers were the rebels and I often met them. I was living in fear because they knew me well enough to call me by my name. But it turned out that they were helpful. Some of them did indeed know me but nothing happened. They said I was their doctor and had helped a lot.
I was sent to the school there, St. Monica’s. It was a big challenge. I hesitated, as I did not know what kind of education we could offer at that time. There was a tailoring school in Gulu and I knew nothing about tailoring and had never learned it. I’d just finished a degree in Development Studies and Ethics. There was no link. But I said that I would put my degree aside and teach myself how to sew. I started becoming more innovative.
What I didn't know at first was that some girls there had been abducted by rebels and they were now the students I was dealing with: 30 of them. I remember one girl who always sat in isolation. Let’s call her Janet. I said, “Janet, can I chat with you?” Acting as a nurse or as a counselor, I said, “Janet, I always see that you don't sit with the others. Is there any problem? You don't even go to class regularly.” She said, "Sister, I cannot sit in class." “Why?” I asked. "My eyes are always paining me.” “Why? Is there any way I can help you?” She said, "I used to always be in the frontline and there were a lot of smuggled guns and now I feel a lot of pain in my eyes.” She told me that she was one of the commanding officers of the Lord's Resistance Army.
How old was the girl?
I think 20. I asked how I could help her. She said, "I cannot read. I cannot even listen to what they're teaching." I thought that this girl was giving me a message that would be applicable to the rest of the students. I told Janet that I could offer some practical skills like sewing, and then cooking. I asked if she could manage that and she said she would try. So that year I introduced practical tailoring: cutting and sewing straight away, without mathematics, no theory. Then cooking. I said to her, “Whenever I'm going to the market, can you come with me? We'll go and buy food together. We can then cook, and we shall sell to people and so forth.” She said, “I don't want to go to town. I don't want people to look at me.”
I realized that this girl had committed a lot of atrocities and was afraid she would be recognized in town. I had to persuade her. She started little by little to accept to come with me. And whenever we'd go to the market, I would trust her with money. I'd say, “Go to that side and buy the vegetables, I will be on this side. And then we meet in the car.” That is how the girl decided to get rehabilitated, being exposed to people. But I had to be by her side.
I realized that introducing the practical skills of tailoring was very helpful to her but well beyond. Many girls decided to go to join her class and I said, "Maybe this is what these guys need." We had not realized that. I did not stop the others from joining, and at the end of one year, we gave practical examinations, oral tests, and so forth. This girl passed with distinction, which surprised me. I got the picture that we needed to study the situation before we introduced anything. The students were facing difficulties that went far beyond the gaps in their level of education. I had to start at a very low, practical level. And that became something all the girls who came from captivity valued. The next year I put an advertisement on the radio, saying that any girls who came from captivity and would like to study should come to St. Monica's. We said they could come with their children, even if they were pregnant: And 230 girls responded.
But I did make a mistake. Many did come with their children and that was a new challenge. The girls had to leave their children to go to class. So I hired a woman to take care of the children. We started a daycare and kindergarten under a tree, with so many children and one woman. Then I got a second woman to take care of the children.
I learned another thing from this experience. During break times, the girls would come out and play with the children, really play. We were offering chances for the girls to rebuild their lives, and their brokenness. And they were able to play again like children, restoring their lost childhood.
So the girls became a model for me that I adopted: girls coming to school with their children. It was a big challenge for many people. The priest was not happy with me. This was the first time girls were allowed to be in school when they were pregnant or with children. It was the only school in the whole of Uganda that did that. But we continued and eventually I got a kindergarten built, a big one, and a daycare. And we extended this service to women in prison who had children. Bring your children out, we'll take care of them. And girls continued coming with their children.
Eventually I got a house built for young mothers with their children. We didn’t mix them with the other girls. But they challenged me. Somebody came to do an interview and I decided to be present. The man asked how the girls felt, who had a place to stay with their children. They destroyed me by saying that they were not happy being by themselves, because the other girls looked at them, thinking they were just mothers. Oh my God, I thought I was doing good for them! But they wanted to mix. And they did not like the fact that they had a special uniform, because then everybody knew who they were. So I told them to return all those uniforms and I gave them the regular uniforms. And then those who wanted to stay with other guys in the dormitory, they could go. All of them went to the dormitory with the others. So I had to tell the others, “These are your sisters; these children are all ours. Take care, help one another.” This went until today. That's what we are doing, accepting mothers and babies together.
The purpose is not just education. The purpose is rebuilding their brokenness.
So now you have this Tailoring Center as part of St. Monica?
It's a school, kindergarten, health center, and a tailoring school. It’s big. I’ve developed it over time. I even started a restaurant where they can go and practice in the restaurant. I'm talking about basic cooking. It was not in my mind at first because I did not have those skills. But I began by teaching them what I know I can do. I know how to cook, I know how to take care of babies, and I teach them that.
Is the school supported by the Church or by the government?
No. The Church is not supporting it. The government is not supporting it. I look for funding myself.
Independent funding from good people?
Yes, good people. I also expanded another center as an orphanage. We've got another orphanage called Atiak, but that is under Sewing Hope. That is mostly the project we run now. It's all under Sewing Hope.
Who are the orphans?
They are children either from South Sudan or children of HIV/AIDS, mothers or children who grew by themselves, because of some problems. We have some children who are abandoned; we give them foster care. To give them an opportunity. If a girl gets pregnant now, maybe a teenager, instead of the girl struggling with the baby, we encourage her, saying, “You can take the child to the orphanage, or to foster care while you go to school. When you complete you can take the baby back. They can come and go.
How many are in the orphanage?
Now we are 50.
There's tension around orphanages, as much evidence shows that there are far better options for children. But care for orphans is a deep religious tradition. What is your view?
I always qualify the word “orphanage.” In fact, we don't call the orphanage we run an orphanage; we call it a children's village. We have a new model where we have 10 houses where you put eight children with a mother. We want to adopt the African style, where a mother has to care for these children and show them the right way. That is totally different from an institution, an orphanage. I find that model works quite well, because then it helps us to plan how to resettle this child in the community. We build on the traditional role of the mom, who will help settle these children. At the same time, we cannot say we shall never have orphans or children in need. They will always be there. And as much as people have got bad ways of thinking about it, it doesn't stop us from caring for these children. We have to give them a future. Many of my children are now going to school and they're very excited. A boy with no arms (Innocent) is doing well in school. Another wants to be a neurosurgeon. These are children I picked and cared for. We give them a future.
When were you able to continue your education?
I went to Italy in 2010 to do my master's degree, with Duquesne, an American university. I went under what was probably the first program of what became ASEC [African Sisters Education Collaborative]. I was sent by my superior, part of the first group who did that master's degree in Rome. When I finished, I came back to work. But I realized that I needed to do my Ph.D., because I was promoting adult literacy for women and needed more focus. If you read my dissertation, it's really like the story I'm telling you.
Where did you do your Ph.D.? And what was your dissertation about?
At Oklahoma University—Literacy for Women. And the whole thing was to be my story. It was published, but I am being asked to redo it in a less academic form that can be read by a larger group of people. I'm working on that now. The most interesting thing for me was my defense. I asked if I could invite people to come and listen to my defense. They said that I was the only person who asked that! I wanted to tell my stories. So the room where the defense took place was full, with more than 20 people! But I disagreed with the word defense. Why? Because the word defense doesn't apply in my culture. It looks like I'm going to defend something wrong that I've done. But I was going to share my story. They laughed. My committee, the professors, now come to support the work I'm doing in Uganda. We have a group of women from Northern Uganda who come for peace conferences, and all the professors were part of it. So the “defense” was really a continuation. I could be myself and tell them the plain story of my learning and my work.
Have you worked with the Acholi group in northern Uganda? How far is the peace and reconciliation process still working?
I have worked with them. I used to work on the Justice and Peace Commission during the conflict. And the peace process continues, though sometimes in a muddling way. It's mixed, but there are people who are committed to carrying on at a local and low level, like the traditional leaders, the chiefs, and so forth, I think they've tried their best to work with the people along those lines. That includes the mataput process, done around the fireplace. That goes a lot with the tradition now. The traditional chiefs really are determined to pursue those paths,
I have two more sets of questions, and they're related. One of them is about how you see the sisters' roles in your area, in Uganda, and in Africa. As you know, the Hilton Foundation and others are convinced that the sisters have a very special role. And, when people say women's empowerment to you, what does that mean? And what are both the positives and the less positives that you would see in that?
Those are great questions, especially about the roles of sisters, and especially in Africa. As I look at it, sisters are really not special but special at the same time. They are a group of women who stand out in a very difficult situation, especially in rural areas. You find the sisters are there, with very little, and much to accomplish. They have to reach out to the most needy people. In a way even when they play neutral roles, they reach out to bring women up or children up or families up. But they don't have the tools. The tools the sisters lack many times is education and oftentimes finances, and so forth. And if the sisters had the tools, especially education, that might resolve some problems of finances, because you can find a way to be more innovative. But you find that sisters really just have their bare hands and then maybe the barest education from the convent. The little that they've learned they've got to apply.
In my view, if we can empower the sisters to go out and continue what they're doing, with education, I think the systems they support would excel. We go everywhere. You have good priests, good bishops too, and many others. It pains me sometimes to see a sister write a project for supporting children or supporting a health center. It has to go through the bishops and they will not give the money to the sister. Often they simply do not know what the sisters are doing. But they're going out of their way to do all that the others cannot do.
In so many ways the sisters are like mothers. They understand the situation, they reach out in a better way, but then they do not have the facilitation they need. We live in a church which is very poor. What we do in Gulu, the church does not support. Should we neglect the challenges? Leave? We want to continue doing what we can do, to go out of our way to serve and to innovate. When I went to Gulu, nobody even knew my educational background or took it into account. I had to cook with the girls. I had to move in with them, to do everything. I had to make purses myself to sell to get money to run the school, to pay the women at the same time. So sometimes that is what we suffer from: no support, in all ways. And that's why I'm very happy for the support we receive from Hilton, especially for education for sisters. Because that's one big thing we lack.
Sometimes when I am angry I ask a sister, "Are you only complaining? Did you act?" Because one thing I tell you, it's better for us to cooperate and smile, and act. We have to avoid being aggressive and we have to avoid being passive, but we must be assertive.
That's a very interesting way of framing it.
If I'm aggressive, we'll not solve any problem. And if I'm passive we will not solve them. I am assertive.
So we have to really fight on that. That’s how I see the sisters’ struggles. Otherwise, sisters are struggling and they're doing a lot and there's no cheating there; there's nobody who is doing nothing. They're trying their best. But they need that empowerment.
Do you see that as common among the different orders? Or are there some orders that have different challenges?
Maybe some orders have different challenges. It depends on where they were founded, who founded them, and perhaps the geographical regions. For us in Northern Uganda, it's so challenging; you are working totally with the poor and you're constantly being bugged by the poor, the refugees, and so on, for everything. And my order is also refugees. You use your situation to support people who are suffering the same afflictions. So it depends. Some congregations are more settled financially, but I don't know how many there are, maybe one or two. And then some congregations also have many more sisters who are well-educated. In my congregation I'm the second Ph.D. That's all.
And how many are in the order?
We are about 200. The first Ph.D. is the Mother General and then myself. We cannot support any sister for further education. She was supported by the Maryknolls, in Ireland. And I have been supported by women in America. That's all. So financially we may not be able to support education, even if they're capable.
What about the broader issue of women's empowerment? You started by saying that there's an attitude still in Northern Uganda that it's not as important for girls to go to school. But how do you see this changing? And do you work with the feminists? Or is there tension between some of the sisters and the feminists?
There is sometimes; some tension will always exist. But the situation is changing a little bit, in that actually now a lot of focus, a lot of attention is being given to women's education and the girl child’s education. But now I see and hear men complaining that they are being left behind. At the conference I started for women on peacebuilding, men started complaining that they were left out. So I said, "Okay, we are going to call women to come to this conference and each group can bring one gender-sensitive man. And when he comes, he's not to speak, he has to listen." Because women have had so many issues and men have always talked. So now you will come to a conference and listen. We have done it for two years now. This June we will have another Peace Conference, and each group will bring one gender-sensitive man. There are a lot of issues around women in homes.
Sometimes this sharper focus becomes an issue of conflict. Men feel they're left out and so they become violent or they think that they must do something to stop the women. But it now looks like women are unstoppable and men are beginning to understand. In the group I started with women living with HIV/AIDS, I was impressed in one discussion when they said that HIV/AIDS has the face of a woman; they really believe that it's a woman who brings HIV/AIDS! But they come together, these stars, and find a solution to their problems, which I like.
So women's empowerment is something which even the Uganda government is trying to work through. Because if you look, many of the women who came here [to the Religious Freedom Conference] are women who are fighting for women’s empowerment. But it's not enough. Women’s empowerment needs to go down to uplift the women who are vulnerable and bring them up. That is what all of us should focus on: bring them up, give them a voice. In what way? Back to education. And that's why I've gone back to adult literacy, introducing it to women. They should be able to read and write. They should be able to have their destiny in their hands. A woman should be able to know when she gets pregnant and when she's expecting a baby. When I worked as a midwife, it was devastating. You ask the woman, "When was your last menstrual period?" They don't know and answer that their husband knows. Education is very important.
But sex education is very controversial in some places.
Very. That is a big issue for empowering women, because if we empower them to know who they are and what they can do, they will empower their children. And the future of women will be a future of people who are knowledgeable, who have their destiny in their hands.
You have received many awards and have a special role.
I don't even know how I was nominated for the CNN award! It was a rabbi. His daughter had visited me.
I went to meet with the father and he recommended me for an award. I just do what I do and don't expect anything to come after. I got one award in Poland, the Veritatis Splendor award. I was very surprised. How did they know me? To this day I don't know who recommended me for that award. It was one of the first Pope John Paul Awards and I was one of the first to receive it. And people seem to remember my talks and even my prayers.
I think your courage and your ability to describe and to talk honestly are rare.
Sometimes I think that, maybe, when God gives you a mission, he finds a way of leading you through that.
You have just done an interview with the BBC on Pope Francis’ visit to South Sudan. What is your sense of what the visit can accomplish?
They asked me, “As the pope is going to South Sudan and Congo, with all what we hear about poverty and war, what are the expectations of people?” And my answer was, we are not expecting the pope to come and solve our problems. We're expecting the pope to come to give us hope, to come and accompany us, to come and help us find a solution to these problems. We need to find those solutions, because it is an African disease, and it must be cured by African medicine. You have to be there. The pope is not coming to solve the problems.
What about some of the darker issues around violence and abuse?
The things we think are taboos, we tend not to talk about, but they are the things we need to talk about. I myself may not have talked much about sexual abuse. In my recent BBC interview, they asked me about LGBTQ issues. I told them that I don't have the right vocabulary for it. It's not in my language. And if I have to talk about it to people, I will not know what to say about it. I need to find a way to pass that message. I don't want to be caught by storm and start talking about LGBTQ. We have to learn what to say ourselves. And it has to be according to our culture. Because if we are going to talk about LGBTQ, etc. what language is that? How am I going to explain it? Whatever we want to talk about, even sex abuse, it is good and important for us to approach it from the cultural point of view.
I was writing a paper about religion and identity and taking a case study of my own congregation. What is our identity of religious women? How can we align it with our identity as African women? Because by the time an African woman has reached puberty or adolescence and so forth, she's already been brought up to think as a mother. How can we bring that in our religious life? Sometimes women may neglect important things. As a faithful religious, how can I align that with our traditional values and cultures of a woman being faithful in a marriage? How can that be? I'm trying to look at that.
So the sensitive, dark topics are ones we should discuss. It will be good to let sisters talk about it, and compare it with your cultural point of view. We should address the tensions around the way that it's spoken about in the United States and in so many African countries. When I think about it, the reasons, the LGBTQ+ and so forth, I see it's become so much of an issue. Why is there marriage? It's not even seen as an issue. Why? So all these things we need to discuss. We need to talk about that.
Do you know why I started the Peace Conference? Because there used to be a Peace Week every year run by the Archdiocese of Gulu. I was working with the Justice and Peace as we were pioneering it. One time it was held in St. Monica. I was shocked to see a powerful man, giving speeches about women, but nobody gave even one woman, who has struggled all her life, the chance to give a talk and speak there. None. So I asked: “Why am I wasting my time being angry? I'm going to start my own Peace Conference." I turned my anger into action. I started looking for partners. Now students from Oklahoma University, professors, all come to attend that conference.
Because the women are there. They're the vessels of peace. They can talk to you about peace, starting from their families, starting from their communities. They're the peacebuilders. There's no peace without women.