published Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Ugandan nun, Sister Rosemary, to speak with Chattanooga area students and discuss book, film (with video)

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Ugandan nun
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    Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Ugandan nun and the subject of a book and film called “Sewing Hope,” has helped thousands of girls abused by soldiers of warlord Joseph Kony.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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    Notre Dame High School students Sasha Korshun, left, and Audrey Barkeloo stand near some of the soft drink tabs their fellow students have collected to donate to Ugandan nun Sister Rosemary. They will be used to make purses, which are then sold and the profits used to support the women and children under Sister Rosemary’s care.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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    Rescued African girls crochet purses made of soft drink tabs and yarn that help support Sister Rosemary’s work.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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    Local author Nancy Henderson’s latest book, Sewing Hope (Dust Jacket Press, 2013), tells the story of Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Ugandan nun who educates and nurtures young women formerly abducted by terrorist Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.

IF YOU GO

* What: Sewing Hope, an evening with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe.

* When: 7-9 p.m. Friday.

* Where: Christ United Methodist Church, 8645 East Brainerd Road.

* Admission: Free.

* Phone: 892-9363.

Local author Nancy Henderson likes to make people cry — or to at least feel a strong sense of empathy for her subject matter.

That was her goal in writing “Sewing Hope,” the story of Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe and her 12-year mission to help women and children who were raped, tortured and enslaved by warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and South Sudan during his 25-year reign of terror. Many of the women who escaped from Kony were then abandoned by their families.

Sister Rosemary, who last week was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, will be in town today and Friday to speak to students at Notre Dame High School and the Baylor School, then for a public appearance Friday night at Christ United Methodist Church.

The Friday event will feature a showing of the documentary “Sewing Hope,” narrated by Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”), a Q&A with Sister Rosemary and a book signing with co-authors Henderson and Reggie Whitten. Henderson says it is a nondenominational, nonreligious event open to everyone.

“I wouldn’t like to see myself on the big screen ever,” Sister Rosemary told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in early April. “At first I say no. But I had to accept that it is not about me. I am just an instrument, a tool to be used to speak for those who are voiceless.”

Henderson, whose previous works include “Able! How One Company’s Extraordinary Workforce Changed the Way We Look at Disability Today” and articles for Parade, The New York Times and Smithsonian magazine, says people are emotionally struck by Sister Rosemary’s story and the retelling of the atrocities that have befallen the more than 2,000 girls who were abducted by Kony’s army or abandoned by their families. That was her goal.

“I even had a grown man, an acquaintance, leave me a message that made me cry,” Henderson says. “He called and said the book made him cry and that he wanted to do something to help. I love to make people cry. I like moving people to think differently and to feel something and to care, and I believe this book has done that.”

Notre Dame senior Sasha Korshun, who moved here from Russia three years ago, has been reading the book as part of a service/leadership class. She’s also seen the documentary

“I think it is very eye-opening and mind-changing,” she says. “I was not aware of what was going on in Africa. It’s unreal at first. You can’t believe it.”

After reading the book, Korshun says she initially thought about going to Uganda as a volunteer to help, but researching further, she found out that it would be dangerous for several reasons, including the threat of an illness.

“You have to get all these shots just to go over there. I think raising money would be better,” she says.

Henderson did not travel to Uganda to research the book because of safety concerns, (the civil war ended there in 2006, but Kony is still at large) but had access to all of the videotape and transcripts compiled for the film, and Sister Rosemary and some of the girls traveled to the U.S. to be interviewed.

She describes Sister Rosemary, 58, as “the feistiest, spunkiest person ever.”

“She is barely 5 feet tall. She is funny, but she will kick your butt if you mess with her girls. She is a mama bear.”

In the interview with the Sarasota newspaper, Sister Rosemary said: “It is an unbearable weight. But I convince myself that I must live above that. I must be a mother to them, to convince them their past doesn’t have to define them, and to give them hope.”

As part of her work, Sister Rosemary has set up programs to teach the rescued African women a skill such as tailoring, catering or gardening. After being given a purse made of soft drink tabs and yarn at a women’s conference several years ago, Sister Rosemary, who learned to crochet at age 10, deconstructed the piece to figure out how to make it. Today, dozens of women in the Saint Monica’s Tailoring School, located in Gulu, Uganda, make purses with donated yarn and tabs. They are sold around the world and profits help support the school and the women.

“[The sale of] one $150 purse, which is one of the bigger ones, can provide housing and food for one woman for six months,” Henderson says.

Notre Dame freshman Audrey Barkeloo says students in her civics class have been moved to collect soft drink tabs for Sister Rosemary’s school, and “Sewing Hope,” which will be required summer reading for all students, has become a topic of discussion outside the classroom.

“A lot of my friends are reading it and we talk about it, like, ‘Did you get to this point yet?’ It is having a huge impact on the students,” Audrey says.

Henderson wrote the book after interviewing Whitten, an Oklahoma City resident who lost his son in a motorcycle accident, for a magazine article in 2011. His friends essentially forced him to go with them to Uganda as a volunteer to help him get past his grief, she says.

“It touched his heart and he came back and started a foundation that helps several causes,” Henderson says. “When he told me the story I said, ‘If you ever want to write a book, I would love to be involved,’ and he said ‘Let’s do it.’”

While she says she hopes the book has impacted others, “it has changed my life. It has made me appreciate what I have. Those girls were tortured and escaped and then nobody wanted them back.”

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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