Heart of a Lion

Sister Rosemary Nyirmube is not shy. Her smile stretches ear to ear as her sincere laughter bellows from beneath folded hands, resting gently on her belly. On paper, she is CNN Hero of the Year and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. In person, she is the embodied essence of a brave mother – warm, caring, and passionate about protecting “her children.”

“Sister Rosemary,” as she is called, runs the Saint Monica Girls Tailoring Centre in Uganda, Africa for hundreds of displaced women and children, who are abandoned.

Rejected from their villages after violent rapes and unintended pregnancies, the victims often turn to killing their children or killing themselves. “I help them love their babies that come from the sexual violence. It demands a lot of love and care from me. I get close to them as though I do not know their past,” she said with a soothing tone.

“We have to look at these young women as children. I adopt them; I become their parent so they can get to feel the sense of childhood that they lost,” she explains. “They are in essence, only children with children.”

Edmond resident and philanthropist Reggie Whitten often describes Sister Rosemary as a modern day Mother Theresa. As she and Whitten embrace, you see the warmth in their comfort level, as though they were family living in the same small town. And yet, our meeting was Sister Rosemary’s very first time to Oklahoma – a journey of over 7,200 miles from her war-torn region of Africa.

Whitten and the Sister’s story began eight years ago when he, and retired author Mike Hinkle, traveled to Uganda with a mutual friend. “We were moved by the violence,” said Whitten. “It was striking how beautiful the children are and how alike they are to our own children. The only difference is where they were born.”

After arriving back home in Edmond, they bundled up a sum of six figures for Sister Rosemary with the help of donors and the Whitten-Newman Foundation.  “The first time I received help from the Whitten-Newman Foundation, I knelt down – not to pray, but to cry,” she said. “It was amazing to imagine people with such an open heart saying ‘go on with your work’.”

Whitten only regrets that they didn’t meet sooner. “We’ve been supporting her for eight years, but somewhere along the way it didn’t feel right to me,” he explained. “My fear was at some point in time, we’d run out of money, but the situation would still be there. We needed infrastructure to continue.”

Last March, that infrastructure brought forth Pros for Africa, a diverse group of professional athletes, doctors, lawyers and engineers who banded together to go beyond providing monetary funds. Instead, they put their hands to work, side by side to dig wells and set up medical services, treating 600 people.

Whitten fondly remembers the smiles, as the young ladies laughed with NFL football players, like OU’s own Mark Clayton. “You ought to see Sister Rosemary playing football with our guys,” laughed Whitten. “She caught a football pass from Roy Williams with a broken leg. They are millionaires, but instead of lounging on a beach, they are volunteering with us. These guys are called ‘heroes’ but no one is shooting at them.”

Bullets are a reality for Sister Rosemary though. “We were told do not go there. If you do go, don’t leave the big city,” said Whitten. “They massacred 250 women and children in the church where we held our medical clinic. It was riddled with bullet holes.”

Killers have even shown up at the Sister’s center demanding to have their women back. But with the heart of a lion, she never backs down from a challenge. “Sister Rosemary stands in their face and has no backup. There’s no law enforcement out there, like there is here, but she doesn’t have any fear,” said Whitten.

Some of the children she serves were abducted by rebels at only nine years old, forced into marriage, and not able to escape until age 11. By that time, they have no home to return to; no life skills to protect themselves; and no education to earn money or grow food.

Sister Rosemary says “come as you are” – a message which travels further than her soft voice carries across the winds of Africa. And so, they come to her, with nowhere else to turn.

“To me, the most devastating thing is that if a woman or child in our society is raped, we embrace them; yet, their culture rejects them. They are seen as soiled; told they are not fit for society,” said Hinkle, explaining that a rape victim would rather kill her children herself than watch them slowly starve, fending for themselves. “Sister Rosemary is throwing her arms around these people, saying, ‘You are worthy; You are loved’. She fights the culture by leading by example.”

Sister Rosemary considers work ethic to be the women’s personal contribution toward restoring their dignity. “I teach that anyone can contribute to their life through work. They dig and produce their own food to eat at the school. They should be able to cope with their future,” she said.

For less than one dollar a day, Sister Rosemary is able to take care of one mother and child. This March, Pros for Africa will return to set up a new center which can serve an additional 60-65 women and children.

“We’re building a momentum,” said Whitten. “I think Pros for Africa will be around for a long time after Mike and I are gone.” For more information on volunteering, or to provide a tax-deductible donation, visit www.ProsforAfrica.com.

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