Community, Diaspora and Immigration

Ugandan nun included in Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ issue has strong Oklahoma ties

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Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, named to Time magazine’s 2014 “Most Influential People” list on Thursday, has a powerful connection to Oklahoma that began through her friendship with Oklahoma City attorney Reggie Whitten, founder of Pros for Africa.

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe became connected to Oklahoma through a young man she never met.

In death, 25-year-old Brandon Whitten inspired his father, Oklahoma City attorney Reggie Whitten, to help others. One of those people he reached out to was Nyirumbe, a humble nun he met on a trip to Uganda in 2002.

The two friends recently talked about their years-long friendship and the importance of Nyirumbe’s African mission work helping victims of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebuild their lives. Whitten beamed with joy because of Nyirumbe’s inclusion in Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” issue.

The annual issue featuring some of the world’s most influential movers and shakers was released Thursday.

“It’s an unbelievable honor — a big deal,” Whitten said.

“Sister Rosemary is a true hero and she’s devoted her whole life to helping others. She’s been fighting against Joseph Kony with sewing machines and pop tabs.”

Nyirumbe was a 2007 CNN Hero of the Year and Whitten co-wrote a book called “Sewing Hope” that chronicles Nyirumbe’s story and their friendship. Whitten also produced a 2013 documentary of the same name (narrated by Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker and directed by Derek Watson, an Oklahoman) that also shares the nun’s story.

He said he’s thrilled because her inclusion in Time magazine’s prestigious “Most Influential People” listing will share her story around the world.

Nancy Gibbs, Time managing editor, wrote that the vast majority of this year’s “Most Influential People” roster “reveals that while power is certain, influence is subtle. Power is a tool, influence is subtle.”

“If there is a common theme in many of the tributes, it’s the eagerness to see what some engineer, actor, leader or athlete will do next,” she wrote. “As much as this exercise chronicles the achievements of the past year, we also focus on figures whose influence is likely to grow, so we can look around the corner to see what is coming.”

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Moving past pain

Whitten, 59, said he took a trip to Gulu, Uganda, after his son’s 2002 death, only after friends pressed him.

“I was a walking man but I was dying,” he said. “I was having trouble finding reasons to live after the death of my son.”

One of Whitten’s friends introduced him to Nyirumbe, 58, who founded the St. Monica’s School and Tailoring Centre in Gulu. Nyirumbe’s school also has a presence in Atiak, Uganda, and Torit, South Sudan.

Whitten said he had no idea who Joseph Kony was and he didn’t know anything about Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, but he learned quickly through Nyirumbe that the women and children victimized by Kony and his army needed the love and protection of brave people.

Brave, determined people like Nyirumbe.

He said he learned that Nyirumbe put herself at risk many times to help hundreds of Kony’s victims.

“It’s just a miracle that she’s even here,” he said, referring to the numerous times she held off Kony’s army commanders and kept them from kidnapping women and children under her protection.

The more he traveled with the nun, gave out food to impoverished women, hugged small children and saw the way Nyirumbe worked tirelessly to improve their lives, the more he realized that he had found a type of cure for what ailed him, something that helped push back the pain and grief over his son’s death to manageable levels.

The attorney said helping others gave him a new found sense of peace that he hadn’t felt before.

“It was almost like I found medicine,” Whitten said, smiling.

Nyirumbe said just as Whitten learned to move beyond his pain, the women and children she continues to serve must do the same.

She said she is encouraging them to rebuild their lives by learning new skills such as sewing purses made of aluminum pop tabs.

She said she has come a long way since joining the Roman Catholic religious order Sacred Heart Sisters when she was 15.

Nyirumbe said she never imagined that she would be listed among the world’s most influential people.

“It was a great surprise — genuinely because I couldn’t imagine myself being one of those people,” she said.

And she said she didn’t ever dream that her journey would take her to Oklahoma and so many other places beyond Africa.

‘I’m an Okie’

Realizing that others needed to know about the tireless activist and mother figure for hundreds of Africans, Whitten was inspired to start Pros for Africa and through that organization he’s introduced Nyirumbe to numerous professional athletes along with other professionals from other career fields. Traveling to Africa with these professionals and helping the nun as she offers love and tangible aid to people in Gulu and other areas has brought a new sense of purpose to his life, he said.

That purpose has extended to others in Oklahoma, including Whitten’s wife Rachelle, who founded Sisters United, an organization that also aids Nyirumbe and her efforts to improve lives.

Nyirumbe said she loves Oklahomans and is amazed and humbled that many have chosen to embrace her and her mission.

“I’m an Okie,” she said.

And Oklahomans love her.

She was named an honorary Oklahoman by proclamation from Gov. Mary Fallin.

An Oklahoma gospel duo called JAIA (Linda Knox and Lisa Davis) wrote a song in her honor called “Touched by a Rose” and recorded it as a single.

Many Oklahoma businesses and individuals have donated aluminum soda tabs to Nyirumbe’s tailoring school and many others have purchased the purses made from those pop tabs by women from the African school.

Also, Whitten said numerous students and faculty members from state schools including the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University have traveled to Uganda to work with Nyirumbe.

“She is teaching a lot of our Oklahoma kids about life and love and forgiveness and about overcoming obstacles,” he said.

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