With little money for crochet hooks, Rosemary Nyirumbe used sticks to learn to crochet as a 10-year-old growing up in Uganda, Africa.
Today, Nyirumbe is thrilled that her childhood hobby has paid off in a way she never dreamed: The Catholic nun has taught her students at St. Monica's Tailoring School in Gulu, Uganda, how to crochet accessories such as purses and belts out of aluminum pop tabs from Oklahoma.
About 200 of the handmade items created by Nyirumbe and her students will be sold at a special event Thursday at the Devon Boathouse in Oklahoma City.
Nyirumbe, 55, said the accessories were crafted with the love and hope that her students feel now that they have escaped oppression. The women were abducted by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army and forced to become sex slaves or soldiers. After escaping, the women nurtured by the nun jumped at the chance to earn money through their handiwork, instead of accepting handouts, Nyirumbe said.
“In the purses, they can give back love that they feel now. They are saying ‘I am giving,'” she said.
Nyirumbe's Oklahoma friend, Rachelle Whitten, has helped the nun make the purse project a reality. Together the women created Sisters United LLC, which will sell the purses for the St. Monica's students.
“We call it empowering women one stitch at a time,” Whitten said. “The hands that have touched these purses have a story — that makes all of them even more beautiful.”
She said she and many other Oklahomans wanted to help Nyirumbe and her girls.
Whitten said many Oklahomans see the nun as a hero for her work to help change the lives of others at considerable risk to herself.
Whitten co-founded Pros for Africa with her husband, Reggie. She said money from the sale of the pop-tab accessories will help pay the living expenses and educational costs for the young women who seek help from Nyirumbe.
Nyirumbe said she is grateful for the support of the Whittens and her friends in the state who have helped buoy her dreams for fellow Ugandans.
“You can never be that hero unless someone else is carrying you up on their shoulders,” she said.
Nyirumbe said she got the idea for the pop-tab purses after receiving a bracelet and small bag at a women's conference. She said she told Rachelle Whitten about the items and began working on her own design for a purse made of the aluminum pop tabs.
The nun said she realized that she could teach her students how to crochet the purses, and perhaps someone would buy them.
Both she and Whitten agreed that the purse project fit within the mission of the tailoring school (also called St. Monica's Girls School), to teach women to sew and produce other crafts to earn a wage.
“I never knew crocheting would be useful to me, and now it's a teaching tool for other people,” Nyirumbe said, smiling.
Whitten set about finding tabs and was excited when the Anheuser Busch metal container facility in Oklahoma City decided to make a donation of tabs to Sisters United.
Working from Nyirumbe's designs, the St. Monica's students have created tote bags, clutches, shoulder bags and belts from the tabs. The items come in different colors, including green, orange, red, blue and black.
Meanwhile, Whitten said Oklahomans are connected to the project in other ways.
A group from Tahlequah helped create the label found inside the lining of the pop-tab purses.
She said much of the material used for the bags was purchased at Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby, which she said Nyirumbe regards as her “Disneyland.”
Also, Whitten said students from the northwest Oklahoma City, Edmond and Deer Creek School District area gathered at her home on several occasions to help her remove the tabs from cans to send to the Ugandans.
“There's been a lot of hands touch these tabs between here and Africa,” she said,
Purses to make debut
Whitten said she is hopeful that the limited-edition purses will be a big hit at Thursday's unveiling. Four of the women who helped make the purses will be on hand at the event.
A crowd apparently is anticipating the purses' debut: Whitten said the event is sold out.
“This is a story of restoration and how you can rehabilitate a person and help them move forward,” she said.