From trash to treasure | Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe helps instill joy in Ugandan women through pop-tab purses

Teak Phillips |

It's possible to find complete joy amidst deep sorrow — just ask Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe.

A member of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Sister Rosemary works with young women in Uganda, whose lives were torn apart at the hands of Joseph Kony, former leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Many were abducted, raped, tortured and forced to kill family members as soldiers in Kony's army.

For nearly a decade and a half, thousands of young women have learned vocational skills at St. Monica's Girls Vocational School in Gulu, Uganda, where Sister Rosemary serves as director. Since 2012, the young women have made purses from the pop tabs of aluminum cans, with profits helping to strengthen their lives.

According to Sister Rosemary, who spoke at the annual Catholic Media Conference in Buffalo, N.Y., in June, taking something so easily discarded and making something beautiful speaks to what the women have had to endure. The bags aren't simply just a fundraiser, but a way to "teach them how to get back their dignity, to have their destiny in their own hands," she said.

Women who come to the school have lost out on receiving an education and a means for livelihood. Beyond purse-making, women from the community learn skills in agriculture and health care, among other areas. Sister Rosemary has influenced them, and she has received honors for her work.

She was named a CNN Hero in 2007. In 2014, she was among Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People." A documentary and book, "Sewing Hope," share her story, and last year, she had a poignant — and hilarious — interview on the Colbert Report about the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter hashtag campaign.

So why pop tabs? Several years ago, Sister Rosemary attended an international women's conference in Hawaii, where she met a speaker from the Philippines who was working on a similar initiative. The woman gave Sister Rosemary a bag, which she took apart and put back together to learn how to make one — reverse engineering. After two weeks of teaching herself, she took the idea to the women and taught them.

About 150 women make the purses, sold at Sisters United for Africa ( The for-profit business supports non-profit initiatives, including St. Monica's Girls Vocational School and Pros for Africa. The latter helps collect pop tabs for Sister Rosemary and the women.

The purses also have a St. Louis connection — well, sort of. AB InBev has a lid plant in Oklahoma City, Okla., which has worked with Pros for Africa to donate more than 1.1 million lid tabs.

Sister Rosemary often tells people that she doesn't want monetary donations; she'd rather have the pop tabs to help put the young women to work. She praised a school in Chattanooga, Tenn., that recently collected more than a million pop tabs.

"I'm asking you to buy this product the girls put their love into, to know that they've done it with all their love and skills," she said. "This is a good way of connecting people, and to show how they can support and get involved."

With money earned from making purses, some women have built homes; others are saving for future needs.

"The joy you see in the faces of these women, you can tell they have gone through a great transformation," Sister Rosemary said. "They have confidence in themselves, and they know how they can have their destiny in their own hands."

More information

Video on the Pop Tab Purse Project:

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe's interview on the Colbert Report:

"Sewing Hope" documentary and book:

Where to buy pop tab purses/how to donate

Sisters United for Africa: 

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