SD nun defines trips to Africa ‘a sacred journey’

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YANKTON, S.D. (AP) - When she stood before her computer class, Sister Bonita Gacnik knew she had to take things slowly.

“We had to start with the basics. I had to teach them how to turn the computer on and off,” said the Benedictine nun from Yankton’s Sacred Heart Monastery. “We started from the beginning - and I mean the very beginning.”

Sister Bonita’s “schools” were found in eastern Africa, sometimes with just one terminal and little or no Internet. She started with 15 surplus laptops shipped from Mount Marty College to her African classroom.

Her “students” were African nuns who’d had little exposure to computers let alone cyberspace. But what the African nuns lacked in prior knowledge, they more than exceeded with enthusiasm and a burning desire to learn.

Sister Bonita has traveled to Africa three times in the last five years. Her computer classes are just one part of an effort to provide the African nuns with skills such as leadership, conflict resolution, grant writing, accounting and web design.

“We give them skills to change not only their communities but (also) their countries and the entire continent,” she said.

Calling herself “an adventuresome person,” she jumped at the chance to teach and travel in Africa through two Catholic organizations.

Sister Bonita made her first African trip in 2009, traveling to Tanzania. She returned to the continent twice more: to Uganda and Tanzania in 2010, and to Kenya and Tanzania last year.

“I said, if they ever needed a volunteer to teach skills, I would help out,” she said of the trips’ origin. “When I went to Africa, I assisted with the curriculum. It was a matter of teaching them to fish rather than giving them a fish.”

But while she taught her students much, she believes she has learned so much more from them.

“I was a ‘mzungu,’ a white person, but that’s not a slur,” she said. “I got to experience much of their culture. They were very respectful wherever they greeted you. I would forget how different I was. They were all so eager to learn and made me so comfortable.”

She soon learned the African culture embraces life and others, including strangers such as herself.

“I was exposed to their music, food and dancing. Even when they had the liturgy at Mass, they would celebrate,” she said. “I learned some Swahili and made friends. We laughed, joked and enjoyed our time together.”

She also experienced their generosity, whether it was meals, presents or hospitality in their homes.

“They are a big gift-giving culture. They gave me material for an African gown that you take to a tailor and have made into a dress,” she said. “They make their own clothes, and they wash their clothes by hand.”

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