- Associated Press - Monday, February 17, 2014

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.”

Her African hosts also shared their personal lives. While her life back in Yankton was much different, she learned that she shared many of the same joys and heartaches.

And she embraced the simpler African lifestyle.

“They are happy people. They don’t have much wealth, but they don’t need it to be happy. They are not possessed by possessions,” she said.

In 2010, she spent about three weeks in Tanzania before starting her three-week teaching assignment in Uganda. Her students ranged in age from the mid-20s to the mid-60s. While in Uganda, she visited sites ranging from a martyr’s shrine to the “White Nile,” or source of the great African river.

“They were having the World Cup (soccer championship) in South Africa while I was over there,” she said. “We would watch the games (on television) and cheer for the African countries, and I would cheer for the U.S. team whenever they played.”

However, the nuns’ celebration was marred by two terrorist bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala and at a nearby village. One attack targeted a sports bar frequented by young people. A nun’s family and friends were killed in the blast.

“It showed me how vulnerable we were in Kampala,” Sister Bonita said. “We heard the blast but weren’t in any physical danger. We had a gated community with a guard and a door that was locked. Still, it was surreal.”

The bombing created a fear that remained among many people, she said.

“We left the center at 1:30 p.m. and expected to return by 3 p.m. but we didn’t return until after 5 p.m.,” she said. “We were in the market, and every time there was an item on the ground, people thought it was a bomb and called the police. It created such a traffic jam - Kampala was a total gridlock for three hours.”

However, Sister Bonita said she never felt fear, even when strangers approached her car shortly after the attack. She didn’t realize her courage was leaving a strong impression on her hosts.

“At the graduation ceremony (for her students), they said they were so amazed that Sr. Bonita wasn’t afraid after the bombing. They said, ‘She was sitting in the front seat with the window down,’” the Yankton nun said. “The Sisters had been so worried that I would be scared and not go anywhere. But I wasn’t the least bit worried. You just live the best you can.”

Sister Bonita’s most recent trip to Kenya and Tanzania came last year, from July through October.

In Nairobi, Kenya, she taught 58 Sisters representing more than 40 different congregations from five different countries - Congo, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

In Morogoro, Tanzania, Sister Bonita taught 25 sisters from a variety of congregations. She worked with nuns who arrived with no computer experience. By the end of the course, these Sisters were able to type, surf the Web, send email and create documents. The Sisters in the web design course arrived with basic technology skills, but by the end of this course, each Sister had created and published a website accessible via the Internet.

“They worked extremely hard,” she said. “When we got done on the last day of classes, they were proud as peacocks.”

With their website skills, the Sisters could help promote local products, bringing income for their people - including women raising families alone because they were abandoned with the children.

“I had a Sister from South Sudan tell me, for the first time, she was able to type out her exams and print them out on the computer,” Sister Bonita said. “And the Sisters could process confidential information about their congregation without someone else seeing it. They didn’t have to rely on other people.”

However, many areas lack infrastructure, which requires creativity in accessing the Internet, Sister Bonita said. People use cell phones, and they purchase data minutes for cards they carry with them until finding a cybercafe or other computer.

Besides teaching the African nuns, Sister Bonita taught math and technology at Bigwa Secondary School in Morogoro. The class consisted of more than 50 girls and Sisters from throughout Tanzania. Sister Bonita put aside the coursework at times so she and the students could get to know each other. At one point, they even sang a John Denver song.

Sister Bonita also experienced deeply moving sights while in Kenya and Tanzania. She accompanied the Brothers of Charity and visited slums with deplorable living conditions. Other times, she visited orphanages for children whose parents died of AIDS.

On another occasion, she visited a home for men with disabilities, run by the Brothers of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She helped feed a man, and she witnessed acts of compassion among the men themselves.

“One man had his legs cut off as a child when he was run over by a train,” she said. “Another man at the home was called ‘Rabbit’ because he didn’t talk and jumped around a lot. But he would pick up this man (without legs) and carry him wherever needed.”

She helped harvest tomatoes and onions, finding herself covered with mud and grasshoppers. She also helped raise the rabbits at the Holistic Center in Morogoro. And she visited a crocodile farm and a rose farm.

She visited with Massai men just outside the Nairobi Game Park. She was allowed to enter one of the tribal huts, considered extremely rare for an outsider.

As a sign of hospitality while visiting a site, she was given traditional piece of cloth which women drape over their shoulders. She also learned that flies in a household are considered a sign of wealth because it means livestock and other animals are nearby.

As she spoke of her travels, Sister Bonita showed a deep love for people that she will likely never see again. She keeps a picture of one class of nuns, with the name next to each woman. And she prays for them and all the others whose lives she touched, and touched her, if only for a short time.

Would she go back to Africa? It depends on God’s will, she said.

“I have a holy indifference,” she said. “If I’m needed, I will say ‘Yes’ and enjoy every minute of it. But if I’m not needed, it’s not like I have a personal need to return.”

Regardless of whether they meet again, Sister Bonita knows her life has been changed forever.

“These (nuns) are holy women, dedicated women who truly live their faith. I have truly fallen in love with every one of them,” she said.

“The little bit that I shared, my life was so enriched. I found this to be a sacred journey.”


Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, https://www.yankton.net/

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