"Welcome Home!" That is how I was greeted when I arrived at the Oblates of Providence Motherhouse for the Reconnecting the Journey Retreat in the summer of 2003. That feeling of homecoming was my overarching impression in that retreat experience. I was very much caught up with how much we had in common, how much our heritages as IHMs and OSPs are intertwined, that above all else what we share is sisterhood.
This past summer, when the three IHM congregations and the Oblates of Providence gathered at Immaculata, I again had a sense of homecoming. We were together to celebrate what we share. Sure, each group has its own uniqueness and identity, but the things that we have in common are much stronger. We are bound together by shared history, shared vision, shared mission, sisterhood. Like a family, we cannot escape that "family resemblance"!
It was on the heels of that experience that I found myself "at home" in Ghana, West Africa in August. I was there as a part of the African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC). I, along with Sr. Fran Fasolka, IHM, and later my own sister, Bridget Burns, were there as the guests of the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles (OLA ... pronounced just like "Hola" (Hello) in Spanish) to begin the first wave of training for this project in West Africa.
ASEC is a collaborative project involving the Sisters of IHM of Scranton, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus of Rosemont, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, Sisters of St. Joseph, Philadelphia and the institutions of higher learning that these sisters sponsor: Marywood University, Rosemont College, Neumann College and Chestnut Hill College as well as The College of New Rochelle in New Rochelle, NY and Marygrove College in Detroit, MI. Its purpose is to help to educate women religious and enable them to acquire necessary credentials for teaching, healthcare, spiritual or social service ministries in their countries. ASEC hopes to do this by bringing higher education and preparation for higher education to the sisters in Africa using the technologies of the Internet and distance education. The project is concentrating on five countries in Africa where English is spoken: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in the east and Ghana and Nigeria in the west.
The project began in the convergence of several efforts. It got its first spark from our own IHM Congregation. Several years ago, Sr. Margaret Gannon put together her interest in the developing world and technology in education in a sabbatical experience to study how technology might be used to educate the sisters in Africa. As a professor of history at Marywood, she had met many sisters from third world countries, including many from Africa, who were educated at Marywood through a joint effort of the IHM Congregation and the University as one of our missionary outreaches. Knowing that, while these efforts have been very valuable and beneficial, and that many other congregations participate in similar efforts, only a small number of sisters are able to be educated this way and, at the same time, sensing that computer and Internet technologies held the potential for us to reach out to many more sisters, she spent a semester studying distance education with a view towards using it to deliver a Marywood University degree to the idigenous sisters of Africa.
On her return at the end of her sabbatical, Sr. Margaret reported what she learned and hoped to accomplish to Sr. Mary Reap, president of Marywood University. The idea resonated with Sr. Mary and she took it to her region of the Neylan Commission, an organization of Catholic colleges and universities and the congregations who sponsor them. They had conducted a study to consider how they might educate the sisters of Africa so that they, in turn, can educate others. Overhanging this was an initiative of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) calling for collaboration with African congregations. The concept was a fit, so ASEC came into being.
Initial funding for the project was received from the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters. It allowed sisters from the US, including our own Sisters Anne Munley and Annmarie Sanders, to travel to the five countries to research their educational needs and priorities and to assess the supporting infrastructure (housng, transportation, technology, etc.). Sr. Anne Munley, director of programs and social mission at the International Union of Superiors General in Rome, was selected to serve as the US project coordinator. She visited Africa and identified on-site coordinators who would collaborated with ASEC USA.
In September 2003, eighteen sisters from Africa were invited to a conference held in Philadelphia and Scranton to discuss their needs and to demonstrate to them the technologies that might be brought to bear on this project. I was privileged to attend that meeting and to hear the sisters, who represented the religious leadership conferences of those five countries, as they described their conditions and needs. As I listened, I could not help but affirm that an image that Sr. Anne used in her opening remarks was so apt. She likened the meeting of our African sisters with the American sisters to the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. We are all in the same condition, striving to bring life to the world. We experience many of the same joys and challenges. We hope that by virtue of our longer experience in the US that we can help our younger counterparts in Africa.
So much of what they told us reminded me of our own history and what I have learned of other US congregations. They, like us, see education as key to lifting up the people to whom they minister. Many are working with scarce resources, reminiscent of how our IHM founders started with so little. They experience interference in their efforts by their governments and by Church heirarchy. Of course, much of what they told us was unique to their situations. Some of their countries are wracked by civil war and lawlessness. HIV/AIDS, war and rape were frequently cited among the main challenges they meet in their work. In many of their countries, especially those in East Africa, it has not been the tradition to educate girls, so young women enter their communities with a primary education (equal to about a 7th grade education in the USA). In West Africa, they come in after a secondary education, but that normally means "O Level" (ordinary) and for university study they need "A Level" (advanced). One area of weakness they identified was science education.
The sisters of Africa have worked to meet these challenges. For example, the sisters in East Africa had established the Bigwa School in Tanzania. This school provides a secondary education for sisters from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. ASEC provided a grant to build and equip a science laboratory for the school.
At the conference, the African sisters told us they had critical needs for the education of their sisters - as teachers, healthcare workers, social service providers, pastoral ministers, etc.. They need computers, Internet connections and someone to train them in how to use these technologies.
I knew I had to respond to these needs and that, with my background of 25 years or working with and training people in the use of computer and Internet technology, there was much I could do for this project. So I let the ASEC planners know - "Here I am, send me."
Winter and spring began fundraising for the project. Sufficient funds were raised for the pilot project to send two trainers with assistants during the summer. A gift of 24 HP computers was received through Ann Henry, a member of the Marywood University board of trustees and a vice president at Hewett Packard. A gift of books was received from Lawrenceville Press of Lawrenceville, NJ.
Sr. Lisa Olivieri, SSJ, of Chestnut Hill College went to Nairobi, Kenya in July and I went to Cape Coast, Ghana in August. Sr. Lisa was accompanied by Sr. Rose Reda, SSJ. Their program was held at the Tumani Center in Nairobi. Twelve sisters - four from each of the three countries in the east - attended the 30-day program. Immediately following that session, a second and a third session was held instructed by graduates of the first session so that twelve sisters from each country received training.
In Cape Coast, Sr. Fran Fasolka, Director of Communications for the Scranton IHM Congregation, and I provided our program at Our Lady of Apostles Training College. OLA Training College is a post-secondary school that issues a teaching certificate (similar to the normal schools that credentialed teachers in our country before degrees were required). It is headed by principal, Sr. Elizabeth Amoako, OLA, who is the ASEC coordinator for Ghana and was one of the participants in the 2003 conference. We were housed at the OLA Provincial house about 10 miles from the Training College. Our host there was Sr. Felicia Hurley, OLA, provincial superior and another ASEC conference participant.
In addition to the 12 computers that were provided through ASEC (of the 24 received from HP, 12 went to the east and 12 went to the west), Sr. Elizabeth had acquired and outfitted a computer lab with 24 other computers - for a total of 36! Our class consisted of 24 sisters, twelve each from Ghana and Nigeria. They were educators, heathcare workers, pastoral ministers and served in congregational offices. They ranged in age from 25 to 51 and had backgrounds with computers that ranged from "never saw one before" to having experience with network administration. All but two had e-mail addresses before they came. Many had some experience with word processing and other Microsoft Office components. Upon assessment of their skills, I found that most only had the most rudimentary knowledge of those tools and Internet. They could do the most basic tasks, but that was about it.
The purpose of the program was to give the sisters the computer skills that would be needed for online learning. The curriculum was designed to spend about half the time learning MS Office and the other half learning to use e-mail and World Wide Web tools.
Because the computers had come from various sources, they had among them two different operating systems and various components of two different versions of MS Office. These differences and the availability of more computers than participants allowed us to expose the sisters to the kinds of differences they might find once they went home and show them how to adjust to different versions.
OLA Training College was an ideal place to hold this program. A few years ago, Sr. Elizabeth was approached by a company that provides Internet service about the possibility of purchasing a small piece of land so that they could erect a microwave tower there. The Training College sits on the top of a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean (with the most wondrous view of a coconut palm-lined shoreline) and was the perfect spot to place such a tower. Sr. Elizabeth agreed to provide the space - not to sell it - with the proviso that they would provide Internet service to the Training College when they established a computer lab. The program there is residential and August is an off-term time, so the sisters participating in ASEC could use the dormitory space. The classroom provided was large and comfortable. It was air conditioned to protect the equipment in that equatorial country, though the time we were there was the coldest time of the year - temperatures in the 70s! We Americans were quite comfortable, though the Africans complained of the cold.
We spent most of the first two weeks on learning the Windows operating system and MS Word -- we deemed word processing to be one of the most essential tools for students. The last two weeks were a whirlwind tour of the other MS Office tools: PowerPoint, Excel and Access. The time only allowed the most cursory exploration of these tools, but, since the sisters were able to keep the textbooks we used, we felt the foundation we gave them would allow them to use the text to extend their learning beyond the classroom.
On the Internet side of the course we covered surfing the web, using various search engines and searching strategies. All of the sisters had Yahoo.com e-mail addresses, so we showed them many features of the system that many did not know how to use: how to use the address book, set up distribution lists, open and send attachments, organize messages into folders, etc. We taught them what they needed to know about "safe surfing" to avoid viruses, worms, spyware and such. We taught them how to use the course management software that is used by the colleges and university in the project (WebCT and Blackboard) and set them up with a Yahoo group so that they can stay connected as a group when the class ended.
After the first two weeks, Sr. Fran, who had accompanied me as my assistant, had to return to Scranton, so my own sister, Ms Bridget Burns of Palmetto, FL, joined us for the last two weeks. Bridget works as an account executive for Sysco Foods and does a significant amount of informal computer training as part of her job. She was also able to make herself available on relatively short notice to spend two weeks in Africa and gave up her vacation time for the rest of the year to do it. Her expertise with Excel was especially valuable during that part of the course.
Both Sr. Fran and Bridget helped to chronicle the experience with their digital cameras. Sr. Fran set up a page with pictures and some video on the IHM Website. Bridget set up a blog (web log) for the two weeks she was there.
Our last week in Ghana was the first week of classes back at Marywood University. Twelve of the sisters who participated in the course were selected to take part, as auditors, in a course being given by Sr. Margaret Gannon with students here in the United States. The course is "Women in the Developing World" and we had great expectations that these sisters who belong to the group being studied would bring invaluable insights to the course. The experience would also help us to assess the success of the course and to identify the kinds of problems that will need to be addresed as we move to make online courses available on a larger scale. Indeed, several of the sisters have successfully and enthusiastically engaged in this course. Some others, because of access issues have had more difficulty participating regularly but have done so when they could. There are some, however, that did not join the discussion at all. Our assumption is that it is, again, Internet access issues. This is one of the things that will need to be studied carefully and addressed as the ASEC Project moves forward.
Outside of the classroom, we took in as much of our surroundings as possible. We visited Kakum Rainforest National Park where we did the famous Canopy Walk of rope bridges through the treetops. We visited Cape Coast Castle, one of the fortifications used to warehouse slaves before they were put on ships to the New World and there we saw and heard about the horrific conditions under which they were held. We visited Brenu Beach Resort, enjoying a picnic and fun on the beach. And during the short time we spent in Accra, Ghana's capital city, we visited a park devoted to Kwame Nkurma, Ghana's first president who encouraged the rest of Africa to follow Ghana's lead in gaining independence from the colonial powers that ruled them. Also in Accra, we spent time and money at the Artisan's Market were we learned the fine art of haggling as we purchased African handcrafts: wood carvings (ebony), jewelry and hand-woven Kente cloth.
I carry many, many memories of the people I met and the sights I saw, but I think the most precious thing I came away with is the realization of how much we all share. So many times when the African sisters spoke of their congregations and the challenges that they experience I was reminded over and over of the experiences and challenges faced by Theresa Maxis and Mary Lange. I felt a deep connection to these people and this continent. I found that I was indeed at home so many miles away from where I normally call home. Nearly thirty women who did not know one another before came together for this project and quickly became a community. It is because of all we share: common missions, common heritage, common goals. It is because we are sisters.
No matter where we find ourselves, we are at home together ... because of what we share: Sisterhood!