Saturday 23 November 2019

African villagers pray their man will be pope

Cardinal Peter Turkson at Ash Wednesday Mass in the Vatican
Cardinal Peter Turkson at Ash Wednesday Mass in the Vatican

AS A BOY, home was a tiny wooden bungalow shared with nine siblings; a life lived beneath a corrugated iron roof, playing outdoors in the dusty red dirt in a rural African village. As a man, he could be about to move into the most luxurious palace of them all.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, born in a two-room shack 170 miles from Ghana's capital, is the bookies' favourite to become the next pope. If selected, it would make him the first African pope in modern times. And it is something that his family and friends in Nsuta-Wassa, a small mining settlement amid rolling hills and lush forest in western Ghana, are struggling to believe.

"It is incredible that someone from here could become pope," said Dunhill Pawosey, 62, a lifelong friend of Cardinal Turkson. "But we have total faith in him, and know he will do an excellent job."

Excitement spread through this rural district of Ghana on Monday, soon after Pope Benedict XVI announced the decision that surprised the world, becoming the first pope for 600 years to announce his intention to resign.

The 85-year-old will step down on February 28, meaning that the 117 cardinals will gather to elect a new leader, likely to be in place by Easter.

Amid the speculation as to who will take over from the ageing Pontiff, the 64-year-old Ghanaian was marked as one of the early front runners.

The cardinal himself seems amused at the speculation, saying in 2009: "Why not? We've had Kofi Annan as Secretary-General of the UN. We have Obama in the US. So if, by divine providence, God would wish to have a black man as pope, I say thanks be to God!"

Furthermore, he is known to be highly regarded by Benedict; to be a like-minded social conservative against gay marriage, condom use and abortion.

Cardinal Turkson's childhood could not be farther removed from adult life in the marble halls of the Vatican.

"We would shimmy up the coconut trees to collect the coconuts," said Mr Pawosey, whose parents lived opposite the cardinal's family.

"We worked together at the slaughterhouse in the village, making small change by carrying the meat up to the market. We played a lot of table tennis too – it was his favourite."

The pair went to the village school together, which at that time meant lessons inside the Catholic church. A purpose-built school was only erected long after they left.

"The students all know that the cardinal went there," said Aaron Yorke, 25, an IT teacher. "It shows them that, if they put their minds to it, they can achieve anything."

Mr Pawosey said: "He was very smart at school, and always good at Bible study. He was quiet and thoughtful. But he had a quick temper and strong principles. If someone was wrong, he would tell them.

"We played in a band together – I was on drums and he was on bass. He liked James Brown a lot."

When the young man told his friend he was thinking of becoming a priest, Mr Pawosey encouraged him.

"I told him he should do it. I knew he'd be good at it. His father wasn't sure – he thought he had too quick a temper!"

Cardinal Turkson's younger brother, Matthew, 62, is the only remaining sibling to live in the village. The rest have spread far afield. His youngest brother lives in Canada, and a further brother, John Kofi Turkson, a noted energy expert with the UN in Denmark, was killed in a plane crash in 2000.

The boys' father, Kobena Turkson, was a miner in the manganese mine that dominates Nsuta. He was also a carpenter. Their mother, Maame Aba Dansowa, ran a vegetable stall in the market.

Ghana is well over two-thirds Christian, and a further 16 per cent of Ghanaians are practising Muslims. Catholics account for 15 per cent of the population of this former British colony, which and was singled out for Barack Obama's first visit to Africa after he was first elected US president.

In 1961 the young Peter Turkson left Nsuta-Wassa to study in various seminaries across the region, then in 1973 he moved to New York.

On his return to Ghana, he was ordained at the cathedral in the town of Cape Coast – the country's first capital, and the most important religious hub for Catholics. By 1992, he was Archbishop.

Sister Margaret-Rose runs the Archbishop's house, where the Cardinal lived during his tenure, from 1992 to 2009.

"He was such a kind man," she said, beaming with pride. "Everyone loved him. He surrounded this house with trees because he loved nature. He was very humble and friendly."

Had she ever had the chance to go to Rome and visit him since he left? "I would love to," she said. "Please, pray for me!"

Back in Nsuta-Wassa, the inhabitants are all praying for "their" man to be chosen as the new pope.

by Harriet Alexander

Irish Independent

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