Farewell to Ghana

On 17th December 2019 an archbishop in the Vatican signed a document which formally transferred me from monastic life to my new status as a diocesan priest. It seems like the right moment to say goodbye to my brethren and friends in Ghana, which has been my home for most of my priestly life.

My monastic journey began in June 1986 when I became a postulant at Pluscarden Abbey, Elgin. Wintry here, in a photo from the time of my solemn profession in 1990.

A foundation in West Africa was already being spoken of when I entered Pluscarden. Kristo Buase was founded in 1989 when I was still in formation but I had an inkling, even then, that I would end up there.

I was ordained by Bishop Mario Conti on 24th August 1995. I am pictured here (right) on our ordination day with Fr Benedict, Bishop Mario and Abbot Hugh outside Pluscarden Abbey. Abbot Hugh is now once again my Ordinary as Bishop of Aberdeen.

Within a year I was in Africa, and spent the first anniversary of ordination at Kristo Buase Monastery as 'socius' of the Abbot Visitor. I was there for three months and fell immediately in love with the place and the people. A Ghanaian priest (Fr Anthony Mensah-Brown) had been present at my ordination in Scotland but he died suddenly the following year. I was present at his funeral in Cape Coast and made my first contact with the monks of a community he had founded near Kumasi. Two of them later became my brothers at Kristo Buase.

I was invited back and returned to Ghana in June 1997. Initially I went for a fixed term of one year but by the end spent sixteen years of my life there, first as Novice Master then as Superior.

It was a wonderful time to be in West Africa. Much of the traditional style of life was still intact but there was a great optimism inspired by development, which was going on all around us in leaps and bounds. This picture was taken about 2001 on a community outing to Bui National Park to see the hippos in the River Volta. We crossed the river near here in a dug out canoe and visited a small village made of mud swish and thatch. Now this same scene is a an industrial landscape: the Chinese constructed a giant hydro-electric dam at this point and a new city is planned just downstream.

The style of life in the monastery was very simple. When I arrived there was no electricity, the beds were two inches of foam over wooden struts, the showers were cold and the food was largely cooked over charcoal - no phones, no internet and a postal system that could guarantee that nearly all news coming from home was already two weeks out of date.

We had a large farm of about 400 acres and part of the challenge of being out there was to develop it to bring in enough income to finance the monastery and at the same time to create employment in an area where so many were struggling with poverty.

Our main income came from the sale of cashew nuts. I think our best year was 42 tonnes of the things. Here you see the main harvest being taken away - each of those sacks weighs 80kg. We tried other things too, mainly tree crops since we were in the forest zone - cocoa, mangoes, guava, oranges and moringa. We also distilled cashew brandy - gallons and gallons of it. It was a by-product from the nut industry. Not all our projects were equally successful. The sheep were killed by the cobras, the pigs never made a profit and I discovered just how difficult it is to sell 500 chickens in a crowded market ...

It was a monastery without a church. There was indeed a small chapel (big enough for only 15 people) where we celebrated the Liturgy of the Hours but Sunday Mass was normally outside, under a mango tree, or in the cloister. In the great heat that was often a mercy. It could reach 37 degrees centigrade in the shade. This photo was of a group wedding for villagers who attended Mass at the monastery in the rocks.

Some of my friends have already gone before me, many of them dying young, sometimes from sickness, sometimes in accidents. This was Stephen, our cook. He took great care to keep me healthy and near the end of his life was made a chief in his village. The traditional cloth - hand woven in strips and sewn together into a giant rectangle draped like a Roman toga - was a gift from him.

Others are very much alive and thriving. Long may they prosper!

So farewell my brothers! We may not meet again but I shall never forget the happy years I spent with you in Ghana.

16 Jan 2020

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