Pandemic forces missionary worker in Africa to return home to his native Ballygawley

Darren Beattie


Darren Beattie


Ballygawley native, Rev Leo Traynor, has dedicated over 30 years of his life to missionary work in Africa and normally returns to his hometown once every three years to visit family and friends.

However, even though his last visit was in late 2019, Fr Traynor is currently back in Ballygawley. Only this time he didn't travel back to Northern Ireland voluntarily; he was "strongly advised" to leave the continent due to the ongoing pandemic.

Living in upper east Ghana for the past five years, Fr Traynor has been delivering the SELL (Sharing Education and Learning for Life) programme to young adults to assist them with their human development and spiritual life. Previous to that, he had been working and living in Nigeria for 27 years.

The SELL programme is rooted in a profound respect for the person and desires to see people cultivate a culture of peace within themselves and in community, and Fr Traynor helped developed it in Nigeria.

Fr Traynor had been in the process of a transfer to Malawi in central Africa where he was to extend the SELL programme - until coronavirus struck. Due to a lack of support medically, he had to make an impromptu visit back home.

"I usually come home every three years, but this time technically I'm not supposed to be home, it's just because of the current situation," Fr Traynor explained.

"I was being transferred to Malawi, in central Africa, to develop the SELL programme there, but unfortunately we couldn't get there as all African borders are closed at the moment.

"Given the fact there is very little medical back-up - we had one respirator between a million-and-a-half people in the upper east - we were strongly advised to go home."

Fr Traynor said the continent of Africa has so far escaped the worst of coronavirus.

"The blessing is that Covid-19 has not spread rapidly in the continent of Africa as it has in other continents for whatever reason," he explained.

"The World Health Organisation (WHO) is still pondering on that one, whether it is the TB vaccine, which is still given to all children and is very effective, or is the heat suppressing it.

"Nonetheless, the Irish Embassy has been in constant contact with us and after about three months they explained that the repatriation flights are going to be very few and they said they couldn't guarantee how things would be in Africa."

‘Education system’

"Unfortunately the education system in Africa is so weak and middle-aged and older people will have had very limited exposure to solid education," Fr Traynor added. "So to get them to understand the social distancing restrictions is very difficult. Lockdown hasn't worked because it's a hand-to-mouth society where people go out to work each day just to get enough to eat. If you lock people like that down they will be starving. The government tried a lockdown for a while but they had to let it go because people were getting frustrated to the point there was a possibility of violence.

"It's different when you have a furlough system, but when you have a situation where people have no savings or social welfare system or safety net, they have no option but to hustle for their living. We don't know the massive blessing it is to have a welfare system that allows you to get support."


He continued: "There is a struggle with basic hygiene and then you add this where you intensify the request for hygiene and they struggle to grasp it. Educated and more upwardly mobile people understand, but Ghana has 28 million people, so you're looking at 20 million who will be struggling to get a solid education and can't take on board concepts. "

Coronavirus is a huge worry for all of the African countries, Fr Traynor said. "The WHO have said it could be a slow burner, that it's still coming and that's the fear. We are hoping it's a slow burner to the point the vaccine is available and then we're hoping for equal distribution of the vaccine. Is it going to be the richer countries that snap up the vaccine and leave the continent of Africa and parts of Asia and South America struggling? That's a big concern from a point of view of global justice."

In this part of the world, we are very blessed, Fr Traynor stressed. Life in Tyrone these days is "very strange", he admitted, however.

"I just can't get my head around this thing. The spontaneity of knocking a door and walking on in when I was visiting folk is now gone. People are really struggling to adjust and I sense a lot of anxiety amongst people. We haven't turned the corner on this one.

"People still want to stick out their hand to you and I have to say 'sorry'.

"Since I've been home I have been visiting people on their farms, garages - and haysheds! I have done a lot of walking around the various townlands here, and I have been meeting people that way, and it's lovely, but it's still very strange."

Not one to rest on his laurels, Fr Traynor is preparing to make the most of his time back in Ireland and is due to embark on a new programme on caring for the earth and environment in Wicklow next week.

"That will run until Christmas time and I'm just hoping the borders to Malawi will be open and I can get away before the frost comes in here!" he laughed.

"I'll be around for a while, I'd like to get back around Christmas, but I'm not sure that's realistic. I'm still holding out hope, though."

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