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The words came both easily and with difficulty. Easy because the feelings are loving, strong and ever present difficult because the person being talked about is no longer with us.
Dr. Thomas Mark Turay passed away in early September in his home country; Sierra Leone. His daughters Teresa and Christina, living in Antigonish along with their sister Clara and her young daughter Malaika, spoke about their dad in a recent conversation with the Casket.
Thomas Turay was a former lecturer at the Coady International Institute and assistant professor in the Department of Adult Education at StFX cross appointment with the Coady.
He was the co founder (along with wife Mary Hawa Turay) of the Centre for Development and Peace Education (cdpeace) in Sierra Leone and, at the urging of his people, entered politics and became a Member of Parliament for the Bombali District. He was deeply involved in both roles at the time of his passing.
In talking about their father, Teresa and Christina talked about a man who understood the value of education and its power in dealing with poverty and war.
“The idea that when Sierra Leone just came out of war, as an educator, he really believed the way forward, the way to diminish the cycle of poverty, was through education,” Teresa said. “He started teaching after what you would call here, Grade 12 he went back to his village and started teaching, so that has always been his mission.”
“He had a passion when he taught for peace conflict or adult education,” Christina said. “Every time he taught or lectured he always had a way of not giving you all the answers, but he would give you an idea for you to come up with your own answers. I liked the way he did that he wanted you to figure it out yourself, show you the road to figure it out.”
Turay earned the nickname Dr. Peace for his endeavours, determination and outlook.
In her eulogy for the memorial service held in Antigonish, former Coady director Mary Coyle spoke to the well earned moniker.
“The official announcement on the sudden passing of Thomas Mark Turay informed us that Thomas was known widely as Dr. Peace,” Coyle wrote and read.
“He was called that because; his political work, his academic work, his community work, his work with the church, indeed the very air that he moved through in Makeni, in Freetown, in Toronto or in Antigonish was permeated by a hope for peace.
“Thomas was also known to friends from an early age as ‘TMT’ drawing attention to his capacity for eloquent explosive power, for real ‘TNT’ in the cause of social justice. Peace was not for Thomas a ‘take your seat’ kind of experience. It meant speaking out, acting out, organizing and confronting power if need be.”
In his address to first year students back in early September, StFX President Kent MacDonald told the group upon hearing of Dr. Turay’s sudden passing he rewrote his original speech to tell them about a man connected to their university who truly understood what the words ‘service’ and ‘selflessness’ truly meant. He noted how this man, at an age when many others are starting to reduce obligations and look for more comfort, did the opposite by returning to his home country and taking on the struggles of his fellow countrymen and women.
Teresa spoke to MacDonald’s shared thought.
“The idea of him leaving Canada everyone back home dreams of coming here,
” Teresa said. “(He was) leaving the best medical technology you could ask for, a good way of living here and deciding to go back because, really, his fundamental love is for his people to really help his people, to educate his people, his country and move from this idea of poverty. He loved, loved, loved his country. He loved Canada too and he is resting at peace knowing we’re here in Canada.”
With the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Turay put himself on the frontlines in trying to help his people. Teresa spoke to his courage and commitment.
“He was a champion for that,” she said.
“When Ebola happened, some parliamentarians stayed in the capital because they didn’t want to be amongst the people because of a fear they would get Ebola which is fair but my dad, he would be at the forefront with his people educating them, teaching them about sanitization. With cdpeace and also as a government official; telling them what they needed to do.
“Sometimes the problem with our country is if you’re not educated, you don’t know how you’re going to do better. So he really did go into the villages, teaching the people, telling them what was going on not just ‘oh there is an Ebola so don’t do this’ but the why.
“The bishop was saying, the priest was saying (at the funeral service in Sierra Leone), every Sunday my dad would attend two Masses to, at the end of the service, update people about Ebola, how they should prevent getting it themselves and if they did have somebody sick or weren’t sure, how they could get help.”
With the help of the community, all three daughters were able to return to Sierra Leone for their father’s funeral and they were accompanied by family friend Peter Gosbee who noted he was inspired by his good friend Thomas to study development studies at StFX and also take a human rights course for his union and assume the role of human rights representative.
Gosbee wanted to share this story from his experience attending the funeral.
“The evening we arrived in Makeni (Sierra Leone), after meeting various family members, Thomas’ wife Mary took me into a home that was being worked on,” Gosbee wrote in an email to the Casket.
“You could smell the fresh paint, see young men installing floor tiles and so many people coming and going. Mary wanted me to see this home because Thomas had a picture of it hanging in his office at the Coady Institute but that picture was of a home which had seen the ravages of civil war. It had been shot to pieces and I inquired of Thomas, the first time I met him when I started working as a custodian at the Coady Institute, why he would have such a photo hanging on his wall.
“His response was, ‘I am from Sierra Leone and we had a civil war there for many years. This is a picture of my home. It’s the reason I had to leave Sierra Leone but it’s also the reason I have to go back.’
“I never forgot his words, so it was quite emotional to be standing in his home, with his family by my side, and to know that his dream of seeing his home finally completed was becoming a reality yet Thomas was not here to enjoy it with us.”