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Opinions of Sunday, 18 March 2018

Columnist: Ben Dotsei Malor

Ben Dotsei Malor writes: Just one act can change a destiny

I very nearly didn’t make it to Secondary School. My widowed mum, Torna (the mother of triplets,) was terribly scared of “college” and what it meant, in terms of money and fees. She also said my first choice, BIHECO in Kpando, was too far away from home - though my village, Ohawu, is in the same Volta Region of Ghana. But for the Grace of GOD and ONE important act, ONE step, or ONE action from the man you see in this photo, MR ERIC LAVOE.

I had passed the required Common Entrance Exams alright, but there were mountains and odds to overcome. It was my first attempt, and in my recollection, I was one of a handful of pupils who passed the Common Entrance Exam in the Kporkuve Middle School in the summer of 1974.

The whole process surrounding these exams was strange to many of us. Strange, because the teachers had arranged a few weeks earlier for a photographer to come to the school to have our passport photos taken for an exam that I didn’t fully understand. It was the first time that some of us were having our photos taken. Strange still, because I was completing Form 2, with two more years of Middle School left. The usual expectation or trajectory was to complete Middle School after Form 4, get your Middle School Leaving Certificate (MSLC), and then proceed with the rest of your in life.

The idea of abandoning Middle School after Form 2, forsaking the MSLC, to start Secondary School was rather strange to me. It felt like abandoning a 400-metre race half-way through, in order to begin a half-marathon. I was simply fixated on completing Middle School and getting that Middle School Certificate in hand. I guess, a bird in hand ...

In fact, my village folks always admired, adored, and praised highly those local ones who passed the Middle School Leaving exams WITH DISTINCTION. I too wanted "DISTINCTION" in Form Four! So you can understand my seeming lack of excitement over my success with the Common Entrance Exam.

Anyway, the teachers had chosen some of us to go for this Common Entrance Exam. I had managed to establish myself at the top of my class in Form 1 and 2 and was, therefore, included in the batch of students selected to go for the exams, conducted at the Akatsi Teacher Training College – about 20 kilometres away.

As part of the process, I remember the teachers guiding us earlier, rather vaguely, to select from a list of schools – some as far away as Navrongo Secondary School, more than 700 kilometres up north from my Southern Ghana village of Ohawu. I remember being so fond of Bishop Herman College, BIHECO, in Kpando (or Kpandu) and selecting it as my first choice. BIHECO was the in-thing around my area at that time. It had the word “college” in its name, and that set it apart from all the rather ordinary “secondary schools”. It had a great reputation as the place that guaranteed success - an all-boys Catholic school with strict discipline, where the allure of the opposite sex could not distract young minds ;-). My other two choices remain a blur till this day.

Anyway, I passed the Common Entrance Exams. When the results came, I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t really know anyone - or have anyone handy - in my school or village who had passed in previous years, so I could learn from them. My illiterate and widowed, but hardworking, independent, and generous, mum, Torna, had very little knowledge about what my results meant.

The usual dreams and expectations in the village were that you finished Middle School Form 4 (or Standard 7, as the older folks called it), collected your Certificate, and then learned a trade or looked for an unskilled or semi-skilled job, either nearby or in the big city. My mother’s knowledge of secondary school (or "korledzi", as she knew it) was not good. It only meant one thing: money and lots of school fees that could “cripple” an entire family and leave everyone in debt or deeper poverty. Any mention of “College” simply meant money she didn’t have and couldn't borrow. So, Torna was genuinely and frankly not excited about the fact that I had passed this exam that would require her – a widow, with a few children to care for – to find the huge amount(s) of money needed for “College”. Torna didn’t mean any harm. She loved her children but simply went by what she knew.

The uncertainty over my entry into secondary school remained, until ONE person, Mr Lavoe, without prompting, decided to make ONE intervention - an intervention that most certainly changed my life and the course of my destiny.

Mr Lavoe was an Agricultural Officer working with the Crops Research Institute, (CRI) in Ohawu. He lived in the "posh" part of the village called “Quarters”. It was the part of Ohawu where they had nice, well-built cement structures, workshops for agricultural implements and equipment, plus classrooms and dormitories for students coming from all over Ghana to attend the nearby or co-located Ohawu Agricultural College. More importantly, the Quarters area had clean pipe-borne water and electricity plus other attractions. We - the locals - had none of these modern things in the traditional part of the village, where many of us lived in thatch-roofed or corrugated iron-roofed mud homes, with no water and no electricity.

This was – and still is - land my grandparents had given free-of-charge to the Government or the authorities. It wasn’t an apartheid situation but there was a separation. However, children of the officers and lecturers in this Agricultural enclave attended the local Roman Catholic Primary School with us and did not get any preferential treatment. In fact, I remember one of these children from the Quarters, a short but skilful young man called Boahene, who was one of the best footballers in the school. I learned to eat kontomire (green leaves) and yam from them, and also picked up a few Twi words from him and his brother or nephew, whose name escapes me now.

Mr Lavoe discovered that I had passed the Common Entrance Exam. All the letters or posts for the Kporkuve Middle School were delivered from the main Post Office in Abor – some five miles away - care of the Crops Research Institute, CRI in Ohawu. Mr, Lavoe, being such a vigilant and meticulous fellow at the CRI offices, found out I had passed the Common Entrance Exams. He was not close to my family and I had never seen him in our home.

Occasionally, I spotted him in his bungalow, in Quarters, whenever we went to fetch clean water from a stand-pipe in front of his home. Many times, we - the locals - felt like trespassers so had to tip-toe round the “pipe”, making as little noise as possible, and quickly getting the water back home before heading to the primary school. He wasn’t a bad or fearful man but just this person you esteemed from afar and avoided – just out of respect.

Mr Lavoe decided one warm afternoon to visit our home, where he found my mum inside the little thatched-roofed kitchen enclosure, doing some cooking. He held on to the rickety door-frame of the kitchen and asked my widowed mum what he plans were for sending me to “College.” To my mum, who feared the cost of “college” terribly, hearing Mr Lavoe mention the word was like asking a poor woman who had never bought a bicycle what plans she was making to buy a helicopter for her son.

The two engaged in a life-changing discussion, which ended with good outcomes in my favour. My mum lamented to Mr Lavoe that she was a widow struggling, through her businesses of fish-selling and farming my father’s lands, to look after me and my siblings. “Korledzi nyaa, ega nyae looo. Fikae me ga kpor ge le?” - my mum said. In English: “College matter is money matter. Where would I get the money from?”

To heighten the concern and tension, my mum threw in a maternal “bomb”. I had selected as my first choice (the famous) BIHECO in Kpando – a little up north from Ohawu, but still in the same Ewe-speaking Volta Region. She wondered and worried how she would be able to travel “all the way” from Ohawu to Kpando if I should fall sick in school and she should be called to come and nurse me or collect me home.

Mr Lavoe listened carefully and acknowledged my mum’s fears and concerns, but he wasn’t going to leave with my fate undecided by these fears. He did a number of selfless and sacrificial things:

He opened up and told my mother exactly how much he was earning monthly as an “Agric Officer.” (Mind you people didn’t divulge their earnings that easily.)

He explained to mum, how out of this meagre amount, he was able to sponsor a few nephews and nieces through “college” in Keta – Keta Secondary School.

He also mentioned how he supplemented his income by the little gardening and farming he did.

To overcome my mum’s concerns about the distance from home, Mr. Lavoe assured my mum that I could be sent to “college” in Keta Secondary School, since Keta was not as far away as Kpando, and it would be easier for Torna to travel to Keta “should I fall sick” or “need any motherly care.”

To seal the deal, Mr Lavoe gave Torna a compelling verbal assurance that, she could come to him anytime she felt too poor to take care of me in “college.” Mind you, my mum – like many Ghanaian women of her type and time – hated depending on anyone and despised being a leech on anyone. She would rather struggle and suffer on her own than go asking or begging anyone, like Mr Lavoe, for help or financial assistance. That would be beneath her – unless she had a decent and dignified way to pay back. (The two of them would reminisce later about how my mother never came to Mr Lavoe for help.)

This ONE intervention from Mr Lavoe convinced and compelled my mother to put aside her “fears of college costs” and send me to Ketasco. I remember her giving me fifty cedis, just fifty cedis – for school fees – when she sent me to Ketasco, first as a Day student staying with a distant Auntie Anna Norvievor Mensah-McCauley in Kedzikorpe for two years before I won a (Cocoa Marketing Board - CMB) scholarship to do the remaining three years on campus as a boarding student – with all its prestige, convenience, and attractions.

This piece is dedicated to every woman and every man who manages to take a moment – just ONE moment – to offer ONE piece of advice, guidance, encouragement, or support, that helps to push the destiny of any child upwards. It is for the "Lavoes" among us and within us – conscientious do-gooders who make themselves available to be used by God to lift up others and for great purposes.

Mr Eric Lavoe didn’t have to do it but he went out of his way to seek my welfare. He addressed my widowed mum’s genuine fears and concerns about the “high cost of college” and turned my potential into a possibility and reality. I still want to know what compelled this ONE man to intervene, in that ONE critical moment in my life and ensured that I continued smoothly on the track of higher education.

I am tempted sometimes to wonder, "What if? What if Mr Lavoe had not intervened to help my widowed mum overcome her genuine fears of college fees or costs to send me to Ketasco?"

Mr Lavoe is now in his 80s but looks 20 years younger - quite active, sharp, and full of life.

THANK YOU MR ERIC LAVOE of ANLO-AFIADENYIGBA. I am trying to pay for your generosity by doing to someone else what you have done for me. GOD BLESS YOU.