A Creole Lady With Class; An Exemplary Role Model
by Pat Pillay
Leader of Lalyans Seselwa
Last Weekend Seychelles buried one of her most distinguished ladies and a woman of distinction. She may safely be called La Digue’s most famous daughter. I am writing about no other than Mrs Yvonne Choppy who would have turned 80 on the 26th of this month. Yvonne will probably go down in the history of her country as the longest serving Head teacher. Yvonne was the eldest daughter in a family of twelve. She is survived by her 10 brothers and sisters. The Wong family from La Digue is well-known and respected throughout Seychelles and elsewhere. Their success is a result of hard work and good family values. In many ways, the Wong family epitomises the classical family success story where the’ Lady of the House’ is a strong-willed matriarch supported by a hard working husband who provides while she leads with one mission in life : that is for her brood or her children to succeed and lead better lives than what she has known. Actually the story of the Wongs of La Digue reminds me very much of the story of my own family- the Pillays of Pointe-au- Sel. While the Wongs were driven by a strong-willed Alfrelia who married a successful Chinese immigrant and entrepreneur from Hong kong : Napoleon Wong; the Pillays were driven by an equally strongwilled Matriarch Maud - Clemence who married a successful farmer and entrepreneur : Paul Pillay. Ma (or Clemence , as I fondly called her in the latter years ) had never gone further than primary school. Neither had Ton Paul. However, he worked hard and she stayed at home as a housewife to look after her nine children and support him in his enterprises.
As fate would have it, Yvonne’s twin brother, Yvon married Joyce, the eldest of five daughters in the Pillay family of Pointe-au-Sel. It is from this perspective that I got to know Yvonne’s story better. I was also privileged as a junior officer in the Ministry of education; and later as PS and Minister in the same Ministry; to have worked with Yvonne and watched her at close quarters. She has made a huge success of La Digue School and of the children and youths of La Digue. The first thing that strikes you about Yvonne is the way she carries herself. She had class, poise, grace, elegance and self-discipline, all packaged neatly into her little frame. I have as an educationalist always talked about the primary importance of discipline as the first attribute for success in anything; especially in teaching and learning. Today, when I think of Yvonne, the first thing that comes to my mind is the discipline she demanded from and of herself first and then from all those around her, including her siblings. I was responsible for science programs in schools around the country in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I had to visit schools to help supervise and assist science teachers and lab technicians. One moment which is etched in my memory is a visit to La Digue School. It must have been in the early 80’s. That particular day, I was sitting in the staff-room during the mid-morning break and chatting to the staff there. The bell rang for the start of the second half of the morning classes. I had hardly heard the bell, but noticed that all of a sudden the chatter and babble ceased and all the staff except those who had a free ‘ period’ trooped out of the staff-room. I was momentarily puzzled. Then I lifted my head and saw the reason why ! The Headteacher, “Miss Yvonne “ as she was fondly referred to, was standing at the door- the entrance to the staff-room. She had said nothing; she had not snapped a finger; she had not clapped her hands. She just stood there as “une force tranquille”. There was no need for any command.
The “troop “ was disciplined and knew without any doubt that the “captain “ would accept nothing less than utter discipline when it comes to time-keeping and attendance to classes. This impressed me so much that it was a lesson learnt, never to be forgotten. The lesson is simple: once you have established yourself as a disciplined leader; your troops will follow your example. When I was appointed Director of the Polytechnic in 1986; I realised that the most important attribute that I should advocate and practice immediately upon my arrival at the Anse Royale Campus was discipline. I suppose I had realised by watching Yvonne in action, that it is not what you say and preach but rather what you do that mirrors your expectations of those under your charge.
When I became Minister of Education in 1993, I had plans to use Yvonne’s competencies and leadership skills to mentor potential candidates for headship of schools by ‘ attaching’ them to La Digue School for a minimum of two terms and a maximum of one year. After this mentorship, they would have been placed in a small school on Mahe and monitored and mentored further before “graduating “ to a larger school. All my plans were shelved when in 1998 FAR had other plans when I was defenestrated as Minister of Education and replaced by the over-ambitious Minister Danny Faure. The rest is history as today in 2016 we lament the lack of discipline in schools and the near total break-down of the education system......
Let me go back to Yvonne Choppy. As Margaret Thatcher has demonstrated a leader has to be somebody you can trust, emulate and is passionate about what he/she does and the ones under her leadership. In the case of Yvonne she was passionate that not only her siblings would succeed but all the children and youths of La Digue would succeed and she guided them to success. She inspired them to do their personal best .. and beyond. As a result year in year out, La Digue School came out top in most if not all the subjects in the Primary Six National Exams. Additionally, when it came to the National sports day on 29th June; La Digue again topped the list of schools for medals and cups. This was in sharp contrast to Baie St Anne School on Praslin which trailed the list of schools in the National Primary Six exams. I am not making any contrast between the La Digue School head teacher and her counterpart in Baie St Anne School (now a Minister at the head of an important Ministry). As the French would say “on ne peut pas comparer les incomparables” (oops- that was rather naughty of me ). !!
Let me go back to Yvonne. When I heard her laugh and joke; I was always reminded of my brother-in-law, her twin brother. . There is never a dull moment in his life as sense of humour is endless. Upon hearing the demise of his twin sister, which was expected as she was seriously ill, he joked “oh no, I have lost the only person that I know who when she says “happy Birthday to you “; I can reply “ same to you “.... !!.
My take on Yvonne’s approach to work has been to work hard but never lose sight of the importance of enjoying the journey. In this day and age when many who have accepted positions of authority and do not lead by example and seem to be more interested about the money and themselves rather than those under their care; we have to remind ourselves as Seychellois leaders - whether in politics, health, education or other - that our role is to help others find their passion within their mission and vision of the endeavour in which they find themselves. We must, like Yvonne, assist others in winning professionally and personally.
We have to engage, listen, respect and create an environment where employees and subordinates thrive, excel and are high achievers. This is how Yvonne succeeded hugely as a a leader and role model. She was simply genuine and honest in all that she did. She had strong Christian values. As Derick Ally would put it “Miss Yvonne communicates and connects from her heart instead of just her head”.. As an inspirational Diguoise, perhaps the alumni of La Digue school can get together and raise funds to finance a bronze bust of Miss Yvonne. I am sure that former Minister Ernesta could lead the fund-raising and engage Tom Bowers who is an accomplished naturalised Seychellois for whom I have great respect and for his love of his adopted country.
In concluding, I would like to say that when I was High Commissioner in London, I had stirrings of being a writer and dreamt of writing the biography of Danielle de St Jorre and Yvonne Choppy - two great personalities that I admire. For some reason or other, I started doing some research on both these inspiring personalities. But then I retired and then I re-joined politics.. My dream remains and I know that in the chess game of life, the player who makes the final move is the creator himself. May his will always be done. My dream remains.
Rest in peace Dear Yvonne; somehow you will be remembered........
Source: Weekly 8-12-16