A dream becomes reality
Once upon a time ... could be the start of this story because that’s how most fairy tales begin. Once upon a time there was a young man from the African country of Ivory Coast. His name was Désiré Kope and many things in his life now seem like a fairy tale to him.
Désiré Kope was born in a provincial town called Gagnoa, many hours away from the Ivorian capital of Abidjan. That was at the end of the 1950s, and the people in Gagnoa were extremely poor. Only a few of the huts, which were often nothing more than four clay walls and a roof made of reeds, had electricity. Désiré grew up among these huts and luckily there was a school nearby. It wasn’t particularly big. There were often five children sitting on a bench designed for two. But Désiré learned a lot and enjoyed his studies. He was a good student. And because he discovered he was good at explaining things to his classmates, he decided to become a teacher himself after leaving school. As a primary school teacher in the capital Abidjan, he made ends meet, but he felt that there must be more to life. So one day, he decided to seek his fortune in Europe. A distant relative told him that Germany was a good place to live and so, in 1996, Désiré Kope boarded a plane for Germany.
Somehow Désiré Kope ended up in Ludwigsburg. He spoke fluent French, which was the official administrative language of Ivory Coast, but hardly a word of German. Nevertheless, it was enough for a polite “Excuse me, Madame” one day when, on his way to the station, he bumped into the woman who is now his wife. He didn’t know her, she didn’t know him, but they hit it off right away. She says today that she particularly liked the polite way he apologised. He liked her so much that he gave her his phone number – and she took more than a week to call him. They met, initially accompanied by one of her friends who spoke better French. It wasn’t a one off meeting. Friendship quickly turned into love and the couple got married a year later.
After seeing an advertisement in the local Ludwigsburg newspaper, Désiré Kope applied for a job in the warehouse at LAPP. More accurately, Renate Kope applied, as she wrote the application letter for her husband as he still didn’t speak German well. Désiré Kope was invited for an interview, got his forklift truck driving licence and soon had a job that gave him a good living in the country of his dreams.
For Renate Kope, the wedding celebration in Abidjan was the most impressive celebration of her life. The music, the dancing, the food. Captivated by the hospitality of the people, but shocked by the poverty, back at home she and her husband talked for a long time about what would happen to the children who grew up there. They knew that many would leave their country because it offered them no prospects, just as Désiré Kope himself had done. “When I see the young people going away, leaving their home, taking huge risks – it breaks my heart and I know have to do something about it”, says Kope. Gradually an idea began to take shape. He would use savings from his work in the warehouse in Germany to set up a school in Africa. By 2016, everything was ready. Désiré Kope had already travelled back to his home on several occasions to discuss his plans with local politicians and the education authorities, and he had finally found a suitable site. With an area of 4,000 square metres, it was a former cocoa plantation on the edge of Galebre, the neighbouring village of his home town. This was where the new school would be built – a “Collège” as it is called in French.
“When I see the young people leaving their home, taking huge risks – it breaks my heart and I know I have to do something about it”.
But land is not cheap in Ivory Coast, to say nothing of the building costs. Désiré Kope and his wife had to take out a loan, but their plans were worth it to them. Désiré Kope hoped that perhaps the man to whom he ultimately owed his job as a warehouse worker might be able to make a contribution: Andreas Lapp, Chairman of the Board at Lapp Holding AG.
Désiré Kope arranged a meeting with Andreas Lapp and, when the day came, his wife pulled his dark blue suit out of the wardrobe and meticulously ironed it for him. As well as his best suit, he had come up with a little trick for the meeting. He wanted to name the new school “Collège Andreas Lapp”, as ultimately it was the company that had provided the money he used to lay the foundation stone. When Andreas Lapp heard about Kope’s plans, and that the school was to be named after him, he smiled to himself as he saw straight through the trick. But it didn’t detract from the idea itself. Andreas Lapp thought it was brilliant that an employee wanted to use the money he had earned in Germany to do something positive in his home country to help people there in the long term. “The fact that the school was going to be named after me was not what convinced me to support the project financially”, Lapp says. “It’s simply a fantastic idea and I found Mr. Kope’s commitment so impressive that I simply had to offer my support.”
A few weeks ago, in early October 2019, the school was officially opened. Désiré Kope had taken time off work two weeks beforehand and had travelled to Galebre to help with the preparations.
Monday 7 October was perhaps the most important day in Désiré Kope’s life. The construction work is not yet finished, the school still lacks books and teaching materials. The playground looks like a desert of sand and red clay. Kope is constantly running from one end of the school building to the other, calling out instructions to the construction workers and, one day before the official opening, seems close to having a heart attack. Without taking a break, he wipes the sweat from his brow with a packet of Kleenex. Andreas Lapp has accepted the invitation to the opening and announced that he will be attending.
On Monday morning, Andreas Lapp set out from Abidjan towards Galebre with a driver. The journey from the capital to the remote province takes at least four hours, sometimes over very poor roads. When Lapp finally reaches the first huts in Galebre, something incredible happens. Several dozen young people jump up from the edge of the road, hop on their mopeds and surround the arriving vehicle hooting their horns, revving and shouting. They are all wearing t-shirts bearing Lapp’s photo and the slogan “Bienvenue Mr. Andreas Lapp à Galebre”. Like a wild swarm of bees, the mopeds behind, in front of and alongside Lapp’s car escort it along the dusty road to the school. Waiting at the entrance to the site is Kore Zadi Bernard, in a ceremonial costume that marks him out as the leader, the oldest man in the village or simply the village chief, or “Chef du Village”. In one hand he is holding a cocoa fruit, in the other a live chicken as the symbol of hospitality. What follows are speeches, music, dancing and rituals. Several hundred people have come. On one side of the playground sit the people it’s really all about – the children and young people of Galebre. Andreas Lapp, who has been appointed honorary chief in a symbolic crowning by the “Chef du Village” climbs onto a temporary wooden platform erected the previous day, takes the microphone and turns his back on the assembled honoured guests. He speaks first to the young people sitting behind him: “Because you are the reason we are here. The future belongs to you and there will come a day when you get to decide what happens in this country, on this continent and in this world”. That’s why he was so keen to support the school project and will continue to do so over the coming years, “because one of your people came up with the idea.” Lapp believes that the entire African continent has huge potential. That is why LAPP is expanding its market presence in many African countries. Supplying the population with electricity is an enormous task. “Poor education is a barrier to development in many countries”, Lapp stresses, “which is why I support Mr Kope’s commitment.”
“I found Mr. Kope’s commitment so impressive that I simply had to offer my support.”
The first 35 students have already enrolled at the “Collège Andreas Lapp”, with more to follow. The teaching team, led by headmaster Kouassi Brou Rodrigue, is also in place. One of the students is Florence, 18 years old and slightly overawed by all the excitement at her new school. She quietly says: “One day I want to be a nurse. To do that, I need good qualifications and I’m looking forward to the teaching getting started soon.” On the return journey to Abidjan, Andreas Lapp says: “I really hope that these students can make their dreams a reality in their own country.”
Meanwhile, Désiré Kope is lying exhausted on a bed in Galebre. Everything went well, with even the storm that was threatening holding off until the ceremony was done. He feels relieved, as though a giant weight has been lifted from his heart. But at the same time he knows this is all just the beginning. “I’ll carry on working for LAPP in Ludwigsburg for a few more years but one day, when I retire, I’ll come back to Galebre and look after the school.” Even fairy tales sometimes take a long time.