Imagine this: At 14-years-old, your father dies, forcing your family into a life deprived of education and the essentials needed to survive. Determined to succeed, you work as a head porter, escape the horrors of sexual abuse, and save enough for school, only to have it stripped away when a bus hits your mother who needs the money for medical care.
“Listening to the story sounds like a movie,” said the host of Joy FM’s Super Morning Show, Daniel Dadzie, who spoke exclusively with Teni Agana, a woman who turned a life of trial into triumph. Agana is the latest honoree of Ashesi University’s Scholarship, Leadership & Citizenship Award, a distinction given exclusively to three graduates who exceed expectations of the school’s core values. It is the highest award a student can receive at the school.
Agana’s fairy-tale is one punctuated with the exhaustive efforts of gruelling work, blood, sweat and tears. And her climb to the top was nothing short of poignant.
She lived in Takoradi until 14, when her father suddenly passed away. Unpaid bills were mounting, and it forced her mother to move the grieving family back up North, where they were originally from.
Ghana’s Northern Region is known for its limited resources to education but she says “we moved because we didn’t have to pay rent in our family house and we didn’t have to pay electricity because there was none.”
To help the family, Agana assisted her mother working at a “chop bar” an eatery that serves local dishes, to fund fees at her school, where she earned top marks.
She recalls a moment that changed the trajectory of her life forever: “I saw a picture of a girl with a graduation gown and it was so beautiful. I didn’t understand what [the gown] was, but I knew it was linked to an education.”
So she got to work. She became a head porter, carrying heavy loads for people for a paltry fee, and worked at a local market, where she dodged encounters of rape. She recalls nights where she didn’t have a place to sleep, so she’d sleep on filthy market grounds, where she’d tie her leg to that of another female, protecting them from men who could possibly rape them.
“We used a basin as a pillow. It was normal,” she said.
“It was normal?” Dadzie asked.
“Yes, because I had to keep moving,” she replied emphatically. “I starved myself to save for school.”
With the help of her mother and the GH¢15 Teni made a day, she gathered enough money for school fees, but tragedy struck the family again when a bus hit her mother, leaving her in critical condition and in need of money for medical care.
“All the money we saved we had to pay for her hospital bills,” she sighed as she fought back tears.
The accident ended up being a blessing in disguise.
“At the hospital, I met a woman who was crying because her only child needed blood. I checked my blood and found out I was O positive.” Agana’s blood type matched the child’s and she proceeded to donate her blood.
She says the woman thanked her and told her about Comfort, a campaign designed to educate girls from the north of Ghana. During the application process, she applied for a scholarship funded by MasterCard. She was awarded money and gained acceptance to Ashesi University, one of Ghana’s premier private schools.
“Ashesi is everything. It is different in a good way,” but it didn’t come without challenges. During her first year there, she decided to study computer programming although she never touched a computer prior, she said. At the end of her first year, she failed 3 out of 4 classes. Her GPA stood at 1.25.
“The next semester I had to work extra hard. At the end of the year, the school gave me a personal academic advisor. Then I went to 3.0 [G.P.A]. Then I got on the Dean’s list.”
Then she won the Scholarship, Leadership & Citizenship Award, a highly-selective award given only to the school’s top students. She graduated from the University last weekend and has already dived into national service where she teaches in Ghana’s poverty-stricken rural areas.
“It fills us with gratitude and pride if we can put people like Teni on a dramatically different path,” said Ashesi University’s President Patrick Awuah. “We’re all very proud of her.”
A university colleague added that “we are so happy for you. This is just the beginning with more to come.”
When asked how she managed to escape the forceful pull of poverty to become top talent at a prestigious University, she replied, “I believe that we don’t choose who we are, but we choose who we become. I could have given up but there are a lot of people available who are willing to help. It’s on you to make it.”