Teni Agana. From working as Kayayo to graduating from Ahesi University.
When the 2018 batch of students graduated from Ashesi University, the keynote speaker, His Excellency President Nana Akuffo Addo presented “The Presidential award” to Teni Agana. This is the highest award of the day, given to a student who excelled in all tenet’s of Ashesi’s education: citizenship, scholarship and leadership.
The news about Teni Agana receiving a special award from the President wasn’t the only thing that got everyone talking. Instead, it was her life story; A story of faith in trying times, persistence, and a force for good that guided her to achieve feats unimaginable to many.
Teni granted us time to interview her and shoot photos of her for our first print magazine.
In a country where prestigious university education is reserved for the select few, Teni’s defeats that all too familiar narrative.
Teni’s dad worked as a truck pusher in Takoradi but passed away in her childhood shattering all her hopes of formal education. Her mum who worked in a chop bar didn’t make enough to take care of three kids in Takoradi. Her plan was simple. In order to give her kids the education she hadn’t received herself, they would move back to their hometown in Upper East where education was subsidized and the absence of basic amenities like light and water would cut down on the amount she had to spend on bills.
Shortly after moving to the Upper East region, Teni’s uncle in Kumasi offered to take care of her. Teni moved to stay with him, mostly assisting in house chores before and after school. But upon completing JHS, her uncle gave her a choice to either become an apprentice in a dressmaking shop or work in salon.
Teni refused the offer. In her own words, “I wanted something more”. At a young age back in Takoradi, she had come across a picture of someone in a graduation gown. She had no idea what it was back then but she knew it had something to do with education. This memento which she keeps to date would be a huge driving force behind her quest to get educated no matter how high the odds were stacked against her.
However, sometimes having a dream alone isn’t just enough. In order to go to Bolga Girls Secondary School, Teni had to finance her own education. At the age of 15, she decided to work as a Kayayo (head porter) in Bantama market, carrying huge loads for people who come there to buy items.
At night, with nowhere to sleep, Teni and the other Kayayos had to sleep on the street and sometimes in front of people’s shop. This routine occurred for a year until she had enough money to pay for admission and buy the items required to start schooling.
Entering secondary school didn’t change her story. For the three-year period, she was in secondary school, she would come to Kumasi during the long vacation to work to pay for her school fees. After completing secondary school, Teni wanted to go to Teachers Training College because she always had a passion for teaching. Also, the allowance given to teacher trainees could help her finance her education. So, after completing secondary school with flying colors, an all too familiar challenge faced her again; She didn’t have the money to pay for her admission into training college. This time around, her mum decided to come to Kumasi to work with her. The team plan was that while Teni worked as a kayayo in the market, her mum would work in a chop bar.
Their combined effort yielded the much-expected results, but unfortunately, an unexpected incident shattered Teni’s dreams before they could hatch. A week for them to go back to the North with the money they had earned, Teni’s mother was knocked down by a car on her way to buy firewood. With Teni’s mother in the hospital, Teni had to use the money both of them had raised to pay for her mother’s hospital bills. She recounts the period as, “the hardest time in my life. You work in the rain, stand in the rain and in a short period, all the money vanishes”.
But in this unfortunate event, Teni’s story was about to take a dramatic turn. While her mother was in the hospital, Teni was on her way to buy her food when she came across a woman who was crying because her child had lost blood through an accident and was in need of some urgently. No one around at the moment had the blood type required. Out of the kindness of her heart, Teni offered to help if her blood type matched the girl’s. Luckily it did. The woman later found Teni to thank her for her generosity. Mid-conversation, she found out that Teni had just spent all the money she needed for school on her mother. The woman recommended CAMFED, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering females through education. Teni went to CAMFED later and was helped through the process of applying to Universities in Ghana. With an excellent result from secondary school, Teni was accepted by all major universities. University of Ghana, KNUST and Ashesi. But she chose Ashesi based on the recommendation of a CAMFED worker called Auntie Sally who had also worked in the school previously and was aware of the standard of education.
After a year, Teni came to Accra for an interview at Ashesi. The panel was so touched by her story that the school offered her a MasterCard Scholarship which she accepted. With this, her entire tuition for four years, educational expense, and monthly stipends would be paid for by MasterCard scholarship.
In September 2014, she was admitted into Ashesi University to study computer science. She narrates the surreal experience of being in the same class with students from rich backgrounds and how hard it was for her to fit in. “I was always behind during coding classes. When the lecturer was teaching a command, I would be looking for where P was on the computer keyboard”. Looking back, she found the ordeal very funny. “The first year was hard for me. I had to catch up and do a lot of fitting in”
“I was always behind during coding classes. When the lecturer was teaching a command, I would be looking for where P was on the computer keyboard. Looking back, she found the ordeal very funny. “The first year was hard for me. I had to catch up and do a lot of fitting in”
With the help of some of her friends and her academic supervisor, Mrs Rebecca Awuah, she was able to improve her computer skills and improve her grades. In answering a question about how welcoming Ashesi was to her, her response was inspiring, “You know at Ashesi, you come across different types of people. You come across rich people, very rich people, super super rich people and very poor kids like me. It’s a very beautiful thing. But the one thing you will learn in the end is that even though you can’t control the family you were born into, you can control how you will end up”
Teni’s passion for kindness and giving back has taken her on a unique path. She is part of an Ashesi Initiative called “Brekuso Math Project” which seeks to complement the education of students in Berekuso. This project requires Ashesi students to go to the community where the school is located and assist the students and teachers with math education. Having been a Kayayo herself, she also started a foundation called Kayacare; a daycare school for the kids of Kayayo in the Madina Market in Accra. But she realizes that it isn’t the best way to solve the problem of Kayayos leaving the north in search of a better life in the big city. She plans to empower other young women in the North by creating entrepreneurial opportunities for them.
Identifying key problems in her hometown, she has set up an organization that focuses on entrepreneurship training, adult education and reproduction education for citizens in the area.
Asked what she thinks lies ahead, she hopes to continue her education outside Ghana and come back as a lecturer. She also hopes to become a Member of Parliament as a long term goal.
When she is not solving problems, she loves to watch movies or hang out with her 5 close friends. Naa Serwaa, Beryl, Beatrice, Mercy and Maurihana. She loves dancing even though she is not great at it.
Follow Teni Agana on Instagram on @aganateni