At age twelve, Barikisu noticed a significant drop in the living conditions of her home. From having most of her needs met, she realised that her mother was cutting out a lot of the luxuries she and her sister used to enjoy. It was not long before she learned that the change in their conditions was because her father had married a second woman, and his income was now being shared with another family.
‘Polygamy was not a strange occurrence in the community I grew up in,’ she explains. ‘What really shocked me was being told that I would have to drop out of school to make way for my half-brother’s education. I believed in the importance of sacrifice, but felt pained that the decision was driven more by my father’s belief that as a girl, my education was secondary to that of a man; my real role in a family was to manage a home and be a good wife.’
By age thirteen, with funding for her education becoming increasingly difficult to find, Barikisu was urged to give in to the marriage proposals that had started coming her way. This terrified her, because the men making the proposals were far older than she was. However, Barikisu’s mother, herself a firebrand, disagreed with the suggestion of her daughter marrying that young and continued to raise money to put her through school.
‘I will forever be grateful for the gift of motherhood,’ Barikisu says. ‘My mother proved strong in the face of all those who opposed the idea of getting me further education, and she has my gratitude for life.’
To help make her education possible, Barikisu became a street hawker after primary school, selling anything her mother could find – from fruits to kerosene. She would wake up at dawn, help setup shop for her mother, rush back to classes and return to hawking once school closed.
‘I remember that I would hide my illness,’ she says, ‘because my mother would not allow me to sell otherwise. It was my responsibility to help raise money for my siblings and I, and I wanted to make sure I did my best at this.’
Barikisu eventually got a job as a sales agent with a microfinance startup in Accra. Even though she was sixteen, she convinced the owners that she had experience on the streets of Accra to help them reach traders and small-scale business owners. It was far more difficult than she had anticipated, because people had high distrust for microfinance firms, and coupled with her age, would yell accusations of theft at her.
‘I remember some of my colleagues, with university degrees, quit the job because of its nature. I stayed, because I needed the money.’
For her efforts, Barikisu’s employers took up funding costs of her high school education. It helped her divert savings into helping put her siblings through school as well. With some of the pressure off, she also took time to learn culinary skills, started a bakery from her mother’s kitchen and sold pastries from door-to-door. She eventually hired three more people to join her bakery business, effectively starting her first entrepreneurial venture.
‘Most people would assume that I could not make it through school with such a routine,’ she says. ‘I was definitely not the smartest student in my classes, but I was the most committed. I had learned how to manage my time, and it made all the difference. I would read a lot before classes started, and I developed a competitive spirit, because I wanted to bring pride to the people putting me through school. I remember visibly crying, when at one award ceremony, I lost the overall best student position to someone else. It took me a long time to realise that the learning process was more important than awards.’
When Barikisu was accepted into Ashesi, she received a call explaining that she had also received a tuition scholarship. At that point, she knew her life was headed in the right direction, she says; however she still had an uphill task seeing herself through school. For Barikisu, Ashesi’s partnership with The MasterCard Foundation to provide more scholarships to students came at a perfect time.
‘Even though I was receiving financial assistance from Ashesi, it was difficult for me to meet my other financial obligations,’ she says. ‘I still had other expenses to fund, including accommodation, health and other personal needs. So two years into Ashesi, when I was informed that I was to become a beneficiary of The MasterCard Foundation Scholars programme, I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. The opportunity came at the right time.’
At Commencement 2015 this year, Barikisu became one of the first MasterCard Scholars to join the Ashesi alumni community, carrying with her a sense of possibility and responsibility.
‘As a student at Ashesi, I had far more opportunities than many women my age will ever receive. Here, I met people who would take time to listen to my fears, plans and difficulties. I am keenly aware that many others need this kind of safety to thrive and expand their ambitions, and I want to pass that forward.’
Currently, Barikisu is expanding a mentorship programme back in her community that she started while at Ashesi. She believes that with persistence, time and guidance, the young girls she is coaching can break free of the societal challenges they face and help break gender stereotypes in Ghana.
‘The biggest problem for most of the girls in my community is the motivation to do more than their community tells them they should do,’ she says. ‘Even though I am pursuing a career in investment banking, my ultimate goal is to help provide financial resources to girls and women in deprived communities like the one I grew up in. I feel responsible for fighting alongside them to make sure they find equality, and get the same opportunities that I have, to build a better life.’