Eric Agyeman, Age 30.
Born in Ghana, moved to NZ at age 6.
Author, Motivational Speaker, Founder of Social Enterprise PVBS
Image credit: Zaldy Infante
In 1992, Eric Agyeman moved from Ghana, West Africa to New Zealand at age 6 – he didn’t know a word of English and had never been to school before. The environment was different, a foreign country and he was the only African boy in his school.
“It was very hard for me. I’d see students run off talking or laughing and I couldn’t understand a word they were saying or be a part of the conversation. When they laughed, I had no idea if they were laughing at me or laughing at something else,” said Eric.
5 years later, when Eric was 11, he and his family moved to Melbourne. He started attending Ringwood Primary School – that’s when things really started to go downhill for him. “There weren’t too many migrants back then especially of my colour. I was subjected to racial bullying and abuse. It was a tough time for me in terms of finding my identity and where I fit in,” said Eric.
“I began to act out, started smoking and became violent all of a sudden and got involved in fights that I shouldn’t have,” said Eric. “I’d felt very left out from a young age because of the language barriers and being of African colour always made me feel like a misfit,” he said.
Because of the constant fights and violence Eric was involved in, his father sent him back to Ghana for a ‘3 week holiday’ in 2000 that turned into 7 years – his passport was confiscated as soon as he arrived in Ghana and he even attempted suicide twice. Surprisingly, the turning point in his life came when he attended a church sermon.
Eric talks about his transformation through these years in his first book, Let There Be Darkness, released in February this year through a crowdfunding campaign. “The book is my story and explores how I transformed my darkest moments into light. It sheds light on issues such as suicide prevention, youth/student leadership and how dreams really can come true. It’s not always an easy read but everything comes straight from the heart,” said Eric.
Out of the darkness Eric suffered through his years in Ghana, also came another light – PVBS which stands for Proverbs. The social enterprise started in 2010 and run by Eric and his wife Sandy in Melbourne aims to break the cycle of poverty in third world countries by selling custom year 12 memorabilia jackets to high school leavers which funds education projects in Cambodia and Ghana.
“I finally left Ghana in 2007, but while I was living there, I saw my nephews and nieces didn’t go to school. Having left Ghana at 6 and unable to speak English, having experienced first hand the emotional effects, I wanted to do something. I was speaking at a school a few years later when one of the students said, “Hey man, can you make us a jacket like yours for next year?” That’s when it hit me.
“I knew it was a good way to help kids back home – the idea being when one student completes school in Australia, another child starts school overseas. I’ve been to Cambodia a few times now to see some of the projects we’ve funded first hand- it’s mind blowing!”
“In Ghana one of the schools we support had only bamboo sticks for a roof so during the rainy season the kids couldn’t go to school because the rain flooded the classrooms. 18 months ago we raised enough funds to build a tin roof for the classroom so now the kids can go to school all year around,” said Eric.
“I’m a big believer in dreams and a big fan of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I believe every child, no matter where they are born, have a dream. Education is one step forward that enables them to get closer to their dream,” said Eric.
For his adopted country, Eric has nothing but praise and gratitude. “I feel incredibly blessed to be living in Melbourne, just the opportunities I have access to, I tend to focus on that more than anything. Yes there’s racism and other kinds of things but at the end of the day, it comes back to focusing on what really matters,” he said.
“I have a chance to make a difference in other people’s lives. I have a term that I use when I talk to students in schools. It’s not about what people call you, it’s about what you answer to in life that matters,” said Eric.