The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She ran from years of abuse in Ghana. Now she runs for the U.S. Naval Academy.

Amanda Agana, 21, is a junior who runs middle-distance events for the Navy track and field team. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Amanda Agana always had an answer ready to go. She would slide off her track pants and knew her running shorts couldn’t hide her past.

“Where are your scars from?” someone would inevitably ask.

“Oh, well, I grew up in Africa,” she would say with a shrug. “I fell off a lot of trees.”

She chuckles at it now. Last time she counted, there were more than 100 marks dotting her legs, arms, hands and back. “Right here. Right here. Right here. Right here,” says the 21-year-old Agana, a middle-distance runner for Navy’s track team, her index finger tracing a map of childhood pain along one leg. None of the marks and scars were from falling out of trees.

“What am I supposed to tell these American kids that had never known true pain in their lives? ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I lived three years of my life being beaten every day and being taken advantage of every day,’ ” she says.

Agana’s fingertips were smashed with rocks. Her knuckles cracked with rulers. Her arms and back whipped with sticks. Her skin singed with the smoldering end of a stick. But most of the abuse was saved for her legs.

“My legs — isn’t that funny?” she says without laughing. “The place that endured the most pain is the place that’s helped me get to where I am.”

Losing her best friend

On a recent afternoon, Agana circled the track at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and was easy to spot. It’s not the scars but rather her long, graceful stride, looking almost like an ice skater gliding toward the finish line.

The path to Annapolis can be circuitous for every midshipmen on campus, but Agana’s journey is among the most improbable. Her starting line was a village called Zaare in northern Ghana. She was the youngest of three, but her family grew to 20 when an uncle died and Agana’s father inherited his brother’s children.

By time Agana was 7, her parents had separated and her mother, Bertha, had been sick for many years. She knew her mother wasn’t doing well — pneumonia that the family believes was linked to tuberculosis — but still thought little of it when she bounded home from school one day and climbed onto her mother’s bed, bragging about her score on a French test. Everyone else in the room remained quiet. Agana thinks maybe 30 minutes passed.

“Finally, my grandmother came and took me away, and I didn’t understand why,” Agana says. “But later that day I found out that she had already been deceased for a few hours. Nobody knew how to tell me.”

Her mother, she says, was her best friend. At the time, Agana says, she wasn’t particularly close to her father. In their culture, the father is the provider, and John Agana had many to provide for.

“I wasn’t always around all the time. I had to work,” John says. “I had a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders.”

Their relationship was complicated. Amanda saw little of her father and was looking for an outlet for her grief and anger.

“I felt as though he had left my mom to die. Somehow I blamed him,” she says. “I didn’t really understand why he couldn’t save her.”

John Agana traveled around the region for work, collecting and selling hand-woven baskets, trinkets and wares from the region. One of his sisters came forward and offered to take Amanda. He hoped he had found a maternal figure.

“I asked Amanda and said, ‘I don’t know this auntie really well. Do you want to go?’ ” he recalls. “She said yes. I don’t think we knew what it would be like.”

Treated like a servant

Amanda was 8 when she moved to a village a couple of hours away to live with the aunt. The woman resembled the young girl’s mother, and Amanda was happy to be in a family environment. She helped with cooking and cleaning and thought nothing of her chore list.

But as the weeks passed, her aunt awoke earlier each morning — 6:30, then 5:30 and then 4:30. The work demands grew, and she was tasked with sweeping, cooking, cleaning, dishes, laundry, preparing meals, getting children off to school, opening up the family’s shop. Soon she was missing school entirely to stay back and work around the family’s home and shop.

“I wanted a mom, but she didn’t want a daughter,” Agana says today. “She was looking for a servant, and that’s how she treated me.”

Agana says she was regularly punished if tasks weren’t completed fast enough or to her aunt’s satisfaction. She developed sores on her head from carrying a water basin from the well, and on weekends she was told to pluck branches off trees and soak them in water. They would be used for lashings throughout the week.

“She kept telling me that it’s what I deserved because I had killed my mom. She said this is how you repent in the eyes of God — by serving other people,” Agana recalls. “So I thought it was fair, like I deserved to suffer because I took that light away from people.”

Agana had to remind herself constantly that she wanted to live, setting small bench marks: if I can just make it to breakfast and then if I can just make it to lunch.

She saw her father only occasionally during this period. He would come through town, bringing clothes or gifts. But he never knew what his daughter was enduring.

“I wanted to tell him what was happening, but I also didn’t want him to worry. He had 20-some kids to take care of. I felt like they needed him. I didn’t,” she says. “All I needed was my mom. And she was gone.”

For three years, Agana says, she lived in misery. She rarely attended school. She had scabs and sores on her head and legs. Her only refuge was a field where she would chew on sugar cane and cry.

“And then one day my dad showed up,” Agana says, “and he had this blue-eyed, pineapple-color-haired white woman who was just happy as can be and saying she’s going to be my new mom.”

New way of life

Carol Meadows was a nurse practitioner and an instructor at the University of Arkansas. She had bought some African goods from John online, and the two struck up a friendship. Soon Carol found herself in a small African village, eager to meet John’s daughter.

Amanda resisted Carol at first. She didn’t trust her, and the language barrier certainly didn’t help. Still, Carol was struck by something in the young girl.

She recalls one day, preparing a meal inside the kitchen. She gave Amanda some money to buy tomatoes, and the girl took off running out the door barefoot.

“I looked out the window, and it was the most amazing thing. I got chills all over,” Carol says. “I went to the door and followed her as long as I could. She was like a gazelle, a ballerina on the run.”

There were signs, too, that something was amiss: scabs and scars and clothing that had been sent as gifts that Amanda no longer had.

“I remember they brought me beautiful white shirts and white dresses,” Agana recalls. “My aunt said I was too dirty to wear them. She gave the shirts to her sons and sold the dresses.”

The next spring, in April 2008, John and Carol Agana showed up again, this time to take Amanda away. John was relocating to Fayetteville, Ark., with his new bride and wanted his daughter to go with him. Amanda was eager to get away but knew nothing about her new home. She was quiet and still filled with anger. The other kids looked and acted differently. She loved having her own bed, electricity, running water. But adapting was still a process. Carol would find food hidden in her stepdaughter’s drawer.

“It took her a long time to trust me,” Carol says. “She thought I was going to abuse her, too, I guess.”

John and Carol remained patient. They started functioning like a family, and Amanda slowly accepted her father wasn’t leaving and her new mother loved her.

“It is different here,” her father says. “I have time; I’m always home. We’re able to bond more.”

Amanda saw a therapist, and in time she shared with her parents what those three-plus years had been like and how they had hardened her.

“I really think that emotionally she suffered more than physically,” Carol says today.

Carol remembered watching her stepdaughter run and in the seventh grade urged her to join a cross-country team. Suddenly, Amanda was part of a team and felt a sense of accomplishment when she ran, even if the entire exercise was still felt a bit foreign.

“It was weird because when I was running away from my aunt, I had a goal — I was trying to get away. But when we were training, it was like, ‘Why are we running in circles?’ ” she says.

But she started winning some races, and her parents began seeing a future. Running brought a certain freedom. She could channel her feeling and assert herself in a way that wasn’t always easy when standing still.

“Watching her grow as a runner was fun,” says Michelle Phife, her former cross-country coach in Fayetteville. “I could challenge her with pretty much anything, and she could rise to it. She’s not scared of anything.”

Finding her purpose

Agana has not spoken to her aunt in eight years but still hears her voice. It tells her she’s not good enough, that she’s not worthy of her home, her family, her school. On the Navy track this year, for example, she ran a personal-best 55.06 seconds in a 400-meter indoor race. But rather than celebrate, she lamented missing a program record by 0.05.

“I was so disappointed,” she says. “You have to remember, I spent nearly four years with somebody whispering in my ear that I was nothing. So my teammates were hugging me, and I had to keep reminding myself that I am something, I can be great.”

Agana continues to receive counseling at Navy and still finds solace running around the track. She competes in sprints and middle distances. This month at an Army-Navy meet in New York, Agana anchored the school’s 4x100 relay team that set a program record with a time of 46.12 seconds and was part of a 4x400 team that posted the fifth-fastest school mark. Then she won the meet’s 800-meter race, posting a time of 2:13.19.

In Annapolis, Agana is a jovial presence at practices, high energy with a big personality. “People kind of flock to her, especially kids. She has a smile that draws people in,” said Jamie Cook, Navy’s director of track and field. “She has a natural charisma about her. You can tell she’s going to be a really good leader.”

She’s only a junior, which means her running career has at least another year beyond next week’s Patriot League championships. Agana calls running her “tool.”

“It’s not the end game. It’s what I need to use to get there. Yes, I can inspire people on the track, but I inspire more people by wearing this uniform,” she says. “Coming here, serving, it’s helped me find a purpose. Slowly I started getting back my soul. Serving others helps me find me.”

She hopes to return to Ghana someday, to build a school for young girls, to give them a bus they can ride each day and to help them have a better childhood than she did. She wants them to have hope. There are no tears when she shares her personal story. She draws strength from it.

“I’m not sure that Amanda is completely healed. She’ll never forget her past experiences,” her stepmother says. “That makes her who she is today.”

Agana doesn’t need reminders, of course, about how far she has come. Her history is on display at every race. Her legs have endured, and they have provided.

“For the longest time, I was super-self-conscious about my scars,” she says, “but they’re just proof and a testament that I survived. They tell me about the place where I was, the place others like me are and the places that I can still go.”

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