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Good morning! I am thrilled to present my 2nd SPOTLIGHT feature focusing on the incredible work that Geanco Foundation is doing in Africa. Personally, I have had the pleasure of knowing Afam Onyema, the Director and CEO, for the last ten years through mutual friends in LA and am grateful to four wonderful people who helped me raise $145 for Geanco on my birthday in 2018.
There are so many wonderful things to share about GEANCO that this will be a two parter. Today I’m delighted to share with you about how Geanco was started, why CEO Afam Onyema believes Nigeria is not a sexy place to give, Geanco’s connection with Chiwetel Ejiofor, and what we need to know about Boko Haram (#BringBackOurGirls).
How Did the Onyema Family Start GEANCO?
Geanco Foundation was established in 2005 by Dr. Godwin Onyema and his family.
Dr. Godwin Onyema (a native Nigerian) was in a British boarding school in the 1940s/50s and there was a British missionary doctor who saw something in him and was inspired to bring him along as an assistant on a mission. Dr. Onyema really learned from this experience treating Malaria, delivering babies and helping people who were hurt.
This experience led him to make a promise to the doctor and Afam’s grandfather that no matter where he goes or what he does he is going to come back and save lives and use medicine to help his community.
Fast forward and he met Afam’s mom (Nma) and they got married and came out to Chicago in the 70s. The plan was to stay no more than 4-5 years, raise money, make contacts and move back to Nigeria. Afam is the 2nd of four kids and they realized their children had these amazing opportunities for education in the States and didn’t want to uproot them to Nigeria that was so violent and dangerous in the 80s. So the family stayed in the Chicago area but Dr. Onyema always talked about this doctor and his dream to help others.
As Afam got older he started to think about how he could be of service and help the world. As an undergrad at Harvard, so many of his classmates were talking about their dreams to be millionaires, congressmen, presidents. Afam however started to wonder ‘how can I use this platform as a way to serve’. As he was at Stanford for law school he had to decide between a law firm career versus helping his dad with the foundation full time. So he took a leap of faith in Fall of 2007 (after graduating with his JD in Spring of 2007) and started working full time on Geanco and hasn’t looked back since.
Afam’s older brother and two younger sisters are on the board of Geanco and help with fundraising and events in DC and Chicago.
Why are Nigerians often ignored by Western donors?
People are so afraid of corruption. Everyone has a joke about receiving an email from some Nigerian prince. Some of that is the media blowing it up, sometimes it is outright getting it wrong and a lot of it is unfortunately true. Corruption is not an African thing.
People think we should be focusing on issues in our own countries which is true but no one in America is going to die on the street because of lack of care. If you have any ailment or emergency go to the ER and whether or not you have insurance they will treat you.
In Nigeria people die because they are too poor to live and you have
- 10 million children, the largest number of kids, out of school are in Nigeria
- A million children a year die in Nigeria.
- A child dies of Malaria every 29 seconds.
- One Nigerian woman dies in childbirth every 10 minutes.
It’s not a sexy place to give. It’s changed a little bit with people wanting to get the girls back.
Everyone assumes that Nigerians in American and Europe will give but they are not always sympathetic because they have their own issues and feelings about the country.
How did Geanco connect with Chiwetel Ejiofor?
It’s a very Hollywood story actually. In LA it’s an entertainment town and one of my board members was producing a movie that starred Chiwetel Ejiofor. And so we met and found out we had family connections – my uncle played in his dad’s band back in the 1960s. He mentioned that his mother had a school and I wasn’t interested in building a school but I loved the idea of supporting one that was already functioning. I was really impressed when I visited and you could see they had a lot of the human resources and it was more a matter of helping them with physical stuff like computers. So over the years we have donated a power generator, computers, football fields, soccer field, volleyball/tennis/basketball court, electronic white board, medicine and clothes for the kids.
It’s been a great partnership for us because it allowed us to support a school and Chiwetel has been great with his support and connecting us with his friends such as Benedict Cumberbatch [more about that next week!].
It’s a win/win. So great having people who are well respected support Geanco. When people see on our website that Oprah, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jimmy Kimmel have donated they know it is an honest organization.
What do you wish our fellow Westerners knew about Boko Haram and what’s it cost the people of Nigeria?
Everyone thought there were about 200 girls who were taken from one school and the fight became bring back those girls. People don’t realize there have been thousands of girls who have been
- driven from their homes,
- abandoned by their families.
The number is in the 10s of thousands.
For us it is sharing the focus and keeping people interested. It’s hard when we are a society that moves from one project to another. For eight to ten months #bringbackourgirls was the thing but if you asked someone on the street what Boko Haram was they would likely have no idea.
Who is Afam Onyema?
CO-FOUNDER, DIRECTOR & CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER of Geanco Foundation
BA Psychology cum laude, Harvard University
JD, Stanford Law School
The GEANCO Foundation, Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer
Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Summer Intern – Los Angeles, CA
(2006 Kirkland & Ellis Minority Fellowship recipient)
Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, Summer Intern – Los Angeles, CA
Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP, Marketing Team – Chicago, IL
Hill & Knowlton Public Relations, Assistant Account Executive – Chicago, IL
I hope you have enjoyed this spotlight on GEANCO FOUNDATION! Stay tuned next week to learn about Geanco’s medical missions, Geanco’s relationship with Benedict Cumberbatch, Omaze/Facebook Fundraisers and more!