Updated: Aug 29, 2020
We sat down (virtually, of course) with Afam Onyema, the Co-Founder, Director & CEO of The GEANCO Foundation, and Director, Nche Onyema, who leads the foundation's engagement strategy and event planning, to talk about their non-profit dedicated to organizing special surgical missions, providing educational scholarships for girls, and building medical facilities in Nigeria.
Established in 2005, GEANCO is very much a family affair. Not only is the entire family involved in running the organization, but the name “GEANCO” is a compilation of the initials of each member of the Onyema family: Godwin, Ebele, Afam, Nche, Nma (Mom) and Chukwugozie Onyema.
The Onyema Family
The inspiration for GEANCO came from the head of the Onyema family, Dr. Godwin Onyema. After graduating from medical school, he immigrated to the United States with his wife, Josephine (Nma) and vowed to one day return to his homeland to help improve healthcare and save lives.
Once all of his children had graduated from college, Dr. Godwin began his philanthropic endeavor. Godwin’s second son Afam who now leads GEANCO full-time, graduated cum laude from Harvard University and Stanford Law School. He initially had no plans to be so heavily involved in GEANCO, however, after identifying his greater purpose in life, he walked away from a lucrative career in corporate law to commit to his father’s dream.
Dr. Godwin Onyema
When asked what their greatest accomplishment to date has been, Afam proudly exclaims, “the complexity of our medical missions.” These annual missions, led by top surgeons, involve traveling to Nigeria to perform knee and hip replacements, as well as minimally invasive gallbladder, hernia and appendix surgeries on poor patients, train local surgeons and donate specialized equipment and instruments. Overcoming challenges such as power outages which occur often in the country, and collecting donations to fund these missions, GEANCO has changed the lives of hundreds of needy Nigerians.
“I am proud of all that we have accomplished, but my heart is with our David Oyelowo Leadership Scholarship for Girls,” Afam tells Amplify Africa. In 2014, 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school by the terrorist group Boko Haram sparking the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign. The world was finally paying attention, but the truth is tens of thousands of girls have been victims of terrorism in Nigeria in recent years. Those that return home safely often endure rejection from their families who label them as tainted due to their experience in captivity. British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, whom the scholarship is named after, plays a large role in choosing the recipients and also in using his network to raise money to ensure that these girls have access to the education and opportunities that they deserve. Oprah Winfrey, a dear friend of Oyelowo, and Selma and The Butler co-star, made a $100,000 donation towards the scholarship. What started with 3 girls in the 2016-’17 class, has grown to 33 girls currently on this scholarship and Afam says that their present goal is to have 100 scholarship recipients and to make a donation of 1,000 tablets to students in Nigerian schools.
David Oyelowo and Afam Onyema
While GEANCO has been making a profound impact on Nigeria for over a decade, their accomplishments did not come overnight. “There is no quick path to success,” Afam says, “you need a great deal of patience while you put in the work to build relationships and establish connections that will allow you to accomplish your goals.”
Speaking of goals, Afam shared with us that GEANCO is working to be able to support two medical missions a year and they plan to expand their partner clinics to be able to provide fundamental healthcare to even more of the population.
Like many others, the COVID-19 global pandemic caused an abrupt halt to many of GEANCOs plans for 2020. They were forced to pivot, and in the spirit of their mission to make a difference, they reached out to donors and began donating PPE in Nigeria and training the nurses and staff on the essentials of the coronavirus, to ensure they are properly equipped to handle what comes their way. They also launched their podcast “STOR14S” in collaboration with Yahoo! featuring children’s short stories narrated by a renowned cast of leading actors and influencers including Benedict Cumberbatch, Thandie Newton, and Zoe Saldana aimed to inspire families and raise COVID-19 relief aid for Africa.
Every year the GEANCO Foundation hosts a Hollywood fundraiser to rally support for the vulnerable women and children in Nigeria. It is a highly anticipated event that boasts attendance from high profile celebrities such as Charlize Theron, Chiwetel Ejiofor and of course, David Oyelowo. This year, in light of the global pandemic, they have had to adapt and take things virtual.
2019 GEANCO Hollywood Gala Video
As the event planning manager, Nche Onyema talked to us about how they are viewing this not as a setback, but instead an opportunity to create a virtual engagement show that allows them to connect with people all around the world. Their gala fundraisers were birthed in Chicago, where the family is from, and as they have grown in community so has their reach. Fundraising looks different in each location as they capture the essence of the city. In Chicago, the focus is on the community having an opportunity to dress up and celebrate the work they have done. It is also a time for GEANCO to recognize local talent and small businesses like Nche’s childhood dance school, Susan’s School of Dance, who support the foundation by donating a percentage of their registration fees.
The GEANCO Foundation fundraisers are filled with hope and optimism, “the best part of the night for me is when everyone gets an opportunity to mingle after the event,” Nche told us, “there is an indescribable energy that each person is filled with, and to experience that with my family is the greatest blessing.”
The Onyema Family dressed in traditional Nigerian attire
As the excitement grows for this year’s virtual fundraiser, Nche shared her hope that this opportunity to connect with a larger community will elevate GEANCO with respect to how they engage and empower others. “I want to continue making our long time supporters proud as we inform them about the conditions in Nigeria we are working so hard to change,” she says, “I also want to fill our new supporters with excitement to join us and advocate for such a worthy cause.”
When looking to the future, Afam, Nche and the whole Onyema family envision growth. A pandemic cannot stop purpose, and they show no signs of slowing down.
This year's fundraiser, "Unbreakable Joy: GEANCO's Virtual Gala for Africa," will be held on Saturday, October 24. To stay informed on the difference GEANCO is making and for announcements regarding this year's virtual gala which will feature live performances, celebrity appearances, accounts from those in Nigeria whose lives have been impacted and more, follow them on Instagram. You can support The GEANCO Foundation by making a donation HERE