When Afam Onyema listened to a class day speech delivered by U2’s Bono back in 2001 it sparked something inside of him.
At the time he was about to graduate from Harvard school and following a further stint at Stanford looked set for a lucrative career in corporate law.
But fast forward almost two decades and having turned his back on the legal industry, Afam is now the chief executive officer of the GEANCO Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to providing educational opportunities to girls, leading medical missions and building improved medical facilities in Nigeria.
So what was it about Bono’s speech that so inspired him?
“It was ironic because at the time I wasn’t a big U2 fan,” he says. “I thought a musician was going to come and give a really lame speech.
“It was during the AIDS crisis in Africa and he gave, what remains to this day, one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard.”
Afam recalls Bono issuing a call to action to the Harvard students before him.
“He said he remembered as a child learning about the US landing on the moon and thinking America could do anything. And he told us that if anyone should have an ethos to change the world, it should be us coming out of this school.”
And while Afam doesn’t credit Bono entirely for shaping his future, that speech definitely provided an awakening.
“I didn’t at that moment decide I was going to leave everything, but it certainly got me talking more to my dad about his dream.”
The dream he refers to is that of his father, Godwin Onyema, an obstetrician who immigrated to Chicago in the 70s with his nurse wife and the plan of learning modern medicine, raising some money, getting some support and then heading back to Nigeria to use medicine to help save lives.
“In the 40s/50s my father was assigned to be the assistant of a British missionary doctor and it was really through that wider experience that he fell in love with medicine,” Afam explains.
“And he made a promise to that doctor, who is still alive, that one day he would become a doctor like her and help his community. And that was really his dream.”
At the time, however, it wasn’t Afam’s.
“Growing up I would hear about his dream but it didn’t really resonate,” he explains. “That was his goal, his plan.”
It wasn’t until he went to Harvard that things started to change.
“People were so focussed on being financially successful, or politically powerful or culturally relevant, which are all important goals. But for me I started to think about what I could do beyond that. So I started talking to my dad more and more about his dream and how I could get involved.”
While attending law school Afam began planning, then building the organisation.
But having graduated from Stanford, the time came for Afam to choose between accepting the numerous corporate law offers he’d received in Los Angeles or running the foundation.
“I knew that I couldn’t do both well and if I didn’t do the foundation really it would just die because there was no one else at the time who had the ability to see it through,” he explains.
And so, in 2007, GEANCO, an anagram of the first initial of the family members who helped create it, was officially born.
Afam describes the organisation’s first medical mission to Nigeria as being pivotal in helping make up his mind between law and the organisation.
“I wasn’t able to go because I was in law school at the time, but I saw the pictures and heard the stories of people getting new hips and knee replacements on the mission. And you just realise that person’s life was changed forever.
“The immediacy and depth of being able to make a direct lasting impact on people who have no one else really hit me,” he explains.
“My moto in life is ‘how can I be of service? How can I empower people?’ And though it has its uses, there’s not a whole lot of service or empowerment in corporate law.
“Even though financially and professionally GEANCO was a challenging choice, in terms of aligning with my values, being able to be useful and building something from scratch it was the right choice to make and I haven’t regretted it for a second.”
As well as carrying out regular medical missions GEANCO also runs a scholarship programme for girls. Started with David Oyelowo, the programme helps provide full tuition, medical care, and social and psychological support to young female victims of terrorism and gender inequality in Nigeria.
But it is perhaps the difference the organisation is making to maternal health that has seen one of the biggest impacts.
“My dad is a obstetrician/gynaecologist so maternal health has always been central and core to our family, and the more research you do you realise that it is core and central to an entire community,” Afam explains.
“Women dying in childbirth, women who can’t deliver safely, babies who can’t live past certain ages. That’s the foundational work we’re able to help with.”
GEANCO is making a real difference in this area having partnered with a company to provide advanced technology to screen and treat pregnant women for anaemia.
“Nigeria has the worst anaemia problem than anywhere else. More people die of anaemia or anaemia related causes in Nigeria than anywhere,” Afam explains.
The new technology enables faster detection of anaemia and those who are discovered to be severely anaemic in their last trimester receive funding for their maternal care.
“They can go to the doctor, get their vitamins, go to check ups and we take care of the bill,” Afam adds.
In addition the organisation has a safe delivery programme, which helps to reduce both infant and maternal mortality.
“Some of the reasons women die during pregnancy and childbirth in Nigeria is because there isn’t basic hygiene and medicine, so we provide kits which contain all the basics needed to deliver a baby,” Afam explains.
Of course, the spread of coronavirus has meant the organisation has had to react by providing PPE and training to birth attendants to help them deliver safe care to pregnant women.
“We took it for granted everyone knows how coronavirus is prevented, but there was a lack of knowledge there so we helped train and equip birth attendants so they could do their job better,” he explains.
COVID-19 has impacted the scholarship programme too with schools being forced to close. The organisation has reacted by providing tablets and loading them with hundreds of books so that the girls, and pupils from the partner schools can at least read and keep their minds stimulated.
Over the years the organisation has received support from many A-list celebrities including but not limited to Oprah Winfrey, Daniel Craig, Chris Rock, Charlize Theron, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch.
The latter provides Afam with one of many “pinch-yourself moments” after being invited on set of The Avengers with one of the organisation’s major donors.
“There we were having lunch with Benedict Cumberbach, Tom Holland, Robert Downy Junior and Chris Pratt,” he recalls. “Chris Pratt was telling a story about almost getting killed by a bear and Tom Holland was talking about mortgages.
“It was so surreal. It was definitely one of those moments where you shake your head.”
Another of those moments came last November during the last medical mission he attended.
“I spent over a year fundraising, begging for money, and begging people to come on the mission, dealing with visas and flights and logistical issues,” he explains. “But being in the hospital on the first morning and seeing everything come together was amazing.
“I remember feeling so grateful.”
That sentiment was echoed on the final day when the patients helped are treated to a special celebration.
“They’re all on crutches as they’ve had surgery, they’re all dressed up in their best outfits, there’s Nigerian music playing and everyone is high five-ing and they’re just so happy.
“That is the most touching moment for me,” he adds.
When he looks to the future, Afam says he hopes the organisation will be able to provide many more of those special moments.
He hopes to continue to provide supplies equipment through the coronavirus crisis, tablet programme. “We’ve done 300, but I’d like to do 3000, then 30,000,” he says.
“Even beyond coronavirus, getting more kids reading, engaged that’s something I’m really excited about.”
He also hopes to grow the scholarships programme and reach more pregnant women to help them to deliver safely, and further bring down the maternal mortality rate.
“We’re really excited about what we’re doing,” he adds. “Our goal is just to do more of it.”
Benedict Cumberbatch reads the first story, which can be listened to free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify from 6pm on June 18th.