“If I decide to do something, I’m all in. And once I’m in, it’s less about quantity and acceleration, it’s more about quality and intention,” says actor David Oyelowo during a recent Zoom video chat, talking about his work with the GEANCO Foundation and its program to help girls in Nigeria get everything from critical health care and education to mental health support and leadership skills.
The actor has been working with GEANCO since 2014 and two years later, created the David Oyelowo Leadership Scholarship for Girls. Every year, a new class of young women receives full tuition, housing, health care and social support with five partner schools. About half of scholarship recipients attend southeast Nigeria’s Brightland Academy, which was founded by Obiajulu Ejiofor, the mother of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.
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Back in 2016, the first year, three girls received scholarships. This year, the cohort numbers 45 girls receiving support thanks to GEANCO and Oyelowo. These young women have come from situations, says the actor, “where they’ve had to endure sexual violence, physical violence, marginalization, poverty, intense misogyny and sexism, coming out of all sorts of things.” The actor was moved to action after the 2014’s Chibok schoolgirl kidnapping, in which 276 teenage students were taken captive by the terrorist group Boko Haram. “There were girls in our first intake who … had seen family members, their parents, murdered in front of them, burnt to death in front of them,” recalls Oyelowo.
Because of circumstances like that, GEANCO focuses on mental health as a key pillar of its scholarship program. “It’s not enough to just educate those girls. It’s a holistic 360-degree, 24/7 kind of all-encompassing care they need,” says Oyelowo, who credits Oprah Winfrey as an inspiration for his work. “One of the things Oprah talked to me about extensively is the mental health of these girls.”
Indeed, it was Winfrey who was the seed funder of Oyelowo’s efforts; in 2015, she donated $100,000 in Oyelowo’s honor to support the Anglican Girls’ Grammar School, a partner school located in Abuja, Nigeria. “It coincided with a time where I had just been in South Africa and I had visited Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls there. And I was just blown away by the facilities, by those girls, by the ethos that had built that place. And so the combination of being inspired by that [and] seeing these girls being marginalized and terrorized … is how we came about with the leadership scholarship,” says Oyelowo.
Now Oyelowo and GEANCO have partnered with two equally prominent philanthropists, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, to further help girls in Nigeria. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s The Archewell Foundation recently donated Béis backpacks filled with school supplies and menstrual products to be distributed to young women. “AWF’s support will also provide menstrual health education for 2,500 girls in the region GEANCO serves, supporting the health and well-being of girls pursuing their education,” added The Archewell Fondation in a statement.
Afam Onyema, the CEO of GEANCO (founded by the Onyema family in 2005), says that he wanted to reach out to the Duke and Duchess after Markle revealed her Nigerian heritage last year. “It was interesting when Meghan on her podcast last year announced that she was 43 percent Nigerian by DNA, the whole 23andMe thing,” says Onyema, who then asked Oyelowo if he could reach out to Markle. “One thing I’m not shy about is asking. I’ll ask those who are close to us, whether it be Hollywood executives or David or Chiwetel because I realize I’m not asking for myself, I’m asking for these girls. I’m asking for people who are suffering in Nigeria.”
Onyema — who joined with The Archewell Foundation to fill the backpacks — underlines why the menstrual products are so needed. “Every month girls are missing school because of their menstrual cycle,” he says, adding that many girls are unaware of what is happening to their bodies at puberty. “Every month my team in Nigeria would tell me that our girls would call them and say, ‘I think I’m dying. I’m bleeding. I can’t stop the bleeding.’ And it’s like, ‘No one’s told you what’s happening?'”
GEANCO — whose Hollywood supporters have also included Benedict Cumberbatch, Charlize Theron, Angelina Jolie, Chris Rock, Andrew Garfield, Jimmy Kimmel and Daniel Craig — also builds solar-powered maternal and family clinics in Nigeria that helps women safely deliver healthy babies. Last November, GEANCO raised money to build a library at Brightland Academy.
Oyelowo, who was born in England to Nigerian parents, tells The Hollywood Reporter he’s proud of the steady growth of the number of girls in the scholarship fund and of the sustained commitment of GEANCO.
At the time of the Chibok kidnapping, “it was very clear to me that as tends to be the case, that story would drop out of the news,” he recalls, adding how important it was to him that we “let these girls know that their education, their well-being, their very presence … in the Nigerian community was something that was valued certainly by me and by others.”
Girls in the program receive scholarships for up to six years and are selected for their potential to become leaders in their communities. “We’ve seen girls who have now gone through the program and are coming back and are helping teach the new girls who are coming in,” says Oyelowo. “That is them not only being a leader, but it’s paying it forward.”
The pair tell THR they hope to scale the program through corporate partnerships. “The real ambition is thousands of scholarships,” says Oyelowo. Adds Onyema, “Parents will say, ‘My daughter’s a David Oyelowo scholar.’ It’s become a source of pride.”
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