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October 9, 2009 3:38 PM

A Dream for His Father

Posted by Francesca Heintz

AfamGodwinHospital


Afam Onyema went to Stanford Law School intending to go the Big Law route. He summered at Kirkland & Ellis and got an offer from the firm. But by the time he entered his third year in 2006, Onyema's plans had changed. He turned down the K&E offer and one from Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. Instead, he decided to open a hospital in Nigeria.

In doing so, he was fulfilling his father's dream. Onyema's parents had moved from Nigeria to Chicago in 1974 so that his father, an obstetrician and gynecologist, could complete his residency at Cook County Hospital. His mother, a nurse, also finished her training in the United States.

"The plan was to come to the States, learn as much as they could about modern medicine and then go back to Nigeria and use that knowledge to build a hospital in their community," says Onyema, 30 (pictured above left, with his father in Nigeria). The couple ended up staying in Chicago so their children could be educated in the U.S., but Onyema and his three siblings grew up hearing about the unrealized plans for a world-class hospital in Nigeria.

"Growing up, honestly, I didn't care that much," Onyema says of his parents' idea. "It seemed so distant and I had my own dreams of making money and being a success professionally."

But after college, Onyema became inspired by the greater attention being paid to Africa in the press. He began reading up about the infant mortality, malaria, and HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaging his parents' homeland. "I looked at the stats and realized those were my cousins, aunts, and uncles suffering, not just some nameless, faceless people on a television screen," he says.

In 2005 Onyema's family founded The GEANCO Foundation. (The name comes from the first-name initial of each member of the family.) GEANCO's mission is to develop and manage medical, educational, and athletic facilities in Nigeria, focusing on a hospital as the first step. Onyema, then in law school, found himself growing more excited about the foundation than going to class. He also knew that if he didn't take on the project full time, it would probably never happen, given the demands of his father's medical practice.

Since passing the bar in summer 2007, Onyema has been the only full-time employee of GEANCO. Working out of office space in Mayer Brown's Los Angeles office, he spends most of his time fund-raising and holding events to solicit new donors and raise awareness about GEANCO's mission. (Mayer Brown provides pro bono legal counsel to GEANCO.)

Currently GEANCO is raising money for the preconstruction phase and hammering out financial projections, as well as working through Nigerian regulations. This first phase will cost $500,000, much of which comes from individual donors. (The foundation also hopes to get funding from the U.S. government, Onyema says.) The aim is to break ground for the hospital--to be named the Augustine Memorial Hospital, after Onyema's grandfather--by early 2011. The second phase, which will involve establishing an outpatient center, an HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases clinic, and a women's and children's center, will cost $5-7 million. Building a full hospital will require another $20-25 million dollars.

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe recently agreed to become the foundation's honorary chairman. "He's a hero of mine and a hero to almost every Nigerian alive," says Onyema of Achebe, whose 1958 masterpiece Things Fall Apart has been translated into 45 languages. Onyema adds that Achebe, who lives in the U.S., agreed to sign on with GEANCO because he wants to move back to Nigeria but can't because of the lack of quality health care.

"I wasn't exactly surprised that [Afam] didn't go into law, though I did think it was an unusual thing to do at the outset of his career," says Stanford Law dean Larry Kramer, who is a personal donor and provides space at the school for GEANCO events. "But the project is incredibly inspirational and I like to think that Stanford is full of people that don't follow conventional paths."

Onyema says he sometimes envies law school friends who are now working in firms, with a settled infrastructure around them and instant feedback on whether they're doing a good job. But he doesn't plan to return to law. "This is my life," he says. "I love it."

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