By Elsie Obadiaru
Her name is Prof. Unoma Okoroafor, a member of the graduating Class of 1991. Unoma is a powerhouse, an exceptionally driven leader, an entrepreneur and to some she has made getting a college degree a reality. As we look at the FGGC Onitsha August Face for Fostering Unity, we want to know what she’s about and what experiences helped mold her to be the giver of hope to young African women.
Let us look back to an experience from her college years at the University of Lagos, which proved to be both a traumatic and defining one. After an outstanding first semester at college, a group of boys from her class, the Department of Electrical Engineering, driven by pride and envy, hatched an illicit plan to “teach her a lesson” by sexually violating her. They wanted to intimidate and send her a message loud and clear; “You are NOT better than us”. Fortunately, this plan was foiled and the boys’ intention never became a reality. She was warned by a close friend who once he heard of their intentions, sought her out to alert her and give her some well-intended advice; to keep a low profile. Her male-dominated class harbored what was inconceivable resentment toward her because she surpassed them at academics: her brand of “effico” made them look bad. This level of resentment would never have been directed at another male student.
Just a few years later, as a young intern working in Abuja for ABB, she was sent home on her very first day from the project site by her boss because the client, a traditionalist Mallam, refused to have a female engineer as part of the team and objected profusely to her boss, requesting she be removed immediately. Her boss acquiesced. Once again this unveiled discrimination filled her with profound sadness and left her wondering why Nigerian women were still being relegated to second-class citizen status.
In trying to understand Unoma, maybe we’re ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a foundational approach and give honor to whom honor is due. Her parents, Professor and Mrs. Ndili of Asaba, Delta State instilled in her and her siblings (3 sisters and 2 brothers) a strong religious foundation and a true love and passion for education. Papa Ndili, though orphaned at 10, was known for his rather simple but proficiently effective view of life. He hung on his college room door a sign that read “Succeed or Die”. Everyone knew him for those principles and he taught his children that education was the ticket to a better life. Mama Ndili, an educator herself, challenged her children to always reach for the stars. As a result the Ndili children were well known for their educational brilliance and left an indelible mark in all the educational institutions they attended.
In 1999, Unoma began a Masters and PhD program in Electrical Engineering at Rice University, Texas. It was during her program at Rice University she recognized the power of technology and how this could realign global focus towards African accomplishments. The sexual discrimination she experienced as a young woman helped her to realize that targeting Africa’s forgotten demographic, “The girl child”, and putting the power of technology into their hands, would ultimately make them our most valuable resource. She and her husband, who is also in academia, decided that the best way to give back to the community was to create a scholarship fund to aid girls preparing for college. So now the idea was born but the ‘how-to’ was yet to be determined.
In 2007, with nothing more than faith, a huge dose of optimism and a newly created website they put out a call for a $500 grant to be awarded to one young woman recently accepted to an African university. And this is how the WAAW STEM Foundation was born. They initially expected they would get a couple of responses, perhaps a few dozen if one wanted to be grandiose in expectations. But the applications kept on coming and eventually they received a staggering 400 applications! This was all the encouragement they needed and it assured them they were on the right path.
For almost 10 years the WAAW Foundation, which stands for Working to Advance Science and Technology for African Women, has been working to empower the African women. Their vision is “To empower African women to become impactful leaders, change agents and technology innovators through STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) engagements”. By providing world class training in science and technology and mentoring opportunities for the African woman, the WAAW foundation hopes to provide the essential exposure and tools for African women to become future leaders and role models. Currently the WAAW Foundation has a presence in 11 countries and 17 universities, with 120 university fellows or WAAW ambassadors as they are also known and over 20 scholars who have graduated through the program.
Unoma, a wife, mother of 3 and CEO of Herbal Papaya, a company that manufactures papaya based health and wellness products, is truly a remarkable woman. She is well integrated with everyone who is a part of the foundation, such as the ambassadors and scholars. When she speaks to her girls, her message is simple “It is okay to be who you are”. Her guiding bible verse is Prov 3:5; “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path”.
Federal Government Girls’ College Onitsha, Alumnae Association, USA/Canada Chapter, Inc., is honored to be associated with this phenomenal woman. In addition to the great values her parents instilled in her, Unoma believes that her alma mater played a part in paving the way for her future. Her success is a testament to the fact, that with the right tools, the current FGGC Onitsha students can also reach for the stars, and achieve their dreams!
Want to learn more about WAAW Foundation? Visit the WAAW Foundation website.