When Giftie Umo came to Delaware from Nigeria in 2018 on an UrbanPromise scholarship, the organization she founded, Girls Leading Africa (GLA), was in what she now considers its earliest stages — a social media handle she “hid behind.”
“I wasn’t ready to talk about inequalities I noticed openly until I had sessions with different people who kept telling me, ‘find your voice,'” said the winner of last month’s Remarkable Ideas pitch competition hosted by Great Dames. “Find your voice somehow, speak about your experiences. That became an official starting point.”
Umo’s childhood in the city of Calabar in southern Nigeria was shaped by her parents, a pastor and a midwife, who raised her to believe she could do anything she wanted.
“My father would not spare my brother and I learning. I grew up with, ‘You can always do anything, nothing can hold you back,'” she said. “I always say my father was my greatest cheerleader, because with him I could do anything.”
When her father died, things changed.
“For me it was not just losing a parent, it was losing hope,” she said. “Because my dad embodied everything — hope, perseverance, support, just what any child would need. From a child who was pampered to a child who had to struggle and identify what life means, it was difficult. But one thing myself and my brother always remembered is the fact that dad always reminded us that you could do anything.”
Hher mother was able to work and support Umo and her brother after her father’s death, something Umo would learn was not the case for many mothers in Nigeria.
After she graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Umo was sent on a national service program hosted by the Nigerian government, where graduates serve the country in remote communities.
“I felt like my life had ended,” she said. “I had gone through experiences with losing my father, [and now] why send me to a rural community? What am I supposed to do here? I never knew that it was going to expose me more to the inequalities that girls, especially girls in rural communities, face.”
She was most struck by seeing rural teenage mothers with no education or career opportunities. As someone whose family home was always open to people who needed support, it was ingrained in her to try and help.
“Growing up shaped my experience, including going into that community as a young college graduate and identifying the gaps that girls, especially girls who have babies, had to face,” she said. “I saw no reason why that should define anybody’s life. If the boy who got her pregnant could go back to school, why would she not be in school? Why should having a child stop her from achieving her dreams?”
When she came to Delaware, she shifted most of her focus on her studies, but continued to reach out to the communities back in Nigeria.
She made a pitch to UrbanPromise International for GLA, which got it approved to be an affiliate org, as well as seed capital matching up to $10,000.
“When COVID struck, I was putting plans together for when I went back home, and the inequalities just kept amplifying,” she said. “Increased cases of rape and murder; teenage pregnancy was on the rise. Meanwhile, I’m [locked down] here, and I saw that people were looking for opportunities for students to continue their education online. Buying Chromebooks, asking how to provide internet to households. I reached out to one of my friends [in Nigeria] and said, ‘We definitely have to do something. Let’s not wait for me anymore.'”
The past few weeks, we have been meeting with some amazing girls in Akpap Okoyong and Ikoneto communities in Odukpani Local Government Area.
These girls can do better if they have equal access to supports and programs like their counterparts in urban areas. pic.twitter.com/M0yBA0aUme
— Girls Leading Africa (@GirlsLeading) September 20, 2020
Through local religious leaders, they identified 50 young mothers in the community and provided them with necessities like food and diapers.
“The reaction from most of them was, ‘This is just amazing,'” she said. “For us … this was small. For them, it meant so much. So we started having conversations with them about what they were doing. ‘What is the man who got you pregnant doing?’ Most of them said ‘I’m not doing anything’ or ‘The man is not doing anything.'”
As soon as Nigeria started to opened up from its own lockdown, Umo’s team in Nigeria started moving into the community fully, as she ran things remotely from Delaware.
“Currently, we have 15 girls in the program who will be studying at vocational school very soon.”
The goal, Umo said, is not just to train young women. She hopes that the program gives them both financial independence and a voice — and that by finding their voices, it will create a ripple effect in the community, where girls inspire one another, and having a child no longer means an end to a young woman being able to achieve her goals.
When it came to pitching virtually for the Remarkable Ideas pitch competition, she was nervous.
“It was my first time doing a virtual pitch,” she said. Her mentor, Peggy Smith, encouraged her to take the chance. “I sent in my app after midnight, and I kept asking myself, ‘Is this something you want to do?'”
Umo wound up winning the competition, and the $1,000 prize. With it, she said, GLA will be able to purchase two sewing machines and three desktop computers — and “it will allow us to have more girls in the program.”
“My mom became a story, and evidence that if a woman has an employable trait, she can care for her children and her children can see her as a role model,” she said. The goal for me is that every young mother is able to look her baby in the eye and say, ‘You’re part of my story, but this is not the end of my dreams or my career. I’m going to find my feet and I’m going to run with it.'”