By Amanda Sandlin
Freshman Obiaku Ohiaeri is not an average 17-year-old girl. Even though she is thousands of miles away from her home in Nigeria, she hasn’t forgotten where she comes from. She defies stereotypes and dares to be bold, all for the people of her homeland.
Ohiaeri has been collecting plastic bags and used bicycles in hopes of creating an environmentally friendly wheelchair, which she hopes will be one of many. These wheelchairs will help out the polio-stricken people of Africa.
“As a 17-year-old girl in Nigeria, I’m trying to prove that this can be done,” said Ohiaeri, a biochemistry major. “You don’t have to be a man and you don’t have to be old. You can do whatever you want because this is our generation’s time.”
This is not just about the wheelchairs for Ohiaeri. She hopes that the creation of these eco-friendly wheelchairs will lead into the establishment of “OUR Foundation.”
“This stands for Optimal Use of our Resources and the name of this project would be ‘No Footprints,’ firstly, because these people can’t walk, and secondly, because this project will leave no carbon footprints,” Ohiaeri said.
She said her ultimate inspiration for this project is the people of Africa. She hopes that they can one day have the same opportunities as people with disabilities in America.
“They can just push a button to open doors and also have automatic wheelchairs,” Ohiaeri said. “People at home don’t even have manual wheelchairs. The U.S. is very friendly to people with disabilities, which is a good thing.”
Not only is she attempting to do good for the people of the world, but she also aims to help the world itself. Using these recycled materials would make wheelchairs more affordable for people in Third World countries, she said.
Ohiaeri attended several guest speaker events on campus and became inspired. Tom Szaky, cofounder and CEO of TerraCycle Inc., helped her develop the idea of using plastic bags. She said that prior to the lecture she had been researching reusing tires, so she combined these two ideas.
“I thought, OK,” Ohiaeri said. “I could use these as parts to the wheelchair. I need to think about something else I could use that would be cleaning up the environment as well as be the body of my wheelchair: bicycles.”
She said she plans to inquire with the police department about how to obtain abandoned bicycles for her project.
“And so, I decided that I would put all three together and make a wheelchair out of them,” Ohiaeri said.
Her future plans are to become a pediatrician, move back to Nigeria and begin helping the youth of the country.
She said that in Nigeria, approximately 70 percent of the people live on only $1 a day. Ohiaeri wants this project to be an answer to the prayers of people with disabilities.
“I’m spending about $40,000 dollars a year to go to school here,” Ohiaeri said. “That’s ridiculous in Nigeria. If my parents are spending that much money on me, I have to, some way, show them that the money wasn’t just spent for my sake.”
In the end, it all comes back to the people of Africa with disabilities who strike a chord in Ohiaeri’s heart. The only thing she wants to accomplish from this entire project is the betterment of their lives.
“They are frowned at and not given equal opportunities as those [who] are able-bodied,” Ohiaeri said.
Ohiaeri wants her parents to see her ambition as well. To her, college is not just the next step; it is the only way she can make a difference.
“I’m one of their means to helping other people,” she said.
The human rights activist said singer John Legend has played a large part in her motivation to help improve the lives of others in need.
“What really struck me were the lyrics, ‘The future started yesterday and we’re already late,’ because it made me realize that we need to start acting now,” Ohiaeri said. “In a way it’s like a relay. The baton has been handed off to our generation, so we can start doing our part now.”