Freeman Osonuga: After braving Ebola, a space odyssey beckons

By Olushola Ricketts

Everyone covets the attention that acts of chivalry bring. But few ever takes the courageous steps that propel one to such heights. Freeman Osonuga is one few exception. The 30-year-old doctor travelled to Sierra Leone as a volunteer when the Ebola epidemic was at its peak. That selfless action has earned him global renown and might indeed make him the first Nigerian and black African in space. The graduate of Olabisi Onabanjo University tells OLUSHOLA RICKETTS his experience in Sierra Leone and his dream to make history.

How would you describe yourself?

I am a humanitarian and a self-motivated young person. I believe that the youth are the agents of change and we can contribute to national development in a very significant way without necessarily waiting for the government. I am motivated to do humanitarian and charitable works by the fact that I see people suffering daily.

I have passion for helping people who are in extreme poverty, orphans and people living with disabilities. We have a lot of that in the society and I find it hard to close my eyes without doing anything. I am a 2014 TIME Person of the Year and one of the 2013 Ten Outstanding Young Persons in Nigeria.


You volunteered to help sick people at the height of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. Why did you embark on such a risky mission?

When the Ebola virus broke out in West Africa, volunteers were coming from European countries and America to help. Later, the African Union decided to raise help for the affected countries in Africa. It was like a sort of African solidarity. So, I said it was still in line with my humanitarian worldview. I am interested in saving and ameliorating human suffering and it was an opportunity to use my training as a medical doctor to save lives. Though I was afraid, most of the fears we have cannot be substantiated. The fears are not real because I actually spoke with some of my friends who worked in the treatment centres in Lagos and Port Harcourt and none of them actually contacted Ebola. It was achievable if one abides strictly by its infection and prevention control. Speaking to my friends gave me the faith and confidence that it was possible. I must admit that it was still a high risk environment because anything could go wrong. It was a six-month medical humanitarian mission to Sierra Leone and I became a recipient of Meritorious Service Award from President Bai Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone.


What was the experience like in Sierra Leone?

I don’t have enough words to describe the experience, but it was a dangerous mission and it was honorable too. It involved putting your life on the line to save the rest of world. One way you are happy that you are doing something positive, while in another way it is risky and there is still the element of fear. So, it is a mixed-feeling.


How did your family and loved ones react to this?

My family has always been supportive to any course I decide to pursue. You know the decision to treat Ebola’s patients wasn’t a popular decision and something you proudly tell people. Thank God I had gone and I am back safety, so we can talk about it. I didn’t even tell my friends that I was going since it wasn’t a decision I could be bragging about. I told my family, but just like any other family they had concerns. I had to speak with them and took time to reassure them that I would be fine. When I was there, I made sure I called my mother every two to three-day. She was hearing my voice; she saw that I was fine and that gave her a peace of mind.


How many Nigerians volunteered for this cause?

We were about 200 people that volunteered in Nigeria. The federal government planned to organise an official reception for us on our arrival, but some of the volunteers are still there. They are expected to come back next month. Hopefully, when they are back there would be an official reception. I travelled on December 5 (last year) and came back on May 23. They had their last patient recently and were counting down to their free day before they got another case.


You are on the verge of becoming the first Nigerian to travel to space. Could you tell us how the quest began?

I am a One Young World Ambassador, a pre-eminent global forum for the brightest young people all over the world. We normally have an annual summit. I became an ambassador after attending the 2013 summit held in Johannesburg, South Africa. Last year, the edition was held in Dublin and they launched a programme to send one young undiscovered global icon of the future to space. It would launch the person to global spotlight and get the person to continue to make impact. The name is Kruger Cowne’s Rising Star Programme.


How many people made the shortlist?

We have 30 people shortlisted and I am the only person from Nigeria. There are three other Africans; two from South Africa and one from Sudan. Applications were received from over 75 countries.


What criteria were considered in selecting the 30 people?

I wasn’t opened to that, but the lesson was quite detailed and it has about 10 essays, consisting the impact the person has made, personal objectives, among others. So, it was a very comprehensive application process; we did everything online. I feel very honoured, privileged and good to be shortlisted. If you look at the profile of every other people, there are also top people from around the world.


Do you think you have what it takes?

I am very optimistic, I believe so actually. From the 30 semi-finalists announced on August 4, three finalists would be announced officially next month, October 2 precisely. These three people would go back to the summit in November in Bangkok, Thailand. We would have 15 minutes to give a presentation in front of an audience of thousands of delegates after which a constituted panel of esteemed global business and social icons would deliberate on stage their chosen Rising Star. The members of the panel include Sir Bob Geldof, Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne, David Jones, Fatima Bhutto and acclaimed astronaut Ron Garan. The trip to space is 2016 so there is still a lot of training and other things. I plan to use my adventure to initiate a Global Climate Care Advocacy Programme. The champion of the programme would travel by XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx Spacecraft and experience the world from a completely new perspective.


Don’t you think the idea of seeking support could be counter-productive?

What they want us to do is to draw support from our different countries for the programme. They want to evaluate the kind of support each candidate could pull from the social media, media, corporate organisations and government. So, the comprehensive review of the person’s support, profile and intended project would determine the decision of the judges. The support we are talking about could be in form of media appearances, reports and endorsement from different organisations saying that they are proud to be associated with the person. At the individual’s level, people go to my official page and view my video. They also go ahead to share my profile via Facebook, Twitter, among others.


Have you received any support from the government?

We are in talks with the government and very soon we would get a substantial official statement or letter from them, but it is taking time. Our government is difficult to see and I hope things are faster. I have seen the secretary to my state government, Ogun State, and I am sure they are working on a letter for me. A simple letter of support from the Presidency and the state government would do a whole lot of help.


How would you react in the event you’re not the candidate?

I cannot accommodate that picture of failing to get there. I believe we are on the verge of making history and it is not a mistake I have gone this far. To be honest with you, I have received overwhelming support locally and internationally. I don’t think there is something needed that I haven’t gotten. Very soon, I would be able to say I have the government’s support too. No Nigerian has travelled out of this panel earth. So, when I travel out of the panel and get back, I would be the first Nigerian and black African to do so. Right now, that is the only thing my brain can accommodate. This means making the nation and continent proud and it would inspire other young people that if they can believe they can achieve. When I was little I was told that we can reach for the stars, so this is like reaching for the stars. I came from a very poor background, so it is inspiring for one like me to even get this far. If inspiring others is the only thing this programme achieves, I am fulfilled.


How did you surmount challenges in tough times?

Being poor is not an excuse to engage in anything bad. There is no short cut to success because it is an open invitation to failure. Young people like me should dream big and we should live in the reality of our dreams. If we put in a lot of dedication to whatever we are doing, the sky is the starting point.


Are you an only child?

I am the last of my parent, I have five elder ones. We have three boys and three girls. My father died some years ago and my mother struggled to send us to school. I grew up in Ogun State and I attended public schools all my life. The name of my secondary school was Adeola Odutola College in Ijebu Ode and I studied medicine and surgery at the Olabisi Onabanjo University. I was inducted last year.


What would you say about the not-so flattering image of your university?

Your background doesn’t have to keep your back to the ground. The school is a lot better now than it used to be and the essence of education is not just to get a certificate. Education ought to inspire us to make changes, so we go to school for that inspiration. I am a product of OOU and I am proudly OOU because all I am now I started it from the school. If you insist that my school is a failed system or a failure, then look at me.


You also introduced a non-governmental organisation as an undergraduate. How did you fund projects?

Most of the projects carried out then were through personal finance. The name is Heal the World Foundation Nigeria and the objective is to care for children with disabilities, orphans and the less-privileged. We’ve done an extensive work and we’ve catered for about five hundred children.


What are your most recent projects?

I travelled last year and came back this year, so I have been engaged one way or the other. We’ve not been able to embark on any major project this year. We do a lot of s1270916advocacy on poverty alleviation too through the social media, among others.


What are your plans in the near future?

I wish to dedicate more of my time and profession to alleviating human suffering. That is my overall objective in life. Though there are a lot of things to say about life, I feel I am a very young person and I don’t have the right to talk about life. I just believe that as young people we don’t have to be complaining about everything. It is okay to criticise the government, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we are doing. We should also play active roles in nation building and get involved in the political process because we cannot just stay back and expect things to work.


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