Odafe Oweh grew up in a first-generation Nigerian household in New Jersey, USA. His father was born in Nigeria and his mother was born in London to Nigerian parents. Odafe and his brothers were raised with a global perspective, with their Nigerian heritage playing a significant role in their lifestyle and traditions. Odafe’s mother side of the family belonged to the Igbo tribe and his father’s side belonged to the Urhobo tribe. According to Nigerian culture, Odafe and his brothers are recognized as Urhobo-men, as in Nigerian culture, tribal affiliation is tied to the father’s side of the family.
Early Years and Upbringing
Growing up in New Jersey, Odafe had a wonderful, though sometimes tough childhood, as the Oweh boys were raised in African tradition – with discipline, respect for elders, and cultural tradition at the forefront. This was challenging at times since they grew up in a largely Caucasian community. Odafe’s parents did very well in life. His father, Henry, a leading businessman, and mother, Tania, an attorney, both achieved the proverbial ‘American Dream,’ ensuring that their children had the added advantages available to those living in a more affluent neighborhood. Yet, in search of a feeling of ‘belonging,’ Odafe found his way to a less-advantaged neighboring community to play sports, where he mingled with other kids who looked like him and shared a similar sense of culture. New Jersey is a melting pot of cultures – probably one of the most diverse states in the USA – and Odafe was fortunate to have access to the benefits of a more privileged community, while still be a part of the black community where he enjoyed the camaraderie of similarity. The advantages that came with having access to the benefits offered by both communities was not lost on him. From an early age, he recognized that he was fortunate, and many of his friends on the basketball court lacked access to the same quality education and opportunities. From a young age, Odafe knew he wanted to find some way to bridge this gap.
In his Nigerian household, Odafe’s identity was personified by his name, while in his school and sports environment ‘Jayson’ was creating a name for himself. Odafe didn’t see this as an issue as, growing up, it was just the way things were. His family shaped his morals and gave him and his brothers a strong set of ethics; however, it was tough for him going to school, having to tell the other kids that his name was Odafe – and not just Odafe, but Odafe Oweh. He heard so many variations of the pronunciation of his seemingly difficult African names. At an impressionable age as a young man, it was difficult being the only big, black kid in an environment and community where other people didn’t look like him. Eventually, he started to use his middle name Jayson instead of Odafe, so that the other kids could pronounce it. This made it easier for him to assimilate. But because of his size, his height and looks, even with a more American-sounding name he still stood out from the other kids at school. In addition, during Odafe’s childhood, the Oweh’s moved a lot, which meant many new communities, new schools, new friends – and inevitably, having to find ways to fit in. And so, he frequently had to learn how to be a part of a new ‘team,’ eventually, however, this worked in his favor giving him an advantage as an athlete playing a team sport.
Coming into His Own
Over the years, Odafe learned how to be comfortable in his skin and to have pride in being different, understanding that what makes you different is what makes you who you are. When he was selected in the NFL draft, he grabbed the opportune moment to proudly change his name back to Odafe. “If people can’t pronounce my name, I guess they’ll just have to learn,” Odafe emphatically stated.
When it comes to outstanding players on the American football field, Odafe Oweh is one of the best. As an outside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, Odafe was selected in the first round of the 2021 National Football League (NFL) Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. Selection in the first round is reserved for the best of the best, the top college players in the country, and Odafe knew that this was his chance to prove himself as an outstanding player on the field, at the same time he realized that he had to take this opportunity to be an outstanding player in social impact off the field.
Embracing both his visibility and responsibility as a role model for youth, Odafe decided to commit himself to shaping the future for underserved populations in the United States and Africa by helping them gain access to education, critical life services, and opportunity. Odafe Oweh is the standard-bearer for an empowered, united, and equitable future, where opportunity is accessible to everyone, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomics, ethnicity, or geographic local. Odafe is the voice a generation who will be responsible for healing our fractured planet – environmentally, socially, and economically.
Accepting and Celebrating Cultural Heritage
Growing up, Odafe had to learn how to bridge both sides of his life – the African heritage which was so important to his family tradition, and his life in mainstream American society. Proud to be a Nigerian-America, Odafe is thankful that for his upbringing at the hands of his two amazing parents and acknowledges that they shaped the man that he is today. Odafe works extremely hard to keep his culture and Nigerian heritage as a central pillar of his life. He wants to be a man who can say – I have a culture, I have roots, and I know where I am from; and he wants all young people, no matter what their culture is, to feel comfortable in their skin.
Odafe’s parents always held the Oweh boys to a high standard because they wanted them to have opportunities that would lead them to success – in the classroom, in sports, and in life. But he early on that a lot of other people around the world, and particularly in Africa, don’t have access to the opportunities that he was blessed to have. So, while he acknowledges that he has a natural aptitude for sports and is fortunate to play football in the NFL, he truly believes that his life’s calling is to be a force for good in people’s lives, giving back to those less fortunate than himself. “This is what touches my heart and motivates me. Make yourself better, make your family better, and make your community better, are values instilled in me by my parents,” notes Odafe.
Identifying a Purpose
As a professional athlete, Odafe has the platform to make impact and potentially, to change lives. He believes that it is his purpose to empower individuals who live without much of which we take for granted and his non-profit foundation, the Dafe Oweh Family Fund for Africa (DOFFA) will serve to help, propel, and ignite a generation of young students, athletes, and entrepreneurs. Odafe is emphatic in his belief that there is so much potential in people around the world that is being wasted because these people lack access to knowledge, resources, and tools which can help them find their purpose and pathway. Many young people go to school – if they can afford to go to school – without books or a pencil and paper to write on. They have ingenuity that is born out of necessity, but don’t know how to turn this into an opportunity to become an entrepreneur. They lack the access to start-up capital to get their businesses off the ground. Young people everywhere need guidance and role models to help them make good decisions. They need people to look up to who can inspire them and give them courage and confidence. Through DOFFA, Odafe wants to be the person that is this voice of hope and opportunity for young people in the USA, in Africa, and across the globe.
“I want to look back on my life and be able to say that I made a difference and changed lives, and DOFFA will be my means to that end. DOFFA will award scholarships, give young people the chance to pitch business ideas for seed capital, hold hackathons that will allow us to solve critical world problems in line with the SDGs. Partnering with The Bridge Eco-Village, we will build eco-villages where people can work, eat, live, learn, and play in marginalized neighborhoods here in the USA, in Nigeria, and across Africa. I believe that if we can change a little, we can change a lot, but our impact is much stronger if we do it together,” states Odafe.
With a strong foundation of faith, integrity, and a keen sense of humanity, Odafe is committed to being an example for other young people, encouraging everyone to come together to be the solution. “Be everything that God wants you to be and reach your potential using your God-given talents. At the end of the day, we must answer to God, and we want to be able to say that we tapped into our full potential instead of wasting it. Remember that humility, empathy, and understanding can change lives,” says Odafe. And through DOFFA, this ethical and altruistic young leader will do just that, change lives while impacting the vision, opportunity, and hope of an entire generation.
- The article was originally published as Cover Story in Career Ahead April 2022 issue.
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