The aptly named Faith and her sister, Olufunke (“Kay”), seen here in their Mt. Airy home, are inseparable. (Photos by Rebeckah Leatherman)

by Reginald Hall Jr.
Imagine moving to a different country. A new culture and strange customs await your arrival. Since you’re a teenager, fitting in with classmates is vital to helping you navigate your fresh surroundings. But you know blending in is not an option. You’re used to standing out for who you are but also for what you are missing. In a way, you understand. A 19-year-old Nigerian girl strapped to a wheelchair is sure to attract attention in America.

Mt. Airy resident Faith Konigbagbe does not have to visualize that reality. Faith lives with a rare defect called Bilateral Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency.  The birth abnormality means that Faith doesn’t have any legs and consequently faces uncommon obstacles. Social stigma against disabled people in Nigeria is a major reason Faith and her nuclear family moved to Philadelphia in November of 2004.

“My maternal uncle had always wanted us to come to America because he believes that there is no future for me and my sisters in Nigeria,” Faith said. “There is no doubt that I have no future in Nigeria because disabled people are not included in the country’s scheme of things. A disabled person is expected to beg on the streets back home.”

After spending 13 years applying for a permanent United States resident visa, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Center in Lagos, Nigeria contacted the Konigbagbe family in 2004 to grant their long-standing request. “Moving to this blessed country, in my opinion, is one of the best decisions my family and I have ever made,” Faith exclaimed.

The abundance of educational opportunities in America highlights one of the reasons Faith appreciates her family’s decision to move. Faith attends Central High School, which consistently ranks as one of America’s top public schools. (She is in the 270th class ever to graduate from Central.) In December of 2010, Faith received a phone call from the Princeton University admissions office informing her that she had been accepted.

“Faith, we are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to Princeton University,” Faith said, recalling the phone call. “I didn’t hear the rest because I was screaming out of excitement. I called my friend (Vasomnoleak Ly, who has been accepted into Swarthmore College), and he told me of his good news, and both of us were on cloud nine for the rest of the evening. Then I ended our conversation with ‘Dude, I have to do calculus homework!’ and hung up. Back to reality!”

Relentlessly upbeat and positive, Faith has never let her physical handicap stand in her way.

Faith’s academic prowess has come from her mother, Abosede Konigbagbe, a kindergarten teacher at Brightside Academy in Philadelphia, and her father, Olaseni Konigbagbe, a taxi driver. Faith’s older sisters, Oludolapo, 26, and Olufunke, 24, both attend Temple University and major in accounting and biochemistry, respectively. The Konigbagbes clearly believe in the value of education and its potential to improve lives. Faith understands how fortunate she has been to grow-up with strong family support.

“I want my parents to live a luxurious life after they stop working,” Faith reveals. “Also, I want to pay my sisters back for taking care of me all these years. Those are my top sources of motivation. My number one dream in life is to contribute a wonderful discovery to the world of science and technology.”

Despite her youth, Faith’s mature life perspective is evident. She uses that outlook to help deal with physical limitations and the mental adjustment of living in a different culture. Faith recalls feeling brief moments of loneliness and enduring sporadic teasing from peers during middle school. Some emotional scars remain from that time period and Faith prefers to point her focus to the present.

“The adjustment has yet to end,” Faith explains. “Sure, I am already integrated into the American education system and lifestyle. Yet, there are certain things I do that are influenced by my Nigerian upbringing. For instance, I call living rooms ‘parlours’ and tank-tops ‘singlets.’  Also, I have to stop myself from saying Yorùbá and Pidgin-English words in conversations with Americans.”

Since immigrating to America, Faith has yet to travel back to Nigeria. She says that’s because she says she has never been homesick. Faith’s connection to Nigeria still remains strong, however. She can vividly recall experiencing childhood activities that shaped her personality.

“Back home in Nigeria, my sisters and I played games which consisted of us yelling capitals of countries or Bible verses at each other,” Faith recalls. “Whoever paused in the games was the loser. This may explain my love of reading and learning new facts about foreign places and ideas.”

Faith associates Nigeria with childhood innocence and simplicity. She recalls that her homework in primary school, which is the equivalent of elementary school in the U.S., as being very easy. School in Nigeria offered Faith a place to bond with her peers. She lived in a compound along with her childhood friends, many of whom were born in the same month and year. These memories imprinted a favorable impression of Nigeria on Faith. “Apart from my childhood friendships, my favorite aspects of life in Africa were the food and the intense religious services at my hometown church,” Faith said.

Many people would understand if Faith was bitter because of the challenges she has endured. However, her engaging spirit and sense of humor regarding her medical condition have set a foundation to achieve something great. In fact, Faith has found positives in her physical limitations.

“Central is a wonderful school that pays no attention to disability as long as one succeeds in academics and other aspects,” said Faith. “I have never experienced discrimination at Central. However, there have been some people who have walked into a wall or tripped over their feet because they considered me a curious spectacle. I find that quite amusing.

“Fortunately, I can empathize with other disabled people as a result of my condition. Also, one of my high school’s rules is that students are not allowed to run in the hallways. One loophole in the rule is that it does not say, ‘Do not wheel at a high speed.’ Therefore, I can zoom through the hallways while my schoolmates scream and jump out of my way. To all the victims of my road rage, I am plain sorry!”