Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr is a writer, speaker, storyteller, and movement builder who is impacting global narrative based on her belief and championship of the power of people to change the world. Here, she talks about her childhood, recently released book on her mother and sundry issues. Excerpts;
Tell us about your childhood experiences and impact
I grew up as one of six children in a catholic family in what I considered, and was then, a small town of Enugu. Growing up there was an emphasis on academic excellence and the first hurdle was to get into Queen’s College all the way in Lagos. The big city! This was the dream. Over the years, new dreams have been seeded but the principle remains — have a plan and work towards it through hard work, discipline and dedication, always knowing to lean on the counsel of the Lord.
15 years of professional experience in community building, Personal development and strategy consulting, what did you learn?
I lived and worked across France, Cameroon, Germany, China, Italy, the states, Nigeria and Switzerland. In each of these places, I learnt that we are all trying to find meaning, and that the most fulfilled are those who are not sacrificing their values, or truths for that which brings them closer to honouring their internal compass that shows the way.
Share with us your passion for writing and storytelling
I believe this is a part of me. Words come easily, always have. So much so that everyone dreamed for me to be a lawyer, because back then, that was the path for someone who leaned on words aka talked a lot.
In the last decade of my life, I have stayed true to a practice called ‘morning pages’ which invites one to write ( 3 pages shorthand) first thing in the morning, before any and all distractions of the day. The idea is that being freshly awake, your subconscious is still accessible and there is space for clarity. I believe that this practice and the many hours of dialoguing with my inner voice has allowed me to hear, and trust my truest voice, which allows in turn for me to write as authentically as possible from this place of deep listening, trust and flow.
How are you impacting global narrative based on your belief and championship of the power of people to change the world?
I believe that my book, ‘I Am Because We Are’ which tells the story of one of these people, Prof. Dora Akunyili is one example. Others include running seminars, talks, workshops and one-on-one sessions with thousands of people, mostly women, to trust their own power to change the world.
What is SHE ROARs about?
She ROARS has a mission to support women to connect to their truth and purpose. I like to trust that the impact is to be found in ways that by existing, we have touched real lives. I had the inspiration to create this workshop, seminar, coaching space when Graça Machel shared these words with me “No profound transformation can take place unless it involves precisely those who have been oppressed massively to be engaged, because they have to liberate themselves to liberate others.” We live in an era of immense potential for change, and now more than ever we need the power of our women.
Share your experience on the passing-on of your mum
Death is painful in most if not all circumstances. Her death broke not just my heart, but so many hundreds and thousands others. This was what I clung to, the truth of a life well lived. I wished for her what she wanted more than anything, to have more time, and it pained us all that she didn’t. It still does. ‘I Are Because We Are’ was my last tribute to her.
Did you fully grasp the impact of who she was when alive?
It was hard to miss the impact she was having on so many and so much. Writing the book, I got to interview dozens of people, and it was like getting to know my mother from so many angles, each illuminating parts of her I hadn’t been privy to. The love people have for her and even more so the many stories and anecdotes they had on how she touched/influenced their lives personally was incredibly humbling. And then to also hear similar admiration for her father, mother, grandmother who raised her in the village, I started to understand that we are truly a testament to those from whom we come.
How has her death changed life for you?
I have a little girl who is extraordinary, and every day, I wish she could have met her grandparents.
It catches me at odd moments, when all you want is to have your mother, or share with her, and then I remember, always with great sadness, that she is no longer on this world. But I trust that she is with me, and with us always.
How are your siblings holding forth?
Our strength is in the Lord, and in knowing that our parents would have been proud of how we are coming into ourselves, and how we take care of each other and stay true to the values they taught us.
Daddy died after, how have you coped with the loss of two parents?
One day at a time. It helps to have a 10 month old that keeps me insanely occupied. I know that I am still to fully process the passing of my father, maybe I never will.
What is it that people mustn’t do or say to grieving families?
Hmmm… having now had two very public losses, and the outpouring of love, I’d start by expressing me and my family’s gratitude. There is little people can really say is the truth, I did appreciate the various attempts, but nothing can bring them back. This is to say, I understood people meant well even when they fumbled or said things that didn’t sit well, in that moment, it’s easy to dissociate and allow anger to take over, but I had already learned that this was but a way of avoiding truly grieving. So I tended to lean on forgiving things like, ‘you can’t imagine how sad I am. I am surely even sadder than you’.
What stories of her impact that some people have shared with you, would you want to share?
It’s all in the book, but one thing that comes to mind is her origin story. How when she was a young wife and new to my father’s village of Agulu, she galvanised the women’s group to raise money for a clinic, soliciting funds from various stakeholders, men and women in the village and ensuring every last kobo was used towards the successful completion of said clinic.
This singular act got the attention of the entire village and the recommendation that she represent them at the Local Government. And this, unknown to her, would be the beginning of the journey that ultimately led her to NAFDAC and to becoming the Dora we all got to meet.
Were you under any pressure to impact lives as intensely as your mother did?
No, never a pressure. I certainly am my mother’s daughter and with this, I trust that I carry the invitation, as we all do, to live a life of purpose. Mine is to reach people with the reminder of the power they carry within.
What lesson did the death of your parents teach you?
Life is a gift, as are those that we get to walk it with.
Tell us about the book and where it can be found
The book is the full story of my mother, Prof. Dora Akunyili. Told in her voice, from a very personal lens, this is the story of what shaped her to the woman she was. Inspired by the African philosophy of Ubuntu — the importance of community over the individual, the book gives an in-depth view of how Dora Akunyili took on fraudulent drug manufacturers whose products killed millions, including her sister. It explores how Dora, a woman in a man’s world, became a cabinet minister, but had to deal with political maneuverings, death threats, and an assassination attempt for defending the voiceless.
But beyond this, the book explores the fullness behind the woman known as the Amazon. “While the world saw Dora Akunyili at the peak of her strength — a warrior with a gap-toothed smile whose light-skinned oval face was crowned with a colourful head-tie that doubled as armour against incessant attacks against her values and also her life, I saw the complexity that was hidden from sight. This is the story of her multiplicity: the story of my mother.”
It has two editions, the North American edition and the Nigerian (African one). The former can be found everywhere books are sold – in person or online and the latter across bookstores in Nigeria with the possibility to ship to other African countries. The content is same.
You speak 7 of the world’s languages, how so?
It happened through my own personal desire and curiosity to learn, and undoubtedly building on the bilingual foundation I had speaking both Igbo and English. Igbo was especially useful in learning mandarin because of the tones.
How are you handling family and work?
It’s 4am, my daughter is asleep beside me, she has been sick for a week, and I too caught the bug she had. This is the only time I have to answer these questions. This is a part of my reality. The other part is always remembering that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I am deeply grateful in this moment for not only the love and support of my husband, but also of the community, including the many who bring food, come to take our child for a walk, and so many uncountable acts of love.
I truly believe that none of us were meant to raise children alone and I am working on building the support of a village around us. This is also something I learned from my mother.
What is it about the Nigerian health sector that needs to change?
Big question, my sense is the part about providing healthcare. My mother had a deep desire to have served as health minister, unfortunately this role was not afforded her — a truly catastrophic loss to uncountable number of people that would have benefited from her proven ability to impact change, even in the most difficult and broken of spaces. My hope is for a new generation of Doras. Now more than ever, we need you.
What advice do you have for young ladies out there on the importance of living a deliberate and purposeful life?
First of all, what does that feel like (a deliberate and purposely life)? And to this end, really ask yourself this question. I like to journal when I want to hear what answers come to me. With this clarity, what is stopping you? Often it’s fear. Now a moment of choice, can you trust that fear is never a good leader?
Forgive easily, including yourself. Love fully, even when it’s harder. Trust — yourself, your path, your God. Be true. In all things, find gratitude, and where possible, journal! It is a powerful and underused tool to process the ups and downs that are part of this journey of being alive.
I continue to believe that we live in unprecedented times, and what we do with our lives matter, but to show up, you need to first show up for you. Thank you!