Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr is a daughter of the late former Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Dora Akunyili. She speaks to GODFREY GEORGE about her mother’s personality and core values as well as the recent passing of her surgeon father, Dr Chike Akunyili
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
My name is Chidiogo Blessing Akunyili-Parr. Akunyili means ‘my cup overflows’. Chidiogo means ‘God is gracious’. My middle name is Blessing. So, my name in full means: God is gracious with blessings and my cup overflows. I am one of the six children of the late Dora Akunyili, a former Director-General of NAFDAC (National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control) and Minister of Information, and the late Dr Chike Akunyili. I am an author, speaker, and consultant with a passion for human development and connection.
I attended Queens College, Yaba, Lagos. I left Nigeria after graduating in 2001 to study International Relations and French at the University of Pennsylvania, US. I studied in Paris at Sciences Po, where I majored in International Economics. I spent the years between undergrad and master’s working internationally in Germany, China and Italy. I got a master’s in International Development and Economics from SAIS John Hopkins. This was followed by working at the World Economic Forum managing the global shapers community across Africa and the Middle East. It was in this time that I received a master’s in Global Leadership with certificates from INSEAD, Columbia University, Wharton School, London Business School, China Europe International Business School and Cornell Tech.
Having lived and worked across five continents, I speak seven of the world’s languages – Chinese, English, French, German, Igbo, Italian and Spanish. I am a fellow at the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance, an Atlantic Dialogue Emerging Leader and an Associate Fellow of Nigerian Leadership Initiative.
I run an initiative, She ROARs, which supports women across the world, mostly women of colour, to connect to their intuition and purpose, and we do this via coaching sessions for women to get to know and trust themselves to delve more into their power. I am always drawn to supporting women with a trust in their potential to impact the world around them. I love to inspire women to be their best selves guided by the power of their own inner voices.
What was your experience growing up with your mother, the late Dora Akunyili?
Dora Akunyili was a mother to many more people than just us, her children. In many ways, who the country saw at the peak of her strength, starting with when she went to NAFDAC, was a woman we had experienced all through our lives as mummy. We had the privilege of so many wonderful years knowing her beauty, grace and mothering ability. At the same time, it was really beautiful to witness everybody getting to know her. She was very approachable; one who didn’t take any nonsense. She was very focused and clear on her values. She was clear on what she considered to be the right thing. She supported everyone around her to find the truth of this in themselves. I was and I’m still very proud of her achievements. Being her daughter was and continues to be a blessing. I hope that sharing her story creates ripples in the pond that will keep growing as others read and react to it. Her life and mission are being given renewed energy by its being told.
As a public office holder, it’s given that she would be quite busy. Did that, in any way, affect her role in the family?
She was busy. The work, including her dedication to NAFDAC, took all of her. I consider it lucky for us because we (her children) were a bit grown when she went into NAFDAC. This was especially as she dedicated so much of herself to it. I, for example, was in my last year of secondary school, so I was old enough to allow her to fly without feeling like I was losing her or feeling the strain of her absence.
It was good that she could have the time to focus on the work and this did not affect the relationship we had with her. It was a thing of pride and beauty to watch her blossom into the woman that she was, and to see how she stayed strong. At some point, she was even awarded ‘Man of the Year’.
She was loved because of the staunchness of her belief and her dedication to the work that was at hand; the belief that every life matters and that we have a responsibility to each other; and that supporting the well-being of one person is supporting the well-being of everyone. She lived her life by this, hence the title of her memoir: ‘I Am Because We Are’, capturing her belief and dedication to being her brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.
What lessons did you learn from her that has shaped you into the woman you have become?
This is a great question. Witnessing my mother’s life has been a lesson on knowing yourself and knowing what your beliefs are, and never compromising. She taught us to know and trust in the importance of the work we want to do, so we are not swayed by the wind. Even though the world may want you to compromise; even though they may have a different idea of how you should behave or who you should be, the list extends to bribery and corruption, it is important that you know yourself and know what matters. This is the truth of my mother’s lessons. She taught us to have deep trust in ourselves as God’s creation. She was very strong in knowing herself, and trusting the hand of God in her life and how God was guiding her in the work that she did. We have to trust that our work matters, no matter how small; and even if you think nobody will see the goodness or integrity of what we do. Think of the money she returned in London. It is important to do the right thing even if nobody sees it. It was very easy for her to have pocketed a lot of money at NAFDAC and nobody would ever know. They would still see her as a great woman who did a good job. But she would always say to us: “Even if no one saw it, God sees!” She was not interested in doing anything that went against who she was or against her God, which would, in turn, negatively impact the work that she did.
During the course of her career, she confronted some powerful forces, whose interests conflicted with her own mandate. Were you at any point scared for her life?
Truly, we all were. It is a lot to have your mother shot at by armed men. We were behind her in the convoy that day when she was shot. It was a very scary day for us. But while everybody else was scared for her, she was not afraid. It was a fascinating thing. If anything, her only fear was when my little brother was threatened by some potential kidnappers who went to his school. One time, too, her brother was kidnapped and it was linked to her. These were what I think scared her. But when it came to her safety, she trusted that God would protect her, because what she was doing was in line with what God commands. This trust was also founded on having gone through many near-death experiences in her life, and each time God would show up and rescue her. She believed truly in God’s favour.
Would you say she covered much ground before her passing in June 2014?
Only 59 years of age at the time of her passing, she was indeed very young. One thing I can say was that she wasn’t ready to die. She really struggled with death because she believed that her work was not done. This was a very important point for her, that she had a lot of work to do in Nigeria, and she wasn’t done with this. She wanted to stay alive much longer to do this, but God had other reasons. I hope and believe that her memoir, “I Am Because We Are,” is God’s answer to her prayers and a continuation of her work. I also hope that its message reaches the good people of Nigeria who need now, more than ever, to once again be inspired.
There were some controversies around her death. Some said she was too educated not to be aware that she had cancer; others thought it was black magic…
I think it is one thing to be diagnosed while it is another to hope for the best. We hoped and trusted that she would be healed. That was something that she was communicating publicly. She had deep trust that she would be healed. Ultimately, that didn’t happen. I am not sure what the controversy per se was but I would say there was a desire to live, and that was something that she communicated till her passing. I think that this whole juju narrative came from the fact that people did try to kill her for so many years and didn’t achieve their goals. There were people who tried to reach her in ways like black magic, so to say. So, I understand why people would say things like that. There is no truth in that being the cause of her death. My mother’s own juju was the Holy Spirit and her holy water coupled with her pure spirit and clean hands, which I think were stronger than anything out there. She knew that she was protected. She died, not naturally, because cancer is not the natural way of dying. She was unwell; she battled with cancer and finally succumbed to it.
In what ways has her name opened doors for you?
The doors that I see opening are those of people’s hearts she touched. I think very few people can say that they have touched so many people on such a large scale as she did. Once there is openness to people’s hearts, there is this openness to be brother and sister to them. It is a really special experience for me and my siblings.
I have met people who I don’t know but regard me as a sister. They regard us, Dora’s children, as their siblings, because they regarded my mother as mother and as someone they loved and genuinely cared for. That door is priceless. It is such a beautiful gift to have a human connection with another, especially someone you don’t know. It is deeper than anything. I trust that this book can allow a deepening of these connections that exist in people’s hearts, so the tress she planted would germinate and bloom.
Was she an early riser?
Yes, she was an early riser. She would wake up, pray with her rosary, and wherever possible, go to mass. She had a routine of taking a walk or doing some stretches followed by getting ready for the day, which would begin with her reading the newspaper over a drink of orange juice. She hardly ate breakfast.
Did she tell you about her love story with your dad, the late Chike Akunyili?
(Laughs) It was my dad who shared their love story with me as part of capturing the story of my mother and writing her memoir. I had a beautiful interview with my father about their love before his unfortunate passing, and I am so grateful for this because you don’t always know your parents’ love story and I might never have. I had my dad tell me for long hours about the story of how they met and all the years they spent together. They had a really beautiful life together. There were struggles, but at the core, they had a beautiful friendship. I am so grateful for the journey of writing the book to capture this story. It is indeed sad that my father had to pass but I am just very trusting that this book can honour his life.
Last year, we witnessed the passing of your father in very gruesome circumstances. How did you feel knowing that all he ever did was serve Nigeria?
Undoubtedly, it is one of the most awful things that anyone would ever have to experience, not least of all, my father. I don’t think that pain would ever go away. I’d like to think that his death might have touched something in our hearts to really understand that we are at the edge and would topple over if we keep going at this sad trajectory. In his death, he gave a gift of deep warning, a warning for the country. This is not a sacrifice that he was willing to give, or a gift that he gave willingly, but ultimately that is what his death has been in the way that I have seen it. I hope and pray that his death is not in vain, and I know that if we take that deep look at ourselves and why this is happening and find the part of us that is ‘Good people, a great nation!’ We must recognise that there are some aspects of our leadership that suggest otherwise. But it is not the full story of who we are. There is something very special about the Nigerian spirit of resilience and capacity as people. This is something I have not seen in many places. We have all these blessings, and it is not by accident that it is Nigeria that has a Wizkid, Chimamanda (Ngozi Adichie), Wole Soyinka, (Chinua) Achebe, Ngozi (Okonjo Iweala), Dora Akunyili and other incredible people coming from this one country. We are better than our current reality allows for us to see and experience.
What kind of a father was he to you?
My father was a typical Igbo father. He was a disciplinarian. He was also very generous with his time and attention. He himself was a very disciplined person. He would never let any ball drop. He was a very caring man; he loved my mother deeply. He was so proud of all of us and he showed it. He was a proud father. He was someone who dedicated himself, just like my mom, to serve his community as a health care provider working as a surgeon for many decades. All my life, I have known him at the hospital. I knew him as one who did his work with a smile and he was very wise too. A lot of people leaned on his wisdom.
What is the inspiration for your new book, I Am Because We Are, which is centred around your mother’s life?
At the core, I believe in the power of stories, they help us to understand each other. I believe that stories can heal and support the inspiration that we need to step into our full potential. It gives us the necessary support, especially to the extent that my mother’s life was dedicated to the betterment of Nigeria. Her story even after death continues to carry the inspiration and the possibility for this work, which she started, to continue. That is why I wanted to tell her story because she dedicated her life to something that she felt she didn’t see through. This was a heavy burden on her shoulders on her deathbed as she continued to bemoan that she had still so much work to do for the people. In telling her story, I am empowering others to find the Dora in themselves, because we need a million Doras for us to truly shift the country in a way that we can bequeath to our children a better Nigeria. Writing this book, for me, was a way of empowering my mother in a way that time didn’t allow. This is a continuation of her work. I really hope that this book is received with the intention with which it was written – that it should serve the country the way that my mother, Dora Akunyili, did.
Why the title “I Am Because We Are”?
The title of the book really guided the essence of what guided my mother. It was the belief that everyone is sacred and everyone matters. It is about the philosophy of Ubuntu, which is something I spoke about in my John’s Hopkins graduation speech. My mother had listened to it then, and I remember her singing and dancing to the title, ‘I Am Because We Are’. So, that stayed with me. At the core, this is a philosophy of our shared humanity. It is a reminder of our interconnectedness. It is something that my mother held very dear. It encapsulates her life.
Looking at Nigeria of today, would you say your mother would be pleased with the state of the nation?
It is a tough question because I love that I am part of a country that honours those that did the work. I am glad for Nigeria on how it honours my mother even in her death and how it honoured my father with his passing. I feel sure that her life’s work can inspire us, the younger generation, to keep going, because giving up will be us accepting that we failed as a people. That is not just the option that is available to us at all. We have no reason to take that route, and I think that her life was an example to show us the way.
Would you say the country is where your mother would have loved it to be?
I just had my father killed, so I think the answer is clearly a no. I don’t think any Nigerian alive would tell you that we have done enough. That is why I am talking about planting seeds. We need to reject the mediocrity of our current situation and our leadership behind it. The failures are just too much. Too much is going wrong to say Nigeria has done enough. Which matrix are we using for that? I trust that we have the capacity to do better. We have to truly know that we are that change. What can you do? What can you support? What can you say no to? What should you say yes to? How can we show up for each other? It is a drop in a pond that makes an ocean. I know that we are a massive country, and each person steps into their potential, unlocking their truest selves, a lot can happen.
You just became a mother to a lovely daughter late last year. What lessons would you love her to learn from your mother’s life?
Oh my! It is such a gift! A friend had told me how being a mother would allow me to better write my mother’s story. Becoming a mother, coupled with my experience with loss and grief has allowed for a depth in connecting with my mother even in death. Motherhood is a beautiful reminder of the connections that exist between us all, including between me and my mother, my father and our ancestors. It is such a beautiful thing to realise that all those that were here before us are with us. I see all that in the eyes of my daughter. I am grateful that she gets to be in a world where we are beginning to rewrite our own stories and challenge the status quo. I would love that my daughter learns to honour who she is. This is something my mother always did. I want her to know that she can make any change no matter how people might say it is not possible. She can do the impossible if she is called to do so. She should trust her passion and be guided by her spirit/her inner guidance and God, and be true to who she is. No matter what, she should not let anybody compromise her. This is something I think she (mother) would have loved for her.
What inspired your mother’s fashion sense?
My mother over time overwent an evolution in her fashion. In the 90s, she used to wear western suits and the like. At a point, we saw that she found her truest self in our native attire, and she popularised it. Her favourite was a long skirt with a three-quarter length tops; always very colourful, never dark colours and complimenting jewellery and perfume. She loved her African wax fabrics and supported many tailors (laughs).
What was her favourite meal?
My mother liked fish pepper soup. She liked roasted snails and softly roasted corn with ube (pear).
How about your dad?
My father liked groundnut and banana mix as a snack. He loved ‘point-and-kill’ and suya, which he always got us as a treat. He also enjoyed his soups.
Did you always know that you would be a writer?
The inspiration to write my mother’s book is the first thing before the ‘being a writer part’. I heard a voice that felt like my mother’s with the inspiration to ‘write my story!’ I felt it and said yes to it. But then the questions and fears arose. Do I know how to write a book? Do I have the time? Will it be good enough? I have always written as a means of expression, but never on such a scale. I always honour when the spirit guides me. This felt like such a moment. As such I leaned into trusting in this. I am so grateful that this is a book that I got to write. I cannot imagine a more beautiful tribute to a woman who gave so much to so many people.
Would you say that your mother was a feminist?
I think her generation did not use that word but she was someone whose record shows her to be a strong proponent of women. She had a conversation in a BBC interview where she was not shy, despite the pushback from the interviewer, to share that she experienced women as less corruptible than men. As such, she always believed in uplifting and entrusting as many women as possible with positions of power. She saw the capacity of women as incredible agents of change. She might not have used that language, but she imbibed it in the way she empowered women and the way she ran NAFDAC, the ministry and all the spaces in between. She was very conscious of women’s visibility. She made sure she nurtured and rewarded the potential that women have. This is her enduring legacy and I am proud and happy that the ‘Women Development Centre’ in Anambra Sstate bears her name.
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