Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr, I AM BECAUSE WE ARE

Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr, I AM BECAUSE WE ARE

Zibby is joined by the founder of She ROARs Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr to talk about her first book, I Am Because We Are, which combines a memoir of her life with an autobiography of her late mother, Dora Akunyili. Chidiogo shares moments from her family history and from her mother’s tenure as a revered director-general of Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control that shaped her worldview as well as her empowering work ethic. She also tells Zibby about how her senses of intuition and spiritual guidance have grown stronger since working on this project and why she wants to use this strength to help other women grow.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Chidiogo. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” especially given our little chat of you being a mom of a five-month-old, to discuss I Am Because We Are: An African Mother’s Fight for the Soul of a Nation, which is truly amazing. Can you please tell listeners about your beautiful book and your family history? Oh, my gosh, thank you for sharing all of this and teaching us so much in your book.

Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr: The book is, at the core, the story of my mother, Dora Akunyili. I like to think that it’s so much more than her story. It’s a story of a people, of a country. It’s the story of what shaped her, what shaped us, hence that title of I Am Because We Are, really speaks to how it’s a bigger story. Her story also feeds into a bigger narrative, specifically how, in life, she impacted millions, you can say, at the helm of the food and drug regulatory agency in Nigeria, NAFDAC. How did she do that? The country was awash with fake drugs, fake foods. Think infant formula, faked powder instead of something nutritious for your child until it becomes potentially hazardous. That’s what she met when she joined NAFDAC as a director general. She said, no, this cannot go on. Life is precious and important. We must safeguard the health of the nation. She fought a war. She titled it a war. She was successful as part of a team that she rallied around her because she really believed in that power of going together. That being said, at the end of her tenure, eighty percent reduction in the circulation of fake drugs in Nigeria, and foods and etc. That’s the impact she had. Her story goes on and on. At the core, what’s interesting to highlight is that she touched people’s hearts. There’s something about humans that do that. Really, people feel like they mourned her when she passed. They hold her dear in their hearts. That’s a story worth telling because there’s something about her. Perhaps even more so, there’s something to learn and something that can live on in her story. That’s why I’ve told it.

Zibby: Wow. Tell us more about how you decided to write it in her voice because that was a great story too.

Chidiogo: It came to me when the inspiration to write the book came, which I feel like was my mom inviting me to that from beyond. The invitation was to write in her voice, but I dismissed that very quickly because my mother, if you hear her, we do not sound alike at all. I thought, I don’t want to spend the whole book trying to sound like my mother and thinking what she would say and how she would say it. I shied away from that and actually wrote the whole book in third person, but there was distance between the reader and the writing and her. I went back and finally was able to identify, through a beautiful friend and writer friend, that it was me. I was always in between telling you about my mother. Sometimes I wasn’t even born, and I’m telling you about her as a child, etc. That was when I fully decided to step into that initial voice and trust in that a little bit more. I went back and I revisited the whole book and changed it into her voice. Then it felt right. I do come in at the end of the book, also the beginning, but it’s mostly in her voice. It’s a memoir but ultimately feels like it’s an autobiography. That feels right because it’s what her personality would have done, is tell you her story.

Zibby: It’s so beautiful. It’s such a gift to be able to step into her shoes and track the whole thing from her own family history when, obviously, you were not even a speck on the horizon, and her grandparents and how her family came to be. Of course, that’s how we understand who we end up being, is if we can track all of the stuff in our history and everything that’s inherited, the good, the trauma, all of it. It’s like a funnel. It all trickles down. That’s how we come to be, and now your new baby. All of it, you can’t get rid of it. It’s like a rainstorm gushing down.

Chidiogo: Absolutely. If you think of the title of Ubuntu — I am because you are; you are because we are — it’s exactly that. No one is here disconnected from the whole. We’re all connected to this, those who have come before, what has happened before, what shapes us. Here we are.

Zibby: The scene where her younger sister, who’s like a child to her, dies — I’m so sorry to say it even that way; I see you jumping — from what should have been a completely benign injection, talk about that and how that’s really changed the trajectory of everything, if you want to. I don’t mean to upset you.

Chidiogo: Not at all. I get that when I feel something. Nwogo was like a daughter to my mother. She died in her early twenties of fake insulin. She was diabetic. My mother’s fight against fake drugs was very personal because she saw, experienced for herself in her own pain, that senseless loss of lives, and millions others were experiencing around the country for many decades. Each life that she safeguarded via her work felt like a personal part of her healing journey of having lost this sister/daughter to her. She felt like a daughter because she was so much younger than my mother. My mother had been taking care of her from a very young age. Her family also had, not a complex, but she had stepped into the role of a caregiver after the loss of some her parents and eventually all of her parents. She took it very seriously, her care for Nwogo, and ultimately also felt very deeply, that loss.

Zibby: Her commitment to education and learning and being able to achieve all of this and having children who achieved so much and all of that, tell me about her work ethic and how that all got developed and how you came to be.

Chidiogo: I am Nigerian. I’m also Nigeria, some southeast of Nigeria. We are known to push ourselves and our kids to be doctors, lawyers, engineers. It’s a typical joke. Within my family, my siblings, there are three doctors. The first three and the last three are not. That gives you a sense of, we’re free, we don’t have to be doctors. My mother was raised by a self-made businessman. Part of her story is really interesting because her father was born into wealth, but they lost it because he lost his father before him. He made his wealth in another part of the country as Nigeria was just coming into herself, booming hotel, timber industry. Then during the Biafra war, he lost it all. When he died, he had nothing. There’s something about that value. I’m highlighting it because it really shaped my mother and her belief that there’s so much more to life than money because she learned from someone who had been there and seen how the relationships you form, the family ties, how that’s more important. Within that, my mother also knew that hard work was a very powerful part of charting the way forward, as her father had done. She pushed herself also.

After the war, they had nothing. I shared earlier, she had this desire to take care of her siblings after the death of her parents, so she really pushed herself and by extension, when she did have us, pushed us. My coming within our family may be an interesting story to share. My one sister that broke the chain of doctors decided to be an artist. Her name is Njideka. There was a huge uproar in our family because, an artist? What is that? How are you going to feed yourself? What are we going to tell people you are if not a doctor or engineer or lawyer? She stuck to her guns. That gave the rest of us permission to chart our own path and also healed my parents’ belief that that was the only way to be successful in life. My father would end up later saying how happy he was that he was able to allow her, so to say, or not prevent her, is a better word, from becoming an artist because she went on to become very successful in her own rights. That’s my family, driven, learning from those that came before, as we all have, and ultimately, breaking and healing some of these expectations of the past, as my daughter will as well. And so it goes.

Zibby: That’s amazing. You had a really beautiful line when your grandfather — you, of course, wrote it as your mom — got so completely broken. I can’t, of course, find that quote now. When the war happened and he had recovered and then went down again, there was some line like, I never knew I could see my father be just so completely broken. It was a very powerful scene.

Chidiogo: He was a strong man. He was known in his village. He helped so many indigenes over the years, of Nanka where he was from, to go on and to go to school, to prosper in their business, to set up businesses, etc. He was a strong pillar in the community, and within that, with a strong personality. It’s quite a thing to see a strong personality broken because it takes a lot. That line is capturing that. In many ways, my mother — not in many ways. My mother most certainly took a lot from her father in terms of, inherited some of that strength. I also got to see her broken. That was really hard.

Zibby: Even how you paint the picture of the end of their lives, it’s just so amazing how you depict everything. We’re in it for the ride with you. Oh, my gosh, your writing is so powerful and strong. Then of course, we’re rooting for you so much. It’s really amazing because it’s not only educating readers about community, history, Nigeria, all the events that led to now, many of which — it’s enough to keep up on US history. This is a history that’s not often taught in US schools. It’s an interesting way to see it, through the eyes of one woman, which is, of course, how we learn the most. We empathize. We see. Then we mourn along with you. The way you track the whole life cycle from beginning to end is just amazing.

Chidiogo: Thank you so much. It means a lot. It’s my debut, so insecurities and question marks. There’s a desire to do. There’s the question on whether or not that desire was fulfilled. I’m really happy by the reception and to know that that story’s reaching people in different ways, but ultimately reaching them. There’s something about feeling a story and feeling a person. That’s all I wanted, that you could feel this woman because she was quite the woman.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Really, really inspiring. What was it like for you as you wrote it over and over to go back in her life? Did you have to do research to find some of the stuff? You started off not even knowing that there had been miscarriages before you. I felt like you were starting from, not a blank slate, but a lot to fill in.

Chidiogo: Indeed. There’s a part in the book, I say that we got it backwards, my mother and I, in terms of our relationship and that that’s all right. I was referring to — I left home so early. I was nine years old when I went to boarding school in Lagos, Nigeria, which is not that unusual. It’s not a fancy British — don’t think anything fancy. Think waking up, two AM, really hard labor. Students run everything. I was really young. I was thrown out there. It was part of the intention to give us the best and get the best from us. That’s something that my mother had experienced. This is to say I felt like I lost many of those formative years — lost is a big word, but yes — with my mother. I was nine hours, by road, away from the where were living at the time. I would see her every three months here and there. After boarding school and secondary school, I went off to university in the States and after, went off to my life and never really came home. As you can imagine, never living at home from nine is a huge distance with your mother. I felt like it was at death that I really had time to go deep into who she is, who she was. To do that, I went into my own story, interviewed tons of people, coworkers, siblings, teachers from her secondary school years, friends, extended family. The list goes on; of course, my own family.

In many ways, there’s something really beautiful about seeing how a person is held by — our memory really holds a piece of a person, a recollection, a story. Again, it goes back to what you were saying earlier about learning through her life. Stories are so powerful. I’m so happy I can share this story because, to your point, these stories haven’t been told, necessarily. I’m seeing how powerful they are as we connect and understand each other to know where we’re coming from, what shaped us, and that shared humanity that is Ubuntu. Ultimately, I’m so blessed by the journey of reconnecting with my mother that was, every day, holding her story, asking her questions even though she’s not on this plane. Is this okay? Who should I talk to? What’s going on? Trusting that that connection always is and always being guided in ways that — after three, four years of being with this book, I have no doubt that she was with me every step of the way.

Zibby: Your scenes when she talks to you, I’m curious about your beliefs about spirits or life after death or signs or all that. I think you believe in all that, and your husband. Your husband was saying, okay, your mom’s here. Let’s listen to her. How do you feel about all of that?

Chidiogo: I feel that it’s my truth that we are guided. I was raised Christian, Catholic. This is not removed from that upbringing because in many ways, that is rooted in being guided and spirit. Prayer is tapping into that. I’ve seen myself widening that to, I have such a deep relationship with my inner voice and guidance that is many, many years in the making of always asking and listening and seeing how, in silence, this guidance comes in. It’s how I met my husband. It’s how I’ve moved to Toronto. So many stories, I could go into to share how, when I quiet to listen, invariably, this invitation comes through, this intuition. I’ve become very good at listening for it and knowing when it comes through. It’s almost like a language in itself, and watching how, again and again, whenever I trust that inner voice, it leads me to something that I could never have achieved or seen or reached on my own. The book is most certainly a huge example because that invitation came. I heard it very clearly because I was practicing that year, listening. That was my big desire that year, to be listening. The invitation I had heard was I had to listen more the year that I was and have always been since then. My relationship is that of a factual experience of guidance that is beyond my own understanding. I don’t feel the need to understand it. I know. My practice is to connect with it, which I do a lot in writing, in journaling, daily practice, which I got from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Morning pages has been with me for over ten years now.

Zibby: She’s coming on this podcast. She has a new book coming out.

Chidiogo: Are you serious?

Zibby: Yes. I know, I was so excited. I got the email. I was like, yes, I will interview her. I cannot wait. She has a new book. Where is it? I just picked it — I can’t find anything right now. It’s called, I think, Seeking Wisdom: A Six-Week Journey to — I’ll look it up.

Chidiogo: She’s impacted millions. That’s a beautiful thing to have done. She gave me that gift. I’ve been with that inner practice and inner voice and the healing that comes with it and the knowing and the guidance and the wisdom. And so it goes. That, ultimately, is now the work that I do, is support women to connect to that voice and that intuition. Yes, my belief system is that it’s there. I believe in my ancestors as being with me. If they do want to share something with me, of course, it comes from within you. It’s been a new practice, actually, with my ancestors because I sort of just thought, it’s my inner voice. With my mom and then when I started writing about her grandmother, then that feeling, senses of who she was that I hadn’t known, I would then call and verify something I had felt or received as a knowing. That was an interesting practice. As I said, the book has really helped me deepen my experiences of listening.

Zibby: Wow. Tell me more about your life now and your work now aside from the book.

Chidiogo: My life now, my work now, I have a five-month-old. I’m craving some sun. I’m in Toronto. My postpartum body is wanting to be in the sun and the water. All these things fuel the work that I do . I hold a lot of spaces for people, as I shared earlier, to feel into what’s true for them. I have this increasingly clear call to support the connection that can be so that people can connect into your light. You could shine. That’s not how I would normally speak, but that’s what’s coming through now. It’s this, to help you feel yourself, to feel your truth beyond fear, beyond anxieties, beyond the blocks, as I have done for myself. Everything that I say, I share, I do comes from my own experience. I love doing that. It’s been something I’ve been doing for the last five years or so almost since the beginning of the book. My past lives have been corporate. I was climbing the corporate ladder.

I was doing it beautifully until I had this magical experience. I was on a plant medicine journey in Peru with nine other women. There was this moment where I had this revelation of, you’re meant to break away from corporate. I literally said, no, that’s not happening. I am so invested in becoming whatever that path would’ve led, a diplomat or something that would’ve been important and very heady. I fought it. I had a beautiful guide that said — she was with me. Her name is , that was holding the retreat space. “Who you are is beyond your fears. Why do you feel like your fear is preventing you from your truth? Step beyond that.” That was my first invitation to truly know that . This is to say, it’s been a journey. I’m on a journey. I love supporting people on their journey. This book is part of that. It is my trust and deep hope that we have an important road ahead. Everybody stepping into their yes is critical for what’s to come.

Zibby: Wow, that’s beautiful. If somebody was thinking about trying to do what you did with your book, writing in the voice of someone that they loved, easy? Hard? Yes? No? You recommend? You don’t recommend? What do you think?

Chidiogo: I believe the core is to listen to what the book wants . From my head, it was, no, this is too hard, but the book wanted to be that. I had to honor that. My recommendation would be to pay attention to what wants to come through. Honor that. Trust if that is to be in the first person, you’ll probably — not probably. Then absolutely listen. Trust. If it’s meant to be, then you’ll find a way. I’ll say the idea was more daunting than the actual reality of doing it.

Zibby: Got it. Do you have any other advice for aspiring authors?

Chidiogo: It’s funny that you’re interviewing Julia Cameron because she’s the person the huge tool that has inspired my writing all these years later of getting to know your voice. I was always a little bit intimidated because I’m not as big a reader as I would like to be. I don’t think I could actually write because I need to read so much more. I’ve actually found that you need to write so much more and not just perhaps — all the writing I did all these years before I started writing in a journal would always start on the computer or on a paper, maybe, but always with the lens that someone was going to read it. I would start, right away, censoring myself because I have that idea. Okay, does this sound good? What am I saying? I never got to hear my truth, the truth of my voice and its purity without the fear or the knowing it would be observed. That’s been a gift to connect and, in connecting, to trust that well and trust in it to know that there’s something to be shared, and then sharing it. That came in the form of a book and whatever else is to come. My advice is, find your voice. She is found in the silence of internal dialogue, he or she or they.

Zibby: That’s beautiful, oh, my gosh. Amazing. Thank you. This is so special. I feel like you are just this special, soulful, beautiful woman. I feel like you need to be really famous in some way. Not that you’re not well-respected and notable already. You are, of course. You have such a presence. It’s very special just to talk to you. That’s how I feel. Special energy or something.

Chidiogo: I got it from my mama.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you. I wish you all the best of luck with I Am Because We Are. I’m just so grateful to have had a few minutes with you today. Thank you.

Chidiogo: Same here, Zibby. I’m so excited to know of the interviews to come and really love the work that you do. Really honored that you had me here today. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. Good luck with your daughter. Buh-bye.

Chidiogo: Thank you. Bye.

Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr, I AM BECAUSE WE ARE

I AM BECAUSE WE ARE by Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr

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