Dr. Dora Akunyili was a Nigerian pharmacologist who spent her life crusading against a scourge of counterfeit drugs in her country—drugs that were responsible for the deaths of millions, including Akunyili's sister, who died at just 21 after receiving fake insulin injections.
She served as director-general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control of Nigeria and later as Minister of Information and Communications, and her relentless work protecting Nigerians from fraudulent medications meant she spent her life hounded by death threats, misogynistic abuse, and even an assassination attempt, which came so close that a bullet passed through her headscarf.
Now Akunyili's astonishing and inspiring story is being told by her daughter, Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr, in I Am Because We Are: An African Mother’s Fight for the Soul of a Nation (House of Anansi Press). Told through the lens of the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which guided Dr. Akunyili's mission, Akunyili-Parr narrates the story not just of her mother but as her mother, literally taking on her mother's voice in an innovative literary experiment that plays with the boundaries of the memoir genre.
Ubuntu, a community-oriented school of thought, is often summed up in the adage of Akunyili-Parr's title: "I am because we are". Through this collectivist approach, the late Dr. Akunyili's tireless mission of courage is told by her daughter who witnessed it all firsthand and lived through the danger and risk wrought by the corrupt forces who resisted her mother's dauntless crusade.
We're proud to welcome Chidiogo to Open Book to discuss I Am Because We Are. She shares a quote from Elif Shafak that sums up her feelings about sharing her mother's remarkable story, discusses the process of how she came to the innovative decision to write in her mother's own voice, and tells us how her writing process unexpectedly became "akin to building up the human body".
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
I Am Because We Are is inspired by the power of stories. Stories matter — we need stories to understand ourselves. This is one of such stories.
It is that of a woman who lived a life that emboldened and impacted tens of millions of Nigerians — the Story of my mother, Dora Akunyili.
In her words, "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in." I see this book as an invitation to sit under the shade of the tree she planted, listening to her tell you tales by the moonlight.
Told in her voice, Dora’s story captures the fullness behind the woman known as the Amazon. While the world saw her at the peak of her strength — I saw the complexity that was hidden from sight. This book is the story of her multiplicity and what shaped her to the woman she was.
Each step in researching and writing her story has allowed an unwrapping of her — the girl, the daughter, the dreamer, the wife, mother, warrior — her motivations, her struggles, and celebrations.
The result is this book, a story of a woman I called mother – the woman so many, myself included, knew but a part of. This is the coming together of her parts.
I share that it might inspire the whole.
The central theme of Ubuntu – I am because you are, you are because we are – captures the interconnectedness of all beings.
This was the core value by which my mother lived her life and her passion.
Ubuntu has gone from a reminder to an urgency. Now more than ever, there is a need to reject the notion of otherness that separates us from one another. We are invited to reclaim the ties that bind as they are stronger than the forces that would divide.
The act of writing this book, of honouring her invitation to share her story, and bringing it to life has allowed for immense unfolding, of her parts and how it is part of a greater story of us.
“Stories bring us together, untold stories keep us apart” ~ Elif Shafak
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
The process of writing his book has been the true embodiment of the wisdom of going far by going together. It has been wonderful to lean on the support of so many. The result serves as a collective memory of the life of the woman that was and with it, a continuing and expanding on her legacy. Telling her story inadvertently creates ripples in the pond that will keep growing as others read it and react to it. Her mission is being given renewed energy by its being told.
As far as an unexpected part of the journey. I started off writing a story about one woman’s life, but ended up telling the bigger story of those from whom she came, the country that shaped her, and the values she lived by and how it shaped the world around her.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I have been keeping a journal/morning pages for almost a decade, and I find that she is a great first go to when I am seeking to shape a thought.
To find what the book was desiring to be, I had to simply write, and a lot of those first words I hand wrote in my journal and various scraps of paper whenever I felt the inspiration. It is my way of connecting to what needs to come through without any barriers.
For a three plus year period, anytime I had a moment, I would seek out the story and sort of write it in my head as I rode the bus, or went for a walk, or at night half asleep.
I write best when I have a chunk of uninterrupted time, when and where I don't need to be anywhere else or do anything, and can simply look forward to spending that time with the story. Getting into that flow for me was key.
What does the term creative nonfiction mean to you?
The first time I felt the call to write my mother’s story, it was accompanied by an invitation to write in her voice. I doubted my ability to capture a voice that was so different from mine. So, when I first started off writing the book, I did so in the second person/third person, but it never felt right.
Halfway through writing, I shared with a trusted writer friend who gave me the feedback that there seemed to be a distance between the reader and my mother. With this, I realized I had to honour the initial invitation. And so it was that I went back to rewrite the entire story, this time in her voice. Only then did the book feel right. This is for me what creative nonfiction means – a freedom to explore unexpected ways to tell a story.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
Often times, from the inception of the idea right up to the present, there has been the voice of fear. Its discouragement aims to keep me safe. Safe from judgment, safe from not quite being able to fully honour the invitation to write this story. Whenever this came up, I had to come back to trusting in the story, in the power of telling our stories and in the process of dedicating myself to this.
Do you remember the first moment you began to consider writing this book? Was there an inciting incident that kicked off the process for you?
The book was born of a voice of my intuition guiding me to capture the story of the woman that was not only my mother but a mother to so many more. The invitation was simple, ‘write my story’. A lot of my journey has been to tune into and trust in the guidance to share a story of life that touched so many even in death. I believe in the power of exploring what shaped her to be the woman she was that others might find their own path to being true to values that support the strength of community.
I agonized over the first words. How does one begin such a story? Ultimately, I learned that surrendering and trusting in the words that wanted to come through was key. This and the wisdom that came my way of how the first 100 pages of a book is often to be discarded. I found this to be true as I continuously revisited what I thought I wanted to write, and reshaped the arc of my style and writing until the book found its identity. To get to this point, I had to simply write.
Did you write this book in the order it appears for readers? If not, how did it come together during the writing process?
I loved that in writing this book, as much as I was putting the words to paper, the book was the one revealing itself to me.
I think of my process as akin to building up the human body – first the bones: structure and foundation; then the organs: key messages of the book; and then comes the muscles: providing nuance and complexity and tying things together etc. At each juncture, I leaned on some wonderful humans who gave me the gift of their time, their eyes and love. With each check in, I revisited the project with fresh eyes, and an openness to move, erase, and expound as needed.
Some changes were minor, others huge like the decision to make my mother the narrator instead of me, or that to have my voice come in only at the beginning (prologue) and end, instead of sprinkled throughout the book in a dance with my mothers.
Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr is a Nigerian Canadian author, speaker, and consultant with a passion for human development and connection. She is the founder of She ROARs, an organization committed to coaching women of colour around the world to connect to their intuition and purpose. Her work is focused on harnessing the power of our interdependence with a foundation in the humanist African philosophy of Ubuntu, which celebrates our shared humanity. Chidiogo has lived and worked across four continents and speaks seven languages, including Mandarin, German, Spanish, and French, allowing for an even deeper connection with people. She led the growth and impact of the Global Shapers Community across Africa and the Middle East.