Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr. Image via Chidiogo
Everyone has a back story, a series of events that led to potentially life-changing choices. In I Am Because We Are, Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr tells the story of her mother Dora’s life as a Nigerian politician and activist working to combat the trade in fraudulent drugs, and finally as a dying woman in need of medical care. Throughout the story runs the African principle of ubuntu, which holds the importance of the community over the individual.
Akunyili-Parr is currently based in Toronto, where she works as a writer, consultant and speaker. She is also the founder of the community organization She ROARS, which is dedicated to helping women of colour achieve their objectives. Much of her work revolves around the principle of ubuntu.
I Am Because We Are is written in the first person, mainly from the perspective of Dora Akunyili and then from her daughter Chidiogo’s viewpoint. The book covers many important aspects of Dora’s life, including her experiences during the Biafran War and the consequences, positive and negative, of her parents’ decision to send her to live with her grandmother. Although many aspects of her life were hard, these experiences also helped to shape the person she became.
Many of the choices that Dora Akunyili made were responses to the circumstances she encountered. Knowing that Nigeria is the source of many fraudulent drugs, she decided to become a pharmacist so she could help explore alternatives to contaminated and often weakened pharmaceuticals. When her younger sister, a diabetic, died from taking tainted insulin, she decided that counterfeit drugs would be the focus of her work.
Taking on the task of ridding Nigeria of this problem involved making people aware of the issue and then trying to make changes at a high level. For many years, Akunyili worked with NAFDAC, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, in Nigeria. Government positions followed, together with death threats and an assassination attempt. Finally, Akunyili found herself needing medical care and treatment herself in her struggle with cancer.
Throughout the book is a strong thread of family and community. While her marriage was flawed, Akunyili’s relationships with her six children remained strong, even as the family dispersed to the United States and other parts of the world. Her connections with some of her siblings also helped to give her strength in difficult times, including both successes and failures.
Dora Akunyili narrates her own life and death before the perspective shifts to the narrative of her youngest daughter, Chidiogo. Dora draws in the perspectives of her siblings, as well as the traditions of the Igbo tribe, to which the family belonged, and her Christian faith.
Chidiogo’s narrative in the final chapters includes musings both on how the book came together and on her siblings’ reactions to their mother’s death. In accordance with her mother’s wishes, the story is also about healing, both physical and emotional, that people need in the situations they encounter.
I Am Because We Are is a compelling story, especially for readers interested in international politics and campaigns. Some of Dora Akunyili’s speeches are included in the book, giving readers a sense of the ideals that drove her.
Even for those who may not be overly interested in politics, I Am Because We Are is an engaging family story with enough twists and turns to keep readers motivated to continue to the last page.
-----------------------------THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS