Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu was born Elizabeth Mary Furlong in Birmingham, to an Irish mother and a Nigerian father. Her mother, Mary Maureen Furlong, was in her second year studying Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge University. Her father, Lawrence Odiatu Victor Anionwu was studying Law at Cambridge University.
Her upbringing had been heavily affected by moving between institutions and family. She spent just over two years living with her mother, a relationship that ended when her stepfather, who didn’t accept her and drank heavily, started to physically abuse her. For much of her childhood, she was cared for by nuns, including several years in the Nazareth House convent in Birmingham.
Often harshly punished and humiliated for wetting the bed, she remembers being made to stand with a urine-soaked sheet over her head as a punishment for wetting the bed. In the book she recalls, that later in life when working as a health visitor, “I made sure to keep up-to-date with more humane treatments for bedwetting”. Nonetheless, she grieved leaving the convent to go and live with her mother. Every period of relative stability in childhood ended in sudden collapse. Following an unsettled childhood she qualified as a nurse, then health visitor. Shortly before her 25th birthday she suddenly found her father barrister and former Nigerian Ambassador to Italy & the Vatican, Lawrence Odiatu Victor Anionwu. She was to frequently visit Nigeria and later changed her surname to Anionwu.
Anionwu began her nursing career at a young age after being inspired by a nun who cared for her eczema. At the age of 16, she started to work as a school nurse assistant in Wolverhampton. Later on, she continued with her education to become a nurse, health visitor, and tutor. She travelled to the United States to study counselling for sickle cell and thalassemia centres as courses were not then available in the UK. In 1979 she worked with Dr Milica Brozovic to create the first UK Sickle Cell and Thalassemia counselling centre in Brent. The opening of this counselling centre pioneered the opening of over 30 centers in the UK using the Brent Centre as a model