My dreams keep dreaming. As if no ending is allowed. As if only poetry will do. As if all the alternating stress, those that pass unknown, those things light and heavy I embrace, everything they bring, like air, are worthy, profound, like breathing, this air of new dreams again.

And so we hurry, back to our sweet spot again. Only this time without force again. Back to our sleek covers again. Those soft and flurry. Those blue like skies and light like stars. All of them keen on letting us go. Keen on starting this journey again. Keen on making our dreams take meaning, again and again, like the sound of the winds blowing, like the murmurs of leaves blowing. Our hearts are full and glowing. Our dreams keep birthing new dreams again. I keep marching steadily to this beat again.

It’s only the second week of the second month of this new school year and already, I feel blessed. To think that my bold ideas are going to come to light soon, with funding too, keeps me on my toes and dreaming. The same day I got news for another one, well, we submitted another one. We can’t stop now, not when he calls us, not when he leads and we follow. My story is one David and Goliath in the making. I came across failed applications to university positions I applied to years ago. Back when I thought all I had to do was apply, all I had to do was try, and somehow, life would make sense. There were some places I dared not look into, an application for a position at Dartmouth comes to mind. There were some I thought I would get. Teacher’s College, was one I thought would make the Big Apple my oasis. Of course, there were many I didn’t get. I read all of them with vigor again, just in awe of what I envisioned for my career and hoped that some one, would take a chance on me. Many didn’t. But we kept dreaming.

Then I remembered all the grants I once wrote dreaming for a career in research, dreaming to one day do it my way. Many also failed. But what brings these 2 memories for me today is this ideas of dreams. My imaginations for health are wild and often not mainstream. I was never supposed to be in academia. It wasn’t the plan. I was supposed to be a medical doctor and lawyer and somehow cook food and well write fiction books. I gave up on medicine early, didn’t get into the law school I wanted (I really took the LSAT and applied), tried to cook my way through my dissertation and failed and still waiting for the day I call myself a fiction writer. None of the initial dreams I had for myself panned out, and so I did what was next best, dreaming with no end in sight.

I know it’s grace and I do not take this gift of writing grants lightly. I still don’t know how I will present it to the world, how I will reach folks too with simple strategies that allow me to keep writing and writing especially when the call speaks to my heart. I don’t write all the time and I do pass many that though tempting are not for me. But the ones I write, like the one I submitted today, keeps me speechless. There is a pattern to grant writing. I am learning that every day. There is an intake period, with key words from the call, that allow you to get into a zone. Once there, once you have a vision, once all the intersections and roadblocks are somewhat clear, once you know your collaborators and for me, your plans to execute something unbreakable and reliably yours, then you are on your way. All of this should also include plans to endure your dreams no matter the highs and lows, the periods of giving up and the periods of trying again. I call this finding your vice. I am open to whatever direction this takes me. Like the moon we saw tonight while driving home. My son asked if the moon would follow us home. I said yes. Like dreams they follow us everywhere. Like the moon, I am following my dreams. I know my vice. These days, I am full.

I went to a gathering today, to see how people that worked like me, celebrated their highs and light, rejoiced in the success of others, and smiled because we worked. I left knowing, that work is work. But can be more, like light, when it is not hidden, when it is surrounded by people who celebrate like you.

When we celebrate work together!

My son drew a picture of himself at school today. He was dressed in a blue cape and black pants. I asked if he was inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog given similarities in the shade of blue. He shared that it wasn’t but rather it was a picture of him with a cape full of precious jewels. There were nine of them scattered all over his cape and in all shades of colors from green to blue, brown to black and pink. I asked why jewels and not something else. He noted because jewels are his favorite rocks and he wanted to draw something he loved that was close to his heart. He is only five. This image is my keep for today as it’s a reminder to keep what you love, close to your heart.

For my son it’s jewels. They come in all shapes and colors but they are nevertheless precious to him and worth keeping close to his heart even if in the form of a cape. For me, these days it’s anything that allows me to serve, like my love for grant writing. Commitment to writing grants is a commitment to service. I rarely write grants for the glory. Sure the accolades are nice when they come. But more than anything, this idea of a grant being in service to others is what’s close to my heart. I don’t do it for the reward. The sleep at the end of sleepless nights are much better. I’m also not interested in whether it becomes an icing on the cake for my academic career or not, none of that is important. What moves me instead, is whether any of the grants I write can be of service to others.

I also expect them to fail and the failed ones are just as significant for the insights they add that in my opinion are often not ready to be judged by reviewers, but yet powerful. Imagine a sustainable marketplace for HIV prevention or defining what implementation success entails or even a sustainability scale for resource limited settings. Yes, those are some title of ideas in service of others that may never come to life but they continue to inspire me even though they failed.

My grants then for me are a site of service. It’s my most innovative, my most pioneering and often my most audacious work and to think that I do it for others, keeps me grounded. It’s that notion that allows me to juggle one grant at least every other month. The irony is that I may seem like I’m not busy. Kids will take up all my time, but wait till I get a vision for a grant in service to others with a deadline, and we’ll it will be written in a week or two. It won’t be perfect as then the editing begins, but they will have something close that will make editing either seamless or painful. Commitment to writing grants in this way is often not successful. It’s a competition after all and may the best grants win. Plus even if it fails, there is always another deadline and a commitment to make the grant better all because of the people it’s originally in service for.

I expect my grants to always be at odds with what mainstream folks want and well when you subscribe first to service, expect your grants to seek first to challenge and change anything the dominant ideology suggests should be the norm. It won’t be easy, but writing in this ways helps me to remain accountable to those that matter. It also opens my heart and mind to conditions that allow us to last beyond one or 5 years, conditions that honor what matters to you, conditions I keep close to my heart always, just like my son and his jewel covered cape. I will never dominate whether the grants succeed or fail. It was never the intent. Rather, with each success or failure, I look forward to asking the question over and over again; how can a grant be of service to you? These are the things I keep close to my heart with grant writing, like a set of jewel covered cape.

A couple of days ago, my daughter shared a drawing of all the things she loved. She call it her tree of love. Her name was nestled in the middle of a big green tree and surrounded by all the things that matter to her like playing music, writing, sleeping, swimming and doing somersaults. This image, though simple, is my question for today for all of us in academia. What do you love and how do you intend to keep it?

My daughter’s art.

For me these days, it’s writing as the spirit moves me. The words of the late bell hooks provides some food for thought: ‘if we fail to privilege critical writing about work that emerges from a progressive standpoint, we will not see a change in how that work is critically received.’

I value critical writing whether as a grant or story or anything else. I started this blog to do so with my parenting and productivity in academia. The idea of centering the public, even our lives in all we do, needs our critical attention and regard. Needs also to be witnessed. I’m in a phase of my life where witnessing academia as I see it is all that matters. The ability to courageously speak my mind, to talk about my work, my life, as the spirit moves me, is the point of this blog. I don’t do this for impact factors or references. I do it to call attention to all that moves me at whatever time I like and in whatever format I choose, knowing no one owns any monopoly on anything, not storytelling, not poetry, not art, not even grants, my medium for real, equitable change that impacts lives. Learning to see is the foundation of my work here.

Within academia, we have all been taught to value papers. We were taught that no matter what, publish or perish and ensure that whatever you publish ends up in a journal with high impact. If the spirit has given one the ability to write, then don’t write one or two, try 6 or 10 or whatever the spirit ordains that exemplifies plenty. Many of us listened and proceeded with the onerous and laborious process of writing papers that no one in the public reads.

I’m in a phase where this task, while still important, isn’t the only thing I do anymore. Very few have been taught that the engine that moves our field, lies in the funding you bring. Few have been taught about ways to interrogate this other form of life in academia. The form focused on creating spaces for the affirmation of critical grant writing about all that ails our people. If you want to make a change, real sustained changed in people’s health and well-being, don’t write another paper. Instead, get a grant.

The system will want to exploit and oppress you and remind you that you need papers for tenure. Agree with them, then work for your grant. The system will count your papers, tell you that you don’t have enough in high impact journals. Tell them you are working on it, and focus on your grants. The system will judge you harshly if you are a woman, Black like me and within a child-bearing age. Accept their judgments, even when it comes from women like you, and still work on your grants. They can remind you, count for you and even judge you. But, they can never take what belongs to you and that is the idea in your head that birthed the grant in the first place. Not the money. That too will pass and you will be judged whether it’s $10k or $3million. Nothing is ever enough.

I am learning that everyday. Imagine sitting in a meeting where folks are talking about clinical trials and you share your opinion and you are told your trial doesn’t count because it’s a population based trial. That’s what the system will do. And when it’s comes for you (it will, in due time) just remember the words of Bessie Head, ‘ we tolerate strangers because the things we love cannot be touched by them.’ Remember the things you love about your work. It comes natural to me in the grants I write. Hold on to them, care for them, as they are all that matter in the ends, like this blog I keep, to remind me to keep what matters to me.

Of what use are grants? If you think about this deeply, you will discover that it’s use are infinite. Of course some use it for their research. Some to propel their careers. I have always believed they can be used to tell stories.

I remember the very first grant I wrote over 14 years ago. I was a doctoral student then at Penn State and I was very keen on understanding how to succeed as one. I was working as a graduate assistant with Dr. Rhonda Belue and I asked her that question in the fall semester of my first year. She noted 2 things, write papers, get grants. Looking back, my mind latched on to both things and proceeded to make sense of grad school. I asked to see sample grants and Rhonda connected me to a doctoral student, Brandi who graciously shared her F-31 doctoral award. Brandi also introduced me to another doctoral student Melissa, who also shared her F-31 award. So from the beginning, seeing examples of what types of grants I could write has been critical for me.

My doctoral advisor, Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa, also had a grant and I was mesmerized by how it allowed us to work in South Africa to understand HIV stigma first hand. It also allowed me to write a paper with guidance from the research team. Dr. Rhonda introduced me to Dr. Gbenga Ogedegbe and he had an R03 grant in Nigeria focused on hypertension. Together, I learnt firsthand what it takes to get successful global health grants focused on doing what you love. They would both ignite my passion and vision for doing great work that impacts lives in global settings I call home.

Also, I took a qualitative class focused on teaching aspects of grant writing. This was my first actual foray into grant writing. Yes, it was with esteemed Nursing professors who taught the art of writing grant but from a qualitative research perspective. I was in awe. They taught me first the meaning of storytelling with grants. Qualitative research will do that to you. Make you understand first the stories you hope to tell, whether is through a paper or in this case grants. We were taught everything about qualitative research and told we could turn our ideas into funded grants. I did. I spent that semester learning about ethnography and proceeded to write a grant focused on how I would use ethnography to understand child malaria in Nigeria. I was born in Nigeria and I figured if I would do research let it be at home and with something I knew first hand, from experience. Malaria was ingrained in my head from child hood and I figured then that if I am going to change the world, we’ll why not begin with malaria and yes using ethnography. I gathered all the documents required using Brandi and Melissa’s example F-31 as a guide. Then used my ethnography research paper on malaria as my entry point for research. I was going to work under esteemed researchers focused on malaria in Nigeria, like Dr. Mrs Falade at the University of Ibadan and my doctoral advisor would guide me every step of the way as I made deep understanding as to why child malaria persisted using culture and ethnography as a lens. I was ambitious and my ambition for being among the first to end child malaria gave me the confidence to submit an F-31 grant focused on using ethnography to understand child malaria in NIGERIa. It was rejected.

The second most important thing I learned from this first experience, was feedback. Not from those that know you, but strangers who only care about what you propose to do. They taught the value and significance of the art of feedback. So alongside beginning first with storytelling as grants thanks to my qualitative teachers, I learnt the importance of feedback from this experience. I took it all in, continued to work on my dissertation and made the choice to revise and resubmit the grant. I was in my 3rd year or so and technically with a year left in doctoral school. But I revised not with a desire to use it in my doctoral work but to gather more feedback just in case I failed again. I expected to use that feedback to continue to perfect my grant even upon graduation. I buckled up for a long journey with grants. The second version was revised and this time rather than using ethnography, I asked to gain skills in mixed methods research. It was funded and this began my journey towards becoming a grant writer.

There are very few of us in academia. It has also taken me years to see myself as one. Yet grant writing like music, or poetry is an art. Of course the science matters. You need tight science and rigorous review of research, but you also need storytelling and mastering the art of persuasion and persistence for that story you hope to tell one day. Academia did not prepare many people for storytelling as grant writing. I figured it out my way. I benefited from teachers and mentors whose life work is grounded in stories and culture and anti-racism and yes all of that combined is the reason I call myself a grant writer today. Grants for me are stories. They have always been and will continue to be stories. Reviewers may reject them. In fact most of my stories, including an actual grant on storytelling have been rejected. But I am focused on using the oppressors language for good.

In the words of Lorraine Hansberry, my dreams with grants as stories remains largely outside myself. And I am happy to keep dreaming in this way, to keep living my dream. Not for a career or to keep up with anything. But to work freely and do the things I want to do. Becoming a grant writer focused on telling stories are the things dreams are made off. To be at the cusp of the work that awaits me keeps me grateful still to so many and God. Nothing but grace personifies my life’s work. I can’t wait to start the semester teaching what I mean by grants as stories. Teaching too, why failure is always an option. Teaching the art of feedback. Teaching students to simply do as Lorraine Hansberry asks and ‘write as they will,’ what they know about their idea, what they think it ought to be and must be if their stories about their ideas are to last. I intend to teach grant writing as writing stories to a point. Writing about people and stories begging for their attention and funding. We all need the art of grants as stories. I intend to perfect it for them

Ms Lorraine Hansberry, my forever muse on grants as stories. Imagine using her as a guide. I am in awe of my goals for this course.

Failure is always an option. That’s my mantra these days. I have failed in so many aspects of my life. The one that I keep doing these past days is motherhood. No, mothering is not easy. It has never been. It takes effort and patience and moving in some direction even if it seems like you are making no movements at all.

A great friend of our family visited over the weekend and together we made a local native soup made out of water leaves and kale called Edikaikong. While trying to figure out how to make the soup, I shared with her that back in my dissertation days I kept a blog focused on mastering the art of African cuisine. Not just Nigerian cuisine, but all things African. It taught me a lot about spices for example and I will always be grateful for the addition of cumin in my life thanks to that blog. But it failed. Or rather I failed. I never really mastered the art like I intended and well before you know it, the love for cooking fizzled away.

From there on, life got in the way. I finished my dissertation, met my husband, graduated and moved our family to Paris. I spent 2.5 years working in Paris and just as I was leaving, I started a fashion blog to curate all things I loved about African fashion. It was the bane of my existence then. It taught me so much about African fashion. I even dreamt it would become like an African Vogue one day. I also discovered Ify and her Ladymaker brand. That blog, like the one on cooking, changed my life and I still see African fashion from this lens, though the dreams of fashion have long since fizzled out.

As we discussed, I realize that starting and stopping, or even failing with my initial ideas were commonplace. There was once a love for beading jewelry. I still love to make jewelry though for myself but there is a story on failure there as well. There are the never ending desire to become a childrens story book author. I have enough manuscripts to last me a lifetime, some published but for my family’s eyes only and some dating back to when my daughter was still in my womb and yes 10 years later, I am still far from achieving that dream in all the ways I had once hoped.

So why reflect on failure now and why does it matter. As I prep for my grant writing course, I am truly humbled by the mantra that keeps coming in my mind and it is simply that ‘failure is an option.’ Nothing personifies my life more these days than all the numerous grants that taught me how to fail successfully. I know it seems hard to imagine and yes, with motherhood, you will fail. I keep failing and I am learning from my mistakes every day. The latest is with my five year old and lord knows it seems like no matter how hard I try, I keep failing with him. Take for example an incidence the other day at school where his teacher queried the motives of his classroom drawing. Yes my son had depicted himself laying in a pool of blood and I stood by him crying. On probing further with him one on one, it turns out that the blood was actually strawberry juice and that I was not crying because of him, just upset with some blue marks on my shirt.

My son’s love mom drawing depicted with crosses.

In the course of reprimanding him about his drawing, I found myself telling him to curtail his public drawing as people may take it out of context. He listened and now my five year is very sensitive about what he draws for fear that people do not take it out of context. As a mother, I really failed here as the last thing I want is for my son is to never feel like he can draw anything he wants. I am slowly working with him to regain his love for drawing and even if it entails gory scene, these days I am like fine. At least, I know what’s in your head and we can talk it out. Will I fail again with him or any of my children. Yes. Failure is always an option. But after failure, comes lessons, experiences, and anything else that personifies learning. These days, I submit to whatever failure sends my ways. It is always an option.

Ooh and the soup turned out right.

Thank you Chidinma for reminding me once more that failure is an option. By the way, watching the sunset over a lake with our families is a thing and I think I will be adding more of this our lives.

‘Like desire, language disrupts, refuses to be contained within boundaries.’ These opening lines of bell hooks essay on ‘Language’ in her book Teaching to Transgress is my muse for today. Not only for the meaning behind these words, but for the simplicity of the lines. I am in the final stages of prepping for my grant writing course for this Fall and beginnings are my muse.

I love grants with beginnings that are effortless. Beginnings that are open, inviting and quite simply refreshing. They usher you in like a wave. Force you to pay attention to the rise and fall, even the moments where you actually dive in to catch the wave. I am inspired by words that take root in my memory. Those that refuse to be forgotten. Their presence in a grant, especially in the beginning of a grant startle me.

If you want to really master the art of grant writing, invest deeply in beginnings that are unforgettable. Begin to with beginnings that disrupt. Those that force connections and spaces for alternative thinking and innovations. We touch one another in language. Excel too with our grants through language. Grant ideas like desire, with language that refuses to be contained are the core of well-written grants. Mastering beginnings of such grants is my muse this fall.

Change happens in the last minute. I saw it for myself tonight during a UFC fight. Champions are made at the last minute too. 56 seconds till the end. I am not a fan of UFC. Never actually watched a fight until tonight. Two Black men were fighting. One Nigerian, another a Jamaican-born, British guy. The Nigerian Kamaru Usman was leading the first four rounds. We all expected him to win. Then at 4.04, with 56 minutes left, Leon Edwards, used his leg and well, Usman landed on the floor, a clear knockout per the rules of the game. We were all stunned.

I learnt something important though that matters for grant writing. Anything can be changed. Even at the last minute. Anything. And change just maybe the thing that propels you to victory. The goal though, is to stay in front or ahead of that thing that will lead to change for you. If you are going to draft a well-written grant, if it is going to be bold, ambitious, with scary goals focused on changing the world, then you must be prepared to change everything even at the latest minute. I learnt that watching this fight tonight. I intend to keep change at the last minute.

Grant writing is writing full of misery. Suffering, despair, anxiety, pain, torture, even hell. It has taken years to see that this too is a gift, not pleasure. But a gift.

I am on a quest to understand the purpose of this misery and why it matters for writing your best grants.

Not your most successful. Since success depends on humans and we know how fickle we are.

But your best, whether it fails or succeeds. I understand too that these words alone cannot describe the untold misery you will experience with each grant.

But as someone who has failed with so many grants, these days, the pain of each failure, has propelled me to work hard with grant writing. Know too the joys of suffering.

I could easily have stopped after each failure. But rather, I set them aside and worked to understand what I did wrong in other to get better with the next one.

I never expected to know the beauty of failure. Never planned to learn the glory of misery. No one sets out to intentionally play with fire.

But these days, I am dancing under the shadows of the sun. Learning too, the use of misery and why it matters for grants.

Anyone that tells you they love to write grants, often omits all the misery that accompanies it.

It’s this dignity of misery. It’s ability to teach, to re-secure a dream, a vision, or a goal, like a fly trapped, that keeps me longing for it’s ache.

The gentleness of freedom, the hope of mercy, for trapped flies, is the grace I hope you find for yourself with each grant you write.

So the gift, the one great gift that grant writing gave to me, despite all the pain that accompanied each grant I wrote, is openness.

Beyond the misery, with grants you will be receptive to new ideas. Innovations too. Old ways of thinking will gnaw your mind, until they become distant, like golden sunsets.

But mastering this openness comes at a price. Imagination being one of them. I have imagined grants I had no business writing. They sounded good in theory. I still love and stand by them. One of them for example, called sustainable marketplaces and why they matter for health, HIV in particular for many at the base of the pyramid. I was truly open to learn marketing, used novel concepts from the field of entrepreneurship, that reviewers told me over and over to stop wasting time.

I did the moment, I understood the lessons of misery. A lesson repeated often and available to those willing to try new things. Those unafraid of the unknown. Those in search of simplicity with anything, my own being health. And those passionate about lasting. This gift of misery and it use, birthed openness and countless reasons why all my ideas remain possible.

I sat through my first pre-commencement graduation at Saint Louis University today. There were many many highs and tearful moments. Some made me smile and others brought tears to my eyes. Imagine working so hard for your degree, even knowing what you will do upon graduation, just for the Lord to call you back home. I cried. No parent should ever bury their child. I sat through my first post-humous graduation too.

Seeing many of my now former students receive their diplomas also brought a bright smile to my face. We all did it. There were no models. Every single one of them persisted on their own. It’s my hope that they keep persisting beyond today and to the rest of their lives. Congratulations class of 2022.

The images you have of me. Mother, researcher, doing work in far away places. All of them are true. But those that are invisible. Everything hidden, under, and in between the lines like Toni Morrison’s invisible ink, are the bones that keep me tall and erect. One day, I will leave you hoping to see just how the story unfolds. What scenery passes through my window daily or whether i truly kiss the night air. Only that it would just be the beginning of the day in which all that I am to become, everything buried deeply within me, oozes forth like an ache.

I am possible, today, tomorrow, and forever, because I know my dreams, and my dreams go on dreaming, unbroken, unfettered, unafraid. They look to rivers and mountains, parks and creeks for inspiration that some call ambitious. Then they see struggles, all sorts of strife and pain lurking by the doorway, asking if we would like to come in. We do. Falling deeply into depths we pray will not leave us powerless. Not when we know what lies within us, all that cries out to arise from these depths we find ourselves in. We do, reaching for the skies above, hoping this wasn’t a dream. Dreams are always wasted if you don’t dream again. So we do, dreaming still that what lies hidden, everything under and in between the lines, remain unbroken, unfettered, unafraid, now that we touch all that aches within us.

My presentation today went well. We need more dreamers in global health.

Being rooted in all I do is free. I know my roots. I know my struggles too. I have lived through their lessons. Freedom takes a long time. With despair and fear, and a sprinkling of failure buried deep within. I have seen darkness of what it means to work. Roots buried deep only know dark. They know too that light takes time. I am beginning to know light. Both have taken a long time that I know first hand when the rain began to fall on me. I know too that you do not talk to a horse and wait for it’s reply. Whether it’s falling rain or neighing horses, I can testify that words are not enough to describe work. Neither are sentiments on papers. Only stories will do. Only the stories, with inward testimonies, of all the ways you reconciled shattered dreams with hopeful visions will do. Now that my roots pierce deeply into the soil, I look forward to shaming the devil as I speak my truth.

Image from Lucille Clifton’s Everett Anderson’s Goodbye personifies how I feel these day. I know my roots.