Her art teacher told her to draw a jungle. The instructions: Draw a jungle and put whatever you want in it. She listened. She wanted to draw extraordinary things or things not typically seen in a jungle. At least to her. So she drew a penguin. You wouldn’t find a penguin in a jungle. They prefer cold climates and not those typically seen in a jungle. She drew a dog. You would not find a dog in a jungle. And if you do, they won’t be typical. It is not normal to find dogs in a jungle. But far off to the corner, she drew an elephant trunk. You would not notice it unless you look closely. She didn’t want to draw the whole thing as it would take up the entire space. So she drew an elephant trunk as it tried to spray the top of the dog’s head. Finally she drew the sun. That’s typical and an extraordinary necessary condition for any forest. That and all sorts of vegetation suitable for jungles. That her imagination propels her to new height is an understatement. For whom is she drawing? In what mindset does she draw? And to what end?

These questions stay with me everytime I see something my daughter took the time to draw. An inescapable feeling arises too, waking whatever dormant spirit I possess to new heights where anything is possible. So I ask questions. What provoked this art form? Always eager to learn, my daughter proceeded to narrate the opening sentences of this keep. Seeing life and it’s many ways through her lens is pure delight. She dwells in a perpetual abyss of imagination and creation, of silence and glistening sound, of thoughts provoked by feelings full of new ways of seeing and being. She is her own masterpiece. To her mind there is no limit, no lines drawn or boundaries marked, not with dreaming or imagining, with her creation or her narration. To her mind, even a jungle can be filled with penguins or blue birds with elephants spraying water of the heads of dogs. To her mind anything is possible. This is my keep to her today. That as she turns nine, there was a time when anything was possible. And may she never forget that she is the jungle of her dreams, a den full of possibilities, full of passion, full of love, today, for tomorrow and always.

My daughter’s jungle.

In 2007, my doctoral advisor wrote a paper entitled ‘on being comfortable with being uncomfortable; centering an Africanist vision as a gateway for global health.’ In the paper, he had an image of a child neither romanticized nor diseased, representations that are typically the norm in discussions in anything concerning Africa.

Photo by Olusegun Fayemi

The paper goes on to discuss the misrepresentation of African identity and how part of that framing lies with researchers who would rather interpret Africa as disease-ridden and crisis plagued rather than humanity that populated the region. It was for this reason that the paper asked the question ‘can you define who you are without referencing what you do?’ Most researchers are very comfortable speaking about their identity based on their profession and incapable of defining who they are outside what they do. The paper goes on to discuss how African identity should be at the center to research on African health and development. Also how we need to deconstruct conventional assumptions and theories used to frame public health and solutions for Africans. I share all this to say that this paper helped me define the gate through which I enter research. I value research where knowledge production, including the acquisition and distribution of it is affirmed by those who own the knowledge, including those traditionally underrepresented in research.

This paper also remains one of my favorite papers and a source for daily inspiration whenever I need the assurance that I am fulfilling my destiny in academia. See the past three months have been brutal. Not only did I work as a homeschool teacher as as mother to 4 children under 8 years of age, I took on the Herculean task of submitting 2 NIH grant proposals back to back with me as a lead. I have been here before. The work isn’t a problem for me. If you know my history with NIH grants, then you would know that I am most comfortable being uncomfortable with submitting 2 grants at the same time. The reason I went to my advisor’s article today after submitting the second one (the first one was submitted last week) was because I needed to read these words to myself and I’m paraphrasing “continue to propel yourself to new levels possibilities are endless.’ My advisor pushed the need to not conduct research from a deficit model, but from one where people are represented just as they are. Not diseases or romanticized beings, but people with possibilities that are endless. The two grants that I submitted are a reflection of these possibilities. Of course lord only knows the outcome, but I am satisfied with myself and my never ending quest for possibilities that remain endless. Keep this for yourself.

I almost missed writing today. It has been a crazy month trying to wrap up two major projects. As they slowly come to an end, I realize that all that matters isn’t that I skip writing but that I hold myself accountable. I began this journey to chronicle life as a mother in academia. It is one hectic journey. From time management issues to time set aside for family, all of that can get in the way of whatever goals you set for yourself with your academic journey. I choose to write about my experiences because both are meaningful and critically important to me. There will always be day like this that get in the way of writing here. But still I intend to hold myself accountable for what I do as a mother in academia isn’t reflected anywhere. This one is truly a reminder to me to keep telling my story even on days when time isn’t on my side. Tell the story so the world knows that to be a mother, a professor and a grant writer is a field worthy of celebration. Hopefully this is just the beginning.

I am drawn to duality. The prolific Igbo author Chinua Achebe once described its importance in this way ‘where something stands something else will stand beside it. Nothing is absolute.’ Seeking a second point of view is essential for life. The intricate and deep structures that inform us are rarely examined when you take a first look. But when you examine anything closely, when you give it a second glance, a second read, a second look, it’s true meaning will be illuminated. It for this reasons I am forever drawn to nature. Every plant we encounter is full of dualities. They produce multiple meanings when you take a closer look, a closer smell, a closer feel. There are no permanent answers with any plant too. No permanent questions. No permanent solutions as everything is subject to change quite literally, season after season. It’s for this reason that I ask that you keep fragrant plantain lilies in mind. They are prime examples.

Fragrant Plantain Lilies

Not only are they a thing of beauty, but their apple green leaves with creamy white edges personifies the world duality for me. On one hand these plants are just that, plants like many you will see now during the Spring season. These fragrant plantain lilies are scattered all over the front of my house now. The prior owners of our home took gardening to another level. I remain grateful as I am clueless when it comes to plants. But this fragrant plantain lily is one to watch. I was hooked from the name personally as I absolutely adore edible plantains. To know this word as lilies and in my garden makes me smile. In terms of make up, it is also an ornamental plant whose plants deliver fragrance when they bloom sometime in July or August. Apparently come July, these plants will begin to display huge white trumpets that are essentially lilies with a sweet fragrance. Their Japanese name is ‘Yu-Lei’ which means white fairy. For now, even looking at the plants brings a smile to my face. But it’s duality as both plants and flowers is what I choose to keep as it bears many semblance to my dual roles as a mother and a professor.

Fragrant plantain lilies.

On one hand my days are full of diapers and tears. These days erupting tooth and growing pains of transitions from infants are the norm. That and the gift of watching my son transition from crawling to walking. This duality makes me smile as he keeps making great strides everyday with perfecting the art of walking as with this video below.

We are walking!

By day and night I am also a researcher, one passionate about research that lasts. It’s why I remain drawn to writing grants as it helps me address one fundamental reason why research never lasts and it’s the lack for funds. But what if we have funds and then draft our research in ways that ensure that they remain. Another duality, subtle but there when you begin with the end in mind even for research grants or interventions you carry out. I adore this new focus on duality. One that I am grateful to plants like fragrant plantain lilies for teaching me this Spring season. Keep them in mind as well babies crawling and walking and mothers working as researchers.

I usually write in the morning. It’s my best time for thinking. But the past few weeks my mornings have been preoccupied with work. I have been in grant writing mode since the start of March. It’s has been a painful and bittersweet journey to get back into. The last time I went on this journey was about a year ago and well, I failed. So to get back on it again is full of trepidation. But still I continue. When your mind is as chaotic as mind, grant writing can truly become an obsession. Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Beautiful Struggle noted how when he obsessed, he wanted only what he wanted and gave no attention to other matters. Grant writing is like that for me, a beautiful struggle that keeps me transfixed whenever I begin. Someone asked awhile back to a catalogue my grant writing process. How do I begin and how do I end?

Grantwriting is like a beautiful struggle!

For starters the beginning is full of doubts. I try to find any reason not to write a grant, not to put myself through the process, not to even think that I may have any idea and that the idea may indeed be valuable. In the beginning, I dread the grant writing process. But then slowly it’s like I am bitten by a bug. A grant bug. I look for the deadlines. If it’s 2-3 months away, then it’s potentially doable. But more doubts creep in. Who are co-conspirators? Is it worth bringing them along? What will they add? Why even bother? There are more doubts in the way of starting any grant journey. They key is to wrestle through it with different folks until the bug bite becomes an itch that simply won’t go away. The more you scratch, the more the ideas start to make sense until you plunge headfirst, into a grant writing abyss that takes you on an never ending journey towards many unknown. I am currently on that journey. They doubts are still intense but the people I keep meeting across this journey are the fuel I need. Take for example today. I was in a room full of black scholars. All seven of us have one degree or the other and we came in all shades of brown skin so divine, that it makes you want to join Beyonce and say just how beautiful we are when we come together for our people. I have no idea where this particular grant journey is taking me. I am also prepared to fail. That’s another part of my process that I share with every one I encounter from the beginning. We may fail but I would still rather go in this journey with you. It’s is a journey after all and like I always say, I am glad I have a plan. Surrounding myself with the right people, learning from them, adapting or changing the course of the grant where necessary all while nurturing that which makes us unique is the reason I absolutely love grant writing. I keep diving head first to as it’s it’s a journey from the head to the soul for me and with the right people, i am prepared to fail. But what if we are transformative. That then is the start of an endless journey, once that the destination is still unknown. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything else (singing Brown Skin Girls)…

One of the key micronutrients for plants essential for stabilizing cell walls and membranes is calcium. It also acts as a second messenger helping plants sense and physiologically respond to environmental cues. So a soil’s calcium content is crucial for plants and their survival. Enter flowering dogwoods, a key source of calcium.

Flowering Dogwoods.

One of gems along the street by our home is an array of flowering dogwoods. Spring seems to be their time to shine. And they do with their bright pink colors dominating the sidewalk. Flowering dogwoods are best known for their high calcium content. Their foliage, twigs, and fruit are high in calcium and contains amounts that are above those needed for adequate skeletal growth by other species in the environment including birds and deers. But it’s their ability to improve soil content that I want to dwell on today. Flowering dogwood are known as soil improvers due to their calcium pumping technique. When their leaves litter, not only are they a rich and important source of calcium for soils, but they decompose more rapidly than other species making its calcium content more readily available to the soil below. Yet regardless of it abundance, only about 16% of its calcium content are sequestered to the soil and other species. The rest are retained within flowering dogwoods. The only way soils can tap into 84% of its calcium content is when the leaf litters around it. Let this sink in for a moment. For soils to access the rich intracelluar content of a flowering dogwood, the tree has to shed its leaves. Otherwise the calcium content remains within flowering dogwood. Which is why for me and today’s keep, motherhood for those who work and care for others is like a flowering dogwood.

The past few days of my life have been busy with me delving into a grant-writing full time. For the past seven years, most of my grant writing occurs during the Spring semester and my process is like the story of a flowering dogwood. On the surface, I’m just as pink as can be, truly bright and radiating with ideas that are as splendid as a flowering dogwood. Something about Spring season makes me feel alive and full of ideas hence grant writing. But can I be honest? No matter how much I write, my grants only get 16% of my time. Like flowering dogwood, despite being abundant with ideas or calcium in their case, none of that will come into fruition unless reviewers understand our 84% potential.

Most mothers in academia and elsewhere maybe relate. We give our all, often a small portion of our existence, yet we are only fully vindicated when others see or know for themselves the full breath and merit of our potential. Nothing in my grant will say how I wrote this while homeschooling or being a mother to four children. Nothing will shed light on all the multitasking it takes to write grants. Nothing will even highlight all the meetings, all the phone calls, all the assistance, all the sleepless nights it takes to put just one grant together. This is why I can honestly say I consider gender greatly when I review grants. For to be a mother, to put in just a fraction of your existence into any grant, is a tremendous feat alone. I’m not saying or asking for grant reviewers to be partial to mothers or women, but when the statistics shows that most successful grants are by men, flowering dogwoods should come to mind.

Of course men are successful, they can put in 84% of their best foot forward while women actually give 16%. Take a look at the graph below from a paper I usually share at the start for my grant writing course. Men remain in funding pools at rates higher than women overtime. The funding longevity for women are low, with women holding fewer grants in general, submitting fewer applications and successfully renewing grants. Let me repeat this again for emphasis, flowering dogwoods and their potential should truly come to mind here. Of course the statistics are worse for researchers of color but that’s another post for another day. Our resilience is out of this world, not only as a mother, but as a black woman in academia. I usually joke but maybe it’s isn’t a joke, but if only I had a space to go away and just write my grants, maybe a weekend getaway or sorts with no kids crying or no after school games to schedule, then every grant would get my 84% just like soils get the full calcium content of flowering dogwoods when their leaves litter.

For now, 16% will do. That’s the lesson I am keeping from flowering dogwood. To still do my part to improve the public’s health, even if all I can give is 16%. It’s for this reason I ask you to keep working mothers like flowering dogwood in mind. We can give 84% if only conditions are right. But rarely are conditions ever right, so what you see from us is only 16% of our potential. And when that 16% thrives, when you come across a working mother who makes the most out of her 16%, get out of her way and watch as she blossoms like a flowering dogwood.

I am on a mission to experience joy in my journey through life. To that, I am learning what makes me feel whole. Bell Hooks’s Sisters of Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery is leading the way too. From her, I learnt that I am moved by passion. It’s in everything I do these days. Reading and learning about myself, using words to shape my life, my own way, my hurdles and my hopes, makes me hungry for opportunities about the life-force inside of me. Passion has also helped me break free from the clutches of others. More than ever, I am reclaiming my life, reclaiming my dreams, reclaiming my peace and telling my story along the way. My sense of self is becoming more in union with those I call my community. For them and only them, I am moved by passion.

My journey through life keeps unfolding!

I am also moved by two things storytelling and grantwriting. I didn’t realize how both helped me love and live my life on my own terms. But they do. With stories, I am able to counter the narratives you may have of me. With stories I insert myself into herstory (her and story) so that myself has the final say on what they, you, anyone, say about me. With stories I am free to be me. When minds are decolonized, anything is possible. Nothing I say about myself can be used in contempt against me. Its my tools after all, sharpened in my hands. Just as knowing what you do is equally important with claiming your space in academia, it is so true that none of this will ever make sense, if you don’t understand your why, your reason for being, your core. So in meeting the challenge to create a space where I flourish, I am passionate about writing grants. It helps me understand my core a lot better. It is also storytelling at its finest. For to convince strangers to give you money, requires a very beautiful story worth telling over and over again. And when you have that story, once your iron out it’s kinks and make sense of its arc, it’s constraints, it’s opportunities, you will find out that it’s all connected to the core, the why, the reason for being. It’s an endless journey, this journey, my journey.

The ability to combine my pleasure for storytelling and grantwriting is the forth dimension to my life. Some may know me as a mother. I value this life immensely. Others may know me as a wife. I equally love this role with my partner in crime, my fiercest critic who is ready to tell me as it is, even when it hurts. Some truths about oneself are different when they come from those who love you. Others may know me as a professor, a researcher. I remain grateful for the opportunity to serve in this capacity. But few know me as a storyteller and a grant writer . It’s my best asset, my greatest secret, my strength and place of safety. In my stories and my grants, I am most alive whether I succeed or fail. I learn so much about my possibilities just because I tried. It’s this dimension that I intend to spend time honing. A movement is coming. One that will expand this experience of joy, the experience of companionship, one story at a time, one grant at a time, all of which I have learnt from this journey through life. It will be led by women for women and I will be part of it. Putting this movement together will be the greatest joy of my life. For know, keep this journey, my journey, our journey in mind.

What if we could dream up the perfect research or project? What will it entail and why? Who will you partner with and why? And how far will you go to create something innovative. The grant writer in me dreams of opportunities that allow me to wet my soul literally speaking. I am a sucker for grants that want innovation. Those that demand for it make me weak. Grants unafraid of researchers willing to go there are my weakness for I will. I have the tenacity and determination to think up crazy ideas if only they will make it out of my head and into something easy to understand. Yesterday, brainstorming with my team was one such rare opportunity where I let my mind and heart dream of the perfect research experience. They asked what will it entail. Before I even knew what it would be, I said of course something on storytelling and grant writing. Anything that lets you know whoever you are that would want my services, that I would be willing to join you on this adventure called life. The journey is yours, but mine too. We came up with a name. It’s in praise of an endless journey. One that I would take for the perfect grant. If only those exist. Till then, keep dreaming.

I am compelled to write. Not often for myself, but for others. The mistakes I have made with life in academia, life as a mother, can be avoided. The lessons I have learned as a black woman in academia, a black mother, including mothering a child society labels as not being neurotypical, can be shared. For what is typical anymore? That a child would rather paint in pictures than regurgitate the same mundane lesson plans over and over. That a woman, myself, can have children and still be in academia. That I can love my job, love that it helps me interact with students, love that it forces me to keep learning, love that it enables me to continue to question the questions. The roads we all must take through life are ours to take. My journey has not been smooth. But it’s mine. And so I am compelled to write about it so you know that I am human. With flaws and imperfections, hopes and impediments. I am also a storyteller. My vehicle through life was never really about the spaces I occupy, but the stories I tell. I am learning that now. It has taken a pandemic for me to wake up to my potentials. It has taken a pandemic for me to wake up and start telling the stories that matter. Our best weapon for future pandemics is not to marshall facts but stories. Stories can be our hope and strength. A very present help for future pandemics, without which we are blind.

So I am compelled now, in this phase of my life, to write stories so we never forget people like Jazz Dixon, the first person to die from COVID in Saint Louis City where I live. She was only 31 years old and loved to bake. I am compelled to write about Jacob Plange-Rhule, my mentor and principal investigator on our ongoing research in Ghana. Covid may have robbed us of his gentle warm smile, but I am compelled to write so we never forget him. I am compelled to write about the times we forgot, 1918 to be precise. I am compelled to write about this picture below of a man and his two children. By the time Red Cross stopped by his home with food, their mother had just died. They lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. I am compelled to write about them because our history books did not even think to include their names.

From the National Archives. Red Cross brought food to this family, but for they arrived, their mother had just died. They lived in North Carolina. I’m digging to learn what I can about them. History forgot them.

I am compelled to write because we have been here before with pandemics and the shockingly sparse data on what black populations did to mobile resources, to engage in activism, to survive the pandemic. I am compelled write because unlike today, we knew back then that masks worked, social distancing too. I am compelled to write about what went wrong then with the pandemic we find ourselves in. I am compelled to write because over 500,000 deaths in the US alone, over 2 million globally, demand that we never forget that they lived. For them, I am compelled to write so we never fall into amnesia, another forgotten pandemic, another forgotten experience of racism, or inequities and their contributions to pandemics or silence, or survival with being black and female in academia. I am compelled to write so we never forget. Keep writing.

The past 2 days, I have been co-organizing one of the most significant workshops on pandemics. There were 12 panelists, 4 anchor speakers, all charged to answer one question: how might we prepare the future for pandemics. We spoke about the need to focus on culture, group identity, health behaviors, equity, information, misinformation and communication and last but not least, sustainability or how to keep the memories of pandemics overtime. Since the pandemic began last year, I knew I was hungry for a space. Not envying the work of frontline workers, I felt like the voices of other equally significant workers were absent.

Of course the medical field sprung right into action and rightfully so. They have been heavily funded over the years, such that preparations were all they know whether with pandemics or even epidemics. Yet even still, I felt that the voices of others were not being heard. Voices that could have had dialogues, or even polylogues around mask wearing for example. Voices that would have taught what washing hands entails, not just for even adults, nit only for children, but for all of us to live through the pandemic. Voices of diverse people, people who identify with other groups in the US, for example, like the Nigerian American associations that are often common. Voices of everyday citizen with clear and understandable language that wasn’t focused on effect sizes or even the difference between effectiveness versus efficacy. Above all, I knew that voices of the storytellers were no where to be found. From February 26-March 26, we recorded the first 1,000 deaths due to Covid in the US. I remember the front of the Washington Post Newspaper with the thumbnail pictures of the dead. I remember being afraid, wondering whether this thing would even reach my home. These memories haunted me, kept me up at night, kept me glued to the TV, to the news of the dead, to the news of the living, especially those defied all odds just to live. It would take an entire year before I would feel like I have found my space with pandemics. Not because I didn’t start and stop, not one or 2 research ideas, many that never came to fruition, but because I didn’t think anyone cared.

The past 2 days have made me realize that the time for the storytellers of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has arrived. Like Achebe shared in the Anthills of the Savannah, there are those who go have been called to lead with the pandemic. We thank them for their leadership. Many more were called to serve. They did so fearlessly, without even regard to their own lives. Then there are those who are called to wait. I am one of them. I have been waiting for the right moment so we take over from the leaders and the servants. Achebe would note that the leaders are important, the servants too. But it is those who wait, that are most crucial as they stories they are bound to tell about this pandemic would be our escort to future pandemic without which we are blind. They past 2 days of meeting helped to make sense of my role. And it’s quite simple, one that I hope you will join me as I keep telling stories from the COVID19 pandemic.

So I close with this quote by James Baldwin, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.’ The forgotten pandemic of 1918, the one with glaring omission of how black families survived or didn’t, the one with shockingly limited accounts of black nurses and the many ways they adapted to save lives of black people, the one out of touch, destitute, wicked, blind to the lived experiences of black people, has etched priorities that I can’t wait to begin. We cannot forget all that has happened during the coronavirus pandemic. So I take it very seriously when another death is added to the toll, when and how schools reopen, how we make sense of the fact that the virus is in the air like one of our presenters Kimberly Prather kept reminding us today. I take it seriously that my own mentor passed away as a result of the pandemic. The past 2 days has etched priorities that underscores the seriousness of this pandemic so we don’t get another amnesia, another forgotten pandemic. I am prepared to do the work necessary and I hope you keep storytellers in mind. Nothing will be changed with future pandemics, if we don’t begin to document the stories from this pandemic.