There was a time, all I did was fail with every grant I wrote. Welcome to a new month. I woke up to an email sent to the entire university celebrating a recent success today. I am honored and grateful but I can’t help but remember the times of failure. Yes, failure. Sure the messages and all the well-wishes, have been heartfelt and words fail me. But it’s the failures that I want to dwell on today. I want you reading this to know that success comes at a major cost. For me, with every one grant you see that is successful, there were close to 7 (in my beginning days, but now 2-3) that were not successful. So when I see this beautiful write up of one success, my heart goes out to wrinkles along the way. All of them that paved the way to make this one success come through.

So with the story of STAR, what many may not know was that it was written after a major loss. I had written a grant called, I-ARISE. I love naming all my grants by the way and everyone writing a grant should always be intentional with their names.

I-ARISE was over $13 million or so. It was and still remains the most expensive NIH grant I have ever assembled. It also failed. I went into depression. I still remember seeing the news of it’s failure that faithful July month and just being in a rot for days. I didn’t eat. Just slept in my room and cried and cried and wondered why such a beautiful grant failed. When I got through the sadness, I got our team together and we immediately started taking pieces of it apart. What many may not know was that I-ARISE became LIGHT (see here:LIGHT), which was literally a sidenote on the grant. I turned one massive failure into the thing that gives me joy everyday.

See the side of the magazine. lol.

With the beginning of LIGHT, came thoughts on what else to do that would literally bring more light. Enter STAR. I-ARISE is also STAR and much better. We began writing that grant in August (please I do not recommend writing an NIH grant in a month. I just have a decade of experience with plenty failures).

We were also writing an NIH Fogarty D-43 at the same time. I tend to write 2 grants with similar deadlines. It seems to help me see things better. The D-43 was aptly called I-RISE, and yes it was my self-care attempt at getting over the failure of I-ARISE. The name alone got me through the failure. I worked on the D-43 literally feeling like I was rising from the ashes like a Phoenix.

While writing the D-43, I came across the NIAID R-25 announcement. They were both similar in nature, only that one was for my work in Nigeria, while the other would allow me to finally give back in the US. It was no brainer. I am a Penn State McNair Scholar, a Penn State MHIRT scholar, a Penn State Bunton-Waller scholar, all of which were geared towards helping minority students succeed at Penn State. McNair in particular was my first foray to research with Dr. Cassandra Veney, a woman studies professor, as my very first mentor ever. Dr. Airhihenbuwa was my second mentor. The two of them are the foundation upon which I stand.

I wrote the D-43 and R-25 at the same time. Deadlines were very close. D-43 in August, R-25 in September. The D-43 failed. It wasn’t even discussed. In fact, reviewers said I had no business or experience writing one, my paraphrase of their summary statement. The R-25 is what we celebrate today. I share this story because behind every success, there are failures and honestly I made crucial mistakes with the D-43. I saw them while writing the R-25. I needed to write the D-43 in other to get the one that was meant for me. I am nothing without my failures and I hope they inspire you to keep yours too. They will one day inspire your success. You can read the successful story here: STAR R-25 Grant . I only want you to keep all your failures in mind.

I think about us today. Black mothers wherever you are. I think about the thoughts we have for our children. The fear we have too. I think about what tomorrow may bring. What today brings. I want to say it will be better. It may not be. I want to tell you to dry your eyes. You can cry too. I want to only see love and life in your eyes. Though I see hate and death too. How did we get here too? When did we turn on our own in this way too. Another death, another life. By our own hands. With our hands. How did we get here. The universe keeps turning they say. We keep spinning too. Round and round and round and back to where it all began. The failure to relate to others. When others fail to relate. Young black men full of hate, howling hate, for each other. How did we get here? Life now imprisoned, death now, our best offering. The thinking that history happens all the time. Only this time, his name is Tyre. He called out for you, his mother. Mama, Mama, he said. Today will be hard. Tomorrow too. But listen, you are still the rim of the world. Your horizon is grand. Without you, who will they call. They will call you, always, mama and you will rise again and rise again to catch the sun, your son, rise again.

How I choose to remember him, his smile was everything. Sleep well.

Keep black mothers in mind, all of us raising black boys in America because I don’t know how we got here, how death is our best offering to those that look like us now. The system is rigged and racist. I get it. But to each other. No one thought hey, that maybe my own brother. That is the part that has my heart in pieces. We don’t even see each other anymore. So I really want to know how did we get here. Who are you besides what you do and why didn’t they see him as their own brother.

Each day, nearly 28 women die from cervical cancer in Nigeria. Angela Akumuo, my sister-in law, was one of them in the summer of 2021. She was 53 years old. Her death, like those of many women who continue to die from cervical cancer in Nigeria and globally, could have been prevented. It was also discovered late. She lived in pain for years, and died within 3 months of finally opening up about her illness. There are so many effective evidence-based tools to prevent, diagnose or treat cervical cancer. Research too, with the field of dissemination and implementation science, my chosen field of study. Yet, why are women, like my sister in-law, in the prime of their lives, still dying from cervical cancer in Africa?

Look at the state of cervical cancer in Nigeria and many other African countries and you’ll understand. With an estimated population of 206 million individuals, Nigeria has over 56 million women aged 15 years and above who are at risk of developing cervical cancer. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus, with 67% attributed to HPV 16 and 18. As a result, the government recommends screening for cervical cancer from aged 30. Young girls and women are recommended to get vaccinated as well from age 9. Yet less that 10% of eligible women are screened and 14% of girls are vaccinated. Is it any wonder that cervical cancer remains the second most common cancer among women in Nigeria, also one of the most preventable? 

In 2020, nearly three years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) and 194 countries, pledged for the first time to eliminate cervical cancer by pursing three key steps: vaccination, screening and treatment. A recent costing exercise by WHO for the Nigerian government’s strategic plan on prevention and control of cervical cancer estimated that $18.1 million will be needed to fully immunize Nigerian girls at $3.98 per girl aged 9-13 years, $919 million will be needed to provide 24.8 million screening services and 2.2 million pre-cancer treatments, while $59 million will be required for cancer diagnosis, treatment and palliative care. Right now, Nigeria dedicates 5.75 percent of its budget to health with about N81 billion naira (roughly $100 million dollars) to health care services, all of which are insufficient to help the country reach its global goals for cervical cancer elimination by 2030. The cost of vaccination, screening and treatment remains an obstacle for many Nigerian women and girls. So, it’s no surprise then that Nigerian researchers and key stakeholders are turning back to Nigerians themselves to find innovative ways to lead the national response to eliminate cervical cancer. 

Enter For girls and women by girls and women. This new crowdsourcing program led by myself and researchers at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research led by Dr. Oliver Ezechi and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, led by Dr. Joseph Tucker, is the latest from our, for youth by youth group, that has spent the past five years working to promote HIV self-testing with Nigerian youths themselves using crowdsourcing open calls, 48-hours designathons, month-long innovation boot camps and subsequent implementation of finalist programs in community settings. Crowdsourcing allows large number of people to become involved and engaged in developing solutions to health issues. Our program, now in its fifth year, boldly displays how Nigerian youth themselves can be partners and leaders with HIV prevention interventions and not just beneficiaries of interventions designed by researchers alone. Interventions created by the group, has led to an increase in HIV self-testing from 29% at baseline to 90% at 3 months follow.

We are striving to repeat the same success but this time with HPV vaccination among girls and HPV screening among their mothers or female caregivers. We know that the thought of cervical cancer may strike fear in people’s heart, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But it is possible to act against it by partnering with us to lead the design and implementation of HPV campaigns, particularly HPV vaccination of young girls and HPV screening of eligible women. Our crowdsourcing open calls will be launched in Nigeria this January and it is our hope that through our program goals, Nigerian girls and women can become prime leaders in designing, implementing and evaluating interventions that increase uptake of HPV vaccinations and HPV screening, while eliminating cervical cancer as we know it.

Angela Akunmo may have died from a disease so preventable. However, through the launch of the crowdsourcing open calls for HPV campaigns for girls and women by girls and women, her death will not be in vain.

Every now and then, I come across poetry that is arch and precise.

Some focused on the sublime that is our sublime, like the earth that is our earth.

And when I seat and mediate on the words, reflect too on the light they carry, I am pushed to carry this light too.

Knowing there is light in the light that is out there.

Certain words I read, stay with me, like notes to black women, moving and free.

Toni Morrison’s letter ‘A knowing so deep’ is one. Gwendolyn Brooks musings to Black women, is another.

I especially love these lines: ‘where there is cold silence.’ Think about it for a moment.

If you are Black and woman, moving and free, whether in academic settings or medical settings, in politics or any other setting, silence will be your companion.

Yet, despite it, prevail. My second favorite word in Gwendolyn Brooks’s musing.

Prevail. Black woman. Prevail.

I hear these words in Brook’s voice, and the voice of my mother, my grandmother and a generation of other women, a long line of them, I met and never met. They keep reminding me each day to prevail.

I was born around the same time a dearly beloved older woman in my family passed. Reincarnated to fulfill her previous life desires. Her full story remains unknown but when days get dark or dreary and work seems insurmountable, I hear her voice, which sound like mine, reminding me always to prevail. So I do.

I prevail. Through days full of polished tears. I prevail. Through hollow days with no rest. I prevail. Across a room full of questioning stares. I prevail. And even when they pry without care. I prevail.

Where there is cold silence. I’ll prevail. Through brilliant clouds. I’ll prevail. Through vigorous moon. I’ll prevail. And when nothing else matters. I’ll still prevail. Knowing that their silence will still be cold. Yet, I’ll prevail. When confrontations are startling and many. I’ll prevail. Even where there are no hurrays or handshakes or smiling faces. I’ll still prevail. All because large countries remain in eyes that still long to create and train flowers. For this reason, we shall continue to prevail in a light that is our light. See the sun, see it there shining in all it’s glory. There, exactly there, lies a Black woman who has learnt how to prevail. When they come for her and they will come in a silence that is cold. Prevail, you shrewd sun. Prevail and still prevail.

That’s the message Gwendolyn Brooks wants all Black women to know written years ago but still so poignant and relevant. It was a joy to rewrite this for today’s Black women. Keep prevailing wherever you are. And see the original piece below.

Original piece by Gwendolyn Brooks

The woman who feels everything,

knows the name of her pain,

the source of her gains

and certainly how to carry rain.

To see her too,

like the desert waiting,

or like a flower blooming,

for tomorrow praying,

but today dreaming

knowing what she feels is daring,

but grateful still for this wild blessings.

May I never forget what the moon, the stars and sun know.

From my son’s heart to mine.

The past few days, weeks and months have been full of wild blessings. Full with the knowledge too that that surest failure as Lucille Clifton, once noted, is the unattempted walk. My June and July was full of impossible journeys, one where the news of 2/3 of my attempts at walking, has landed me in space full of blessing that can only be described as wild. I still don’t know the outcomes but I wanted to take the time to thank the one who leads me. When he said that even if I pass through waters he would be with me, I believed him. Not even all the troubles I encountered overwhelmed me. Fire didn’t burn me and trials did not hurt me. It’s for this reason I say thank you for bringing me safe this far. As for tomorrow, I don’t know what it holds but for today, I agree with the moon, the stars and the sun.

Thankful for what the grass and my babies know too!

‘I promise you l, I’ll be right back like karma.’

I love these lines. They are from an artist my son listens to on repeat. His name his Phyno and my second son is his biggest fan. Phyno sings and raps in Igbo and has been a tremendous source of comfort for my son when sensory issues get in the way. For example, we got through our vacation in Jamaica, because we put all of Phyno’s music on a mini iPod for music only we purchased on Amazon. I am truly that parent that does not subscribe to IPads or tablets, not on vacation and certainly not at home. My kids have them. In fact they have 2 because I hid the first sets and had no idea where we kept them. So I ended up purchasing new ones thinking they would help my children with play and learning. Let’s just say, even those are hidden now and I have no idea where and intend to not even look for them. I do know we will keep music around and I’m tempted to try kindle only tablets for books only. But till then, music is all we have at home.

Image from The art hotel. The eyes are like karma to me. I keep staring at them. We are never what we seem, even at first glance, like my son and I. So ignore us at your peril.

To get through the summer vacation, we exposed my second son to all the music he loved, watched as he engaged with some and not the others, and evaluated a changed in his behaviors over time. Of course, it was a mini research for me. I am a trained researcher and conducting researcher has helped me cope with a high functioning son on the spectrum and these days music has a way of making things big and bright for us. Today, on our way to Piano lessons, while listening to Phyno, I was moved by the words: ‘I promise you, I’ll be right back like karma.’ Everything about it is lyrically beautiful, but it’s their intent that I choose to keep today.

The past couple of days have me doing things that many thought I didn’t care of or ignored. I have always said that people ignore me at their own peril. Every single thing I do is for a reason, down to the words I write. Of course they are never clear when I spew them out and these days expressive writing is all I do, another evidence based research with healing properties. Whether writing or music, if you ignore me and all I stand for, I promise you, that you will come back to me like karma. It’s my gift and my curse.

I know my soul and when I set out to do anything, what you won’t get is repetition or cut and paste because old things bore me. It’s the reason why I actually don’t like presentations as I work too hard on them. I also think 60 minute meetings are boring and unproductive. 30 minutes of focused attention does wonders. Fifteen minutes are insane but phenomenal when you have a clear agenda. I share all this to loudly say, ignore me at your peril. What is in me is greater that me and if you do, I promise you that you will be right back to me like karma.

We were told we were obstacles. Something like impossible. For how are we possible, when all we seem are never clear like a dream. So we lived like a dream. Like a difficult stream with no beams for barricades, only palisades as blockades and surrounded with stockades that leave you with no accolades. Confined now to roadblocks that clog, obstacles that block, and stop, we became more like stumbling blocks. We suffered through more flops, that seem like shocks, every time we saw an opening out of luck.

See every time some path seemed to open from nowhere, every time it seemed all our stumbling blocks were finally going somewhere, all the loads, finally unloading, we were met with more obstructions, ditches with no instructions on how to snag out of complications turned limitations, and impediments, turned frustrations. No instructions too on how to dig out of enclosures that seemed more like restrictions, delays that seemed like hindrances or setbacks for life constantly dealing with a barrier.

Now, it may seem like this is a book of barriers. Maybe, but we write to share that all we faced, all the hurdles, that seemed like turtles in a chortle, every single manacle, and shackle, all the restraints that seemed like a life full of deterrent, none of it was a detriment in the end. For we are warriors. Something like warrior women. And this, this is a book of warriors.

I watched The Woman King. Nothing else to say except what came out of my spirit above and well, go watch it.

The news of the Queens death came to me yesterday in the middle of work. I paused to immediately reflect on the number 70 and the age 25. Here was a woman who ruled her land for over 70 years, a land she inherited at the age of 25. Legacies are built this way, young and over a long period of time. Like many though, I also tried to imagine all the things that legacy carries, the good, the bad, the unspoken, the hidden, the hurdles, the joy, the pain, and whatever may personify love. Such a legacy, one built over 70 years includes all of this and more, many in full view for all to see and many we will never know. Independence also immediately came to mind as images of what happened when African countries, like Ghana, Nigeria asked for their independence under her watch. I imagine those conversations were not easy, probably disturbing and ultimately met with agreement. To also rule over that legacy kept me both numb and uneasy about her passing. Places we call home have a history that includes the Queen’s legacy, a history that is often told from one point of view to the detriment of other points of view.

So yesterday all the unknown stories about this 70 year legacy came into my mind like a flood. They say when an old person dies, a library dies with them and truly I felt like a trillion libraries died with the Queen yesterday. I still have questions, some I know the answers will not be easy, some I know will never be known. But for all her legacy, how she kept all this intact is my keep for today. That and what is your legacy and what are you doing to keep it whether 2 years or 70 years later. Are you also speaking things unspeakable to your situation, reveling in the joys and hurdles of life, or will your story, like your legacy die the moment you depart? These questions are among the reasons why I ask anyone I know to try to keep something about themselves, their way, so their libraries remain, long after they are gone. The full picture of your life will never truly be known, but at least you will have a say is what is to be told about you, when words fail you.

For me, I have been writing for two years, the only way I can. I call it my ‘What’ll keep.’ Part reflections, part poetry, part notes, some little, some long, but all worthy of being kept. I began this list as a form of detour from the trauma of homeschooling a child on the spectrum during a global pandemic. I wanted to give a sense of the beauty, the hurdles, the joy, the truth about life as a mother and life as being black and female in academia. I wanted to also reclaim my essence beyond the narrow confines of academic world view.

See, I am more than whatever academic paper you will read about me. I have always know this. I also know my role within academia, what to do and not do, all in the name of survival. I wanted to take all the pieces of me, those known and unknown, those I am discovering and uncovering, every single thing complicated and uncomplicated about my world and give them a space to breathe, all on their own. My one mission was to give attention to all aspects of my life that are often hidden, but yet central to what I do as a parent and professor. I also called it finding my light.

I have been in darkness for too long. You will, if all you use is the master’s language. So I sought other styles, created this space, just so all of me could flourish as I wanted. This blog will always be the best gift I gave to myself and my career, two years ago. That I continue to celebrate this recalibration of my career is no small feat. It may all seem like a long list of things to keep. It’s intentional. It may seem disjointed, not connected as finely as any introduction, methods, result or discussion section would suggest. It’s intentional. It may also seem like I’m unproductive from an academic standpoint when all my energy is spent on few words or long essays that I can’t even cite on my CV. That too is intentional. It was never for my CV. Never too for academia even though it has so many academic undertones.

The truth is that it was for that divergent part of my brain, the part that knows our worth and refuses for us to be boxed in one corner or described as such as such, the part that loves writing, grant writing in particularly, the part to that would rather write and fail than never ever write a grant again. For that part to flourish, then it would need a break every now and then and this list of things to keep have been the perfect gift to me. I am in awe of all I have written down in 2 years. In awe too of how writing in this way keeps giving and giving to my intellectual life.

It’s been 2 years of relentless pursuit of something to keep and this fearless unearthing of all I choose to keep, my way, is the clarity with life, that I never knew my soul needed. I truly appreciate the grace each keep offers. They are my legacy, my words, my way. Here is to two years down and many more to go. Happy Anniversary.

I write at a crossroads of a life that has known pain, felt anger, cherished joy, and carried the idea of sustaining anything as urgent. I write too from a place of commitment, a mind that has known what it means to transform and be transformed, all while identifying and defining what life means to me. I have never taken the path others take. I have never done things only to regret them later. I have lived as though life could end tomorrow. I have dreamed as if dreaming was air, living, lying awake, on a bed of green grass as soft blue skies and clouds glide by. I have done these things and still I choose to write. These days, writing is all I know. So I write for connections between and among women, the most feared, the least understood, those tender, sharp and unafraid with eyes startling and ready to transform. Truly I write for the most transformative being that ever existed. I write so she lives, whether as a woman by herself, a sister, a friend or a mother. Today I write to myself and all the women we celebrate.

Happy Mother’s Day

Four times, have I known pain. Child birth would bring pain so unbearable that you scream from the deepest depths of your soul. Four times have I screamed. To hold lives so complex, with smiles all for me. The piercing cries of restless children that test all you know. Especially at night, in middle of a deep sleep that forces you to stroll aimlessly for their needs. I always smile when today comes along. Not for the love I see in my girl and my boys, my better me, but for the journey we get to take. Nothing sets me so high than a reminder of all we have been through. The journey we still take through tears and dreary darkness. Those to Andy’s frozen custard for pleasure in a cup and spoon. These things, this rush of beauty and pain are the heart of motherhood for me. We knew there would be pain. The beginning was full of it. We knew pain will continue. Today still has some, lurking to uncover unknown and hidden spaces. We have tried to be strong. Tried to be our best selves so they too stand and be strong on their own. We have laughed and we have cried. We have laid down in mourning for an angel, and a bird we named Sky. They know good things never last. Like blue birds named Sky. They know too that we are in this moment together. A unique group we are. With birds and lilly magnolias. Grass so green, skies so blue that all we can do is lie down and let life be. We are living together for this moment. The skies paint an everlasting blue color. We look at each other, hoping this moment lasts forever.

Supreme Court Justice Ketanji, woman to woman, I know many who look like you. They look like me. You illuminate our ways for all to see. Uncover cherished dreams long gone with the wind. Remind us to persevere too. We see you and whisper sweet prayers of thanks. Many will never fully understand what it takes to sit in the seats we sit on. Many will never fully get how we touch each other in secret places through a look, a smile, a word, or a sigh. We do not come speaking as if we are afraid. We are not. We do not come waiting for your praises. We are not fools. They stay rigid in denial. We remain a burst of light. Where they reside in a rage for finally seeing a black woman in stride, we stay perched up knowing there is magic in our stride. There is. We see it across our screens. We feel it too.

We know the boundaries of our desires. Our eyes fill up with tears for finally being seen. Call it what you want. Let them do their best to remember the old days when we cleaned and not lead. But we hope their eyes do not hurt in pain for still seeing us. And even though we shine brightly, we still know our blackness is rich beyond today, our womanhood supreme and beyond fear, and our head, held up high like the mount of Zion. Our entire being even in your spaces is sharpened like knives, unresisting, unwavering, unyielding, not when we are called to lead. We are called. There is magic in our stride even in this season. And like baobab trees, we will stand erect forever.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, sorry I’m just calling it early because we know the end result. Tell them God told us.

My dad had a garden in the front of our home in Nigeria. He planted hibiscus flowers and aloe Vera plant. He loved the natural ingredients nestled within them. He made the most exquisite juices with them. Memories of the garden always flood my mind during Spring. We are getting ready to begin our gardening this year. I am praying winter is fully gone. I hope to reconnect once more to the memories of my father, walk in his footsteps this Spring as I connect my children back to the earth, and now teach them how to garden. See images from our garden last year below. We had peonies, African greens, garden eggs and cucumbers last year. Happy Springtime gardening.

Everyone wants to be a black woman. Everyone. Some want us invisible and silent. Something like being dead. Others want us behind the scenes, serving others. Something like only bending one’s knees. While others want us to follow only. Something like never leading an orchestra. Trying climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and they’ll have you fall before the climb. Try going to the bottom of the ocean and you will drown before getting there. And if even you make it, even if you try to climb the highest mountains or sail to the bottom of the oceans, none of that will be enough, when you are never meant to be visible. But still try. No matter what, try. Nothing is worse than being invisible and silent. You might as well be dead.

Image credit: Sindiso. He posted it on instagram with the caption BLK is and I couldn’t help myself.