In a 1987 interview with Chris Searle, Chinua Achebe shared why it took him nearly 15 years before he wrote his next novel ‘Anthills of the Savannah.’ It’s is one of my favorite of all his books for his critical stance on the significance of the story. The story, according to Achebe, is ‘our escort through life without which we are doomed. It’s the story that remains to convey all our gains, all our failures, all we hold dear, even all we condemn. The story is the only way we keep going from generation to another, almost like a transfer of genes, to the next generation,’ Achebe noted, a transfer far more important than anything else. I always come back to interview as a guide for what I do professionally. I may call it different things, papers, grants, implementation science, global health, but really at the core of what I do, there is a story that keeps brewing, one focused on the people I work with, one totally committed to helping them tell their stories. It’s their stories that will get us to a healing, healthful generation, their stories will transform and help to convey what is important, what is of value, and what must be preserved and yes Chinua Achebe is leading me all the way.

Towards the end of the interview Chinua Achebe talked about the dangers ahead for those committed to whatever stories they are telling to their generations. We can all be antiracists for example with public health, that’s my hope, using tools that begin to center the public as they find the words to tell their stories, but until then, Chinua Achebe noted that we will struggle. He stated that for those committed to the story, there are dangers on the way, mostly because of our human condition, one where our lives are always soaked in a struggle. We may never know whether what we are doing will bear fruit and even if we fail, hopefully those that come after us, may learn from our struggles. That is the great hope and my keep for today turned into verse (all inspired by this interview) with Achebe reminding all of us interested in health equity work to know:

There are still dangers in the way. Still a lot of work ahead before we all achieve equity, before we all become antiracists. Until then, we shall always struggle for our people, struggle for their dreams, struggle for their light, struggle for their plight, struggle with our might, struggle at night, struggle during the day, struggle for a say, struggle for pay, struggle while we play.

We struggle for justice, struggle to end injustice. Struggle for voices, that struggle to be heard. We struggle to achieve, struggle for what we believe, struggle to see, struggle to simply be, struggle while we flee, struggle with their knees, struggle with our hands held up, struggle with our heads held up, struggle to rise up, struggle to even standup.

Some of us struggle to cope, struggle for hope, struggle out of scope, struggle with their grope.

We struggle with racism, struggle with sexism, struggle with ageism, struggle with classism, struggle with ableism. We struggle for optimism, struggle against their narcissism, struggle with their pessimism, struggle for our activism, struggle with their symbolism.

We struggle for our lives, struggle for ourselves, struggle for all our gains, struggle when it rains, struggle in pain, struggle in vain. Still we struggle to breathe, struggle to eat, struggle in heat, struggle till beat, struggle for seat, struggle in defeat.

We struggle to survive, struggle to thrive, struggle for our values, struggle for importance, struggle for what we preserve, struggle even if we fail, struggle even as we struggle.

We struggle for our past, struggle for today, struggle for tomorrow, struggle for our history, struggle for our story.

In a 1989 conversation with Charles Rowell, Chinua Achebe shared a story about the goddess of creativity.

He described this as the earth goddess, called Ala or Ani by the Igbo people. Not only is she responsible for creativity, he mentioned that she is also responsible for morality.

For her, art cannot then be in service of destruction, in service of oppression, even in service of evil.

Art is simply not in service of immorality he mentioned. And morality he noted is not about being good or going to church. Rather it is manifestations such as with murder.

That is art, cannot be in the business of committing murder. It does not mean only angels or good things are portrayed. Rather things that humanize us are vividly illustrated.

For even hero’s are just as human as everybody else. No matter how fuzzy things may get, we still need to make a distinction between what is permissible and what is not permissible.

For example, he mentioned that it is not permissible to stereotype or dehumanize our fellows. Rather, we celebrate them, whether good or bad. We celebrate them whether rascals or not, for all of us abound in the world and are all part of its richness.

Achebe stated the following during interview: “We are engaged in a great mission, and we attempt to bring this into storytelling…People are expecting from literature serious comment on their lives. They are not expecting frivolity. They are expecting literature to say something important to help them in their struggle with life.’

I wonder today if we can say they same about what we all do in public health? This is my keep today, my plea to return the public back to public health.

It is a serious matter and the public expect us the professionals to illustrate the fabric of their lives in ways that help them find a way out. So this is a serious matter. Put the public back into public health.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel Anthills of the Savannah’s by Chinua Achebe is the focus on the power of the story and the storyteller. In it Achebe reminds us of ‘stories being our escorts, and our guides’ through life. Some people, the novel notes, have been given the gift of leadership, summoning their fellow citizens to rise to the sounding and timing of battles. Others have been given the gift of fighting, the gift of putting on war-time garbs and going to engage in the battle. But still others have been given the gift of waiting for the battle to end. Waiting to take over to tell the story of the battle. Achebe shared that the sounding of the battle is important, the fierce waging of the war too. But of all this, it’s the telling of the story that is most critical. The story as Achebe pointed out, ‘boldly takes the eagle feather.’ Stories are indeed connected to all aspects of our lives. Our being and becoming, our penetration and preservation, even our silence and survival or ability to enlighten and empower depend on the stories we tell. It is only the story that continues noted Achebe, beyond the war and the warrior. It’s is the ‘story that also saves us, so much so that without it, we are blind.’ Sustainability or the ‘continued use of program components and activities for the continued achievement of desirable program and population outcomes,’ are like stories.

Sustainability is connected to all the life cycles of research from initial conceptualization to implementation. Sustainability draws attention to the struggles, the values, even the quest for efficacy or effectiveness that binds a research team and how all these intersect to enable their intervention to ultimately remain. It is also where the collective memory of an intervention resides. Not the memories as with steps delineated in a protocol, but in the minds of all people influenced by the intervention. It informs the process through which an intervention defines itself from its beginning to the end. It raises awareness and builds consciousness of key values or adaptations that can take evidence-based interventions forward. It highlights the role of key people and resources necessary for any attempt to sustain an intervention, capturing key processes and outcomes that future researchers and implementers can rely on. Finally, sustainability helps implementer to re-imagine and reframe their own stories on what it means to last. It’s their for the telling and they have the capacity and ability to affect and inform the outcome, if only they know their power.

Of course sustainability cannot be separated from the social, ecological, historical or political forces in which evidence-based interventions are implemented. In a seminal review by Pan-African Studies Professor, Tavengwa Gwekwerere on the Anthills of the Savanah, like stories, sustainability ‘binds the past, the present and the future together, making inroads into the past to inspire the present, narrating the realities of the present to imagine the future, all while preparing the future for potential struggles and aspirations with attempts to last.’ Sustainability’s connections to the past, present and future, prepares researchers and implementers to make sense of ‘where they have been, where they are, and where they must go.’ It’s for this reason that having a plan becomes critical. By plan, I mean working with the right people to learn how to adapt and nurture aspects of an evidence-based research so that it lasts. It’s no surprise then that sustainability remains a threat to all statue quo form of research, so much so that those who seek to make this a career are actually called ambitious. But why even bother implementing any research if it never lasts? Keep sustainably in mind and have a plan while you are at it. That and keep remaining ambitious. Sustainability requires, no demands that you remain ambitious. So keep it as well.

I keep returning to the book The Trouble with Nigeria by Chinua Achebe. It was written in 1983 and described then as a must read for all Nigerians who care about their country, who feel they can no longer stand idly by and wring their hands in anguish while Nigeria is destroyed by bad leadership, corruption and inequality.’ The year again was 1983. This trouble eloquently described by Achebe remains our trouble in 2020.

Like I noted in yesterday’s post, a country that kills its own youth, kills its own self. Nigeria is still in trouble. Nothing has changed. Bad leadership, corruption and inequality still prevails. We all still care about Nigeria and we all can no longer sit idly by and wring our hands in anguish this time in 2020 as Nigeria massacres it’s own youth. The time for action then was 1983 and it pains me to say that the time of action once again is 2020. When will all this end. When will we all join in the effort towards new social and political order for Africa’s most populous country.

The odd thing with the book is that Achebe dedicated it to his children and their age-mates in Nigeria whose future he noted warranted the argument. The inspiration and the vigor of the book come from them. In other words Achebe was writing for Nigeria’s future in 1983. If Achebe’s generation could not do it, if their labors were in vain, what then must we do so that my children’s generation will not quote me or Achebe in the future. The trouble with Nigeria remains. But given the need to end police brutality, to end bad leadership, to end inequality, to end corruption, it also needs to end now. Enough is enough. Hopeless as things maybe today, we are not beyond redemption noted Achebe in 1983. ‘Nigerians are what they are only because our leaders are not what they should be,’ said Achebe. The time for change is now. Keep focusing on the trouble with Nigeria. And this time, under brave and enlightened youth leaders, maybe we will get it right.