‘My mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language.’ Adrienne Rich.
I need to reach you with words. To make words that I use touch whatever site of joy or suffering you find yourself in. I find myself doing so with language that isn’t mine. Language that may not touch you. Yet I need to reach you.
I think about these words often when I find myself in circles where people espouse their authority over anything. Forgetting even their authority may or may not still be accessible to people. I realize we can touch people with the works of our minds, with our words too. But yet, even the language we use may not be accessible to people. Of course we can make language and our work do what it is supposed to do. Or we can take the oppressors language and turn it over its head. It’s something that I have been toying with. Liberating my self in language. Choosing to close this with no wahala. I go change how I speak to una one day.
‘A journey is a journey,’ James Baldwin once said, ‘because you cannot know what you’ll discover on journey, what you’ll do with what you find or what you find will do to you. I am on a journey to decolonize the mind. Ngugi Wa Thiongo in his book Decolonising the mind described this as one of the biggest weapon wielded and unleashed daily. The effect of which is to annihilate a people from their belief in their names, their language, their heritage, their struggle, and even their quest for unity or capacities in themselves. When the mind isn’t free, the past is viewed as a wasteland of achievement, with people vigorously distancing themselves from the wasteland. Possibilities or dreams are either viewed as remote or ridiculous.
Toni Morrison in Romancing the Shadow described this as manipulation of the narrative, for example, with blackness or the story of a black person being depicted as bound and/or rejected, with a focus more on limitations, suffering, rebellion, and narratives that spoke for rather than speak with lives full of fate and destiny. And so we have a moral commitment to decolonize the mind. To remove knees from necks. We are ultimately formed by what we see and also what we read for example. So if images or writings fail to tell the compelling and inescapable ways of life of a people, then how do we deal with the world as it is. Ourselves as we are. So we write to free minds of what they know. To establish difference from what is known, to what is unknown, using narratives not meant to disguise but rather to uncover all the truths and lies. James Baldwin also noted that not everything they is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced. We face our minds now to free from a demise, as we progressively work towards the fulfillment of our destiny which history shall not erase.
What are the things you wish to change for yourself? What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What hurt, or pain, or emotions do you swallow day by day? What sickens you, even kills you, still in silence? These words from Audre Lorde’s essay on transforming silence into action are my daily source for life. I highly recommend every woman to read this transformative essay by Audre Lorde. It literally changed my life after an ugly, painful experience I faced last year. It helped me transform my silence into action. It also helped me face my fears even at the risk of being annihilated. I can gladly testify that it helped me understand fully that many people are not suppose to journey with you through life and though that may come with fears of it own when the journey ends, because of this essay, I am prepared to face my fears.
So can I be the face of your fears. Look at me. I am woman. A black woman. A black woman and a mother. A black woman, a mother, and a researcher. A black woman, a mother, a researcher, a grant writer. A black woman, a mother, a researcher, a grant writer, and a story teller. I am me, through it all, fearful or not. I am also a warrior, too, with so many scars. I am willing to do my part, to share them so you change your ways and become the warrior that you are destined to be. Can I work with you to transform your silience into language and action? It would be my greatest joy to journey with you on this journey we both find ourselves so you to find your way to breaking all the many silences you have. This sharp awareness, to the full possibilities of journeys we take, whether in fear or in light, is the keep I am sending out to the world today. Break your silence, transform them and face your fears. When your do, you will live a deeper life, one full of power and awe of the possibilities that flow within you.
‘Do you know who you are without what you do?’ These words were spoken often during my doctoral studies at Penn State University by my doctoral advisor, Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa. To him, our research identities, often influenced the research we conducted. If all you see is what you do, he would go on to say, then your research will only center on what you do and nothing else. For you, attention or your research only makes sense when the focus is on what you do. So if all you see for example, about African countries are disease-ridden images, resource limited settings, he would also say, then your research will only focus on disease and despair and not the humanity or resilience of the populations. It’s for this reason, my advisor would ask, over and over again, ‘can you define who you are without describing what you do?’ Can you tell your story, your ambition, your goals, even your vision or passion for life, without making a reference to your credentials.
I learnt early on in my doctoral studies that I was drawn to the stories we tell and are told about the research we do. Granted, I was committed to addressing one health issue or the other. But what moved me more, what made me alert, what was most sterling to me, where the stories behind the health issues I explored. Stories for example, of young mothers who asked repeatedly why I was leaving a local clinic where I collected my dissertation data of child malaria diagnosis, after spending three months with them in the summer of 2009. My data collection was over and I needed to go make sense of the data I had in hand, I would say. But the mothers would asked, well our children are still sick, what happens now. It’s not like malaria has gone away. These conversations with different mothers over the course of my time at the clinic, would instill my first learning experience in global health. Our research, even our interventions, no matter how well-intentioned, never last.
Like many researchers, I went to the clinic, with all my ethical requirements in place, to collect data on how mothers manage their children’s diagnosis for malaria prior to arriving at a clinic. When data collection was over, the question still remained. Not only for the mothers I interacted with, but for the many others that never came to my study, never provided their data, never even knew I existed. Unfortunately, many researchers go into clinics and communities to pose questions of people who inhabit the clinics or communities without a commitment to sustaining attention to the issue, attention to the questions they set out to explore in the first place once data collection is over.
It is for this reason that I am drawn to questions (with public health for example) that never end. That and ‘until the lions produce their own historians, the story of the hunt will only glorify the hunter’ ( a quote by Chinua Achebe). I am committed to laying bare the assumptions and meanings that underlie knowledge, the meanings behind the stories, even efforts to question the questions posed. Not because of what I do as a Professor in Global Health. But because silence, like those of the lions, silence in the face of health issues that are critical, will no longer protect us. Not when there is too much at stake. Our silence in turn ignores the true agency and voice of people. Our silence ignores their needs in any real or meaningful way. Our silence fosters only representations of disease and despair, and not their courage or even hope. Our silence limits the gaze and the gates through which we must enter to understanding health from their perspective. In short, our silence is the very reason why we still do not know who we are without what we do.
I am a storyteller, one I realize now, is very committed to becoming the lion for my generation of scholars. Telling stories, one health issue over time, is my attempt at opening hearts and minds to the experiences of others. It is what I do and stories are a serious matter for me. Storytelling can be a guide, building or expanding, transforming or informing, until we bring healing, understanding, even empathy to the plight of others. What now keeps me alert, what is forever sterling to me, are the stories behind the health issues, the stories committed to illustrating how to make health interventions last. Keep knowing who you are, one story at a time, until hearts and minds, are open and even committed to lasting.
I have been reading ‘What moves at the margin’ by Toni Morrison. One of my favorite quotes by Toni Morrison, one she shared during her Nobel Lecture in Literature is: ‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That maybe the measure of our lives.’ Obviously very few people did language as fine and as exemplary like Ms. Morrison.
Of late, I have been trying my best with putting words together as it pertains to this quote, in ways that make sense to me and my love for endless questions. I put the following together: ‘We ask and are asked questions. That may be how we acquire knowledge. But when the questions are never ending, when we understand and value the significance of endless questions, that may be how we live meaningful lives.’ I am on a journey towards a meaningful life, one full of never ending questions and word-work as sublime as Toni Morrison is my guide. Keep words, keep language. It truly is the measure of our lives.