Our ancestors are our first audience. Christell Roach reminded me of this yesterday. They have stories long forgotten and must be told by us their legacy that remain. So here is my attempt with that.

I have tried to understand my creation story. Tried to know on whose shoulders I stand. My father’s side has plenty empty holes. Of his father, his mothers, and all the ancestors that came before him. The only thing I am left with is his surname, Iwelunmor , an Igbo name which means ‘anger never reaches my soul.’ So from him, I am never supposed to be angry. And if I ever get to the point where anger hijacks my thoughts, my words, my actions, then I must stop short still with letting it reach my soul. That is the extent of my father’s side that I hold on to too. It gives me hope.

My mother’s side, has holes too. Mainly with her father, but especially with her mother. I am always drawn to every single thread of information I glean about her life. For starters, she was an orphan with 2 siblings, a brother and a sister. I am unclear of when her parents died, except she was young and was subsequently raised by her uncle. Then we were told she married my grandfather, a chief, early and without the support of his people. So their marriage was never fully recognized. Their marriage also never bore any children in the early days which gave my grandfather and to the joy of his people, the right to marry more women. He did. Not just one, but two. They would go on and give him numerous children and my grandmother, watched all of this and even joined in raising those children. That she still persisted to have her own is the creation story I long to complete for myself.

I know she persisted as we are the evidence of her persistence. I would not even be here writing this at this moment if she gave up. So nestled within my DNA, long before I would become, is the insistence to persist. That creation story had gotten me through many periods of self-doubt and despair. I exist literally because my grandmother persisted. So who am I not to do the same. But even with this story, there is still an aspect of her life that I still want to know, the how and why? The how because it took her 20 years to give birth to my mother and why because 20 years is a long time to never give up. The how too because this was a time of no artificial insemination. There were no hospitals and, well, a water goddess has a hand in my creation story. So I exist because my grandmother met a water goddess who gave her some potions that enabled her to give birth to my mother. I stand before you, in full bloom, birthed by the hands of a water goddess.

My grandmother!

So now I am obsessed with this story. I long to bear witness to this power of persistence and Christell Roach and her lecture on Storytelling as a tradition on witness, is my guide. Our light festival did more than I could ever imagine yesterday. It got me up today thinking in essence about child birth in a time where women were lucky to have any form of hospital or maternal care. That my creation story is tied to maternal, child health is my muse now with public health storytelling that all I can say is stay tuned. I am in the business of storytelling now and I will do like Outspoken Bean suggested and begin anywhere. Welcome to the fire that our first LIGHT festival has lit within me and stay tuned for next year. We are coming with more fire.

We are coming with FIRE for public health!

Welcome to LIGHT.

Welcome to the transformative force we call LIGHT.

Welcome to its flame

Welcome to its fire

Welcome to its ray

Welcome to its shine

Welcome to its spark

Welcome to its utter brilliance,

Welcome to its radiant reflection

Welcome simply to a day we hope to clarify that the public in a field called public health, matters.

I start with these words from the poet Lucille Clifton’s description of LIGHT, because it is what, I hope, you leave with today.

The transformative force of light for a field that has put its public in the dark for so long, with our conferences that often exclude the public and our peer-reviewed publications that are often read by us and not the public we purport to serve.

This is a journey that began with fear, failure too, as it was intended to be an avenue through which we deliberately bring anti-racism into public health to achieve the social justice we all need and deserve with our healing.

Every time I remember how all this began, I remember our failure, our fear too.

I remember how fear has held many people back.

We have all been here before, myself in particular, I have been held back by the fear of.

If it isn’t this, it’s that.

If it isn’t stormy days, then it’s the perfect tornado, rain, hail, all of them mashed up into an eye of a storm. Only that it’s coming for you.

The storm that fear allows.

Yet, you keep walking through the storm,

many you dare not speak of.

But I’ll try today because I know fear.

Know what it requires too. In fear, you will find sadness, frustration, sickness.

I have been there too.

Leaned so much into fear that it’s despair became normal.

I let fear usher in headaches, and stuffy nose and eyes that would rather close than see another day or night go bye.

Fear has pushed me to places that I have never been too, thoughts dark, and spaces equally dark.

Fear let dark valleys become like shadows of death like Psalm 23 forewarned.

Fear has taken me to the dark all sorts of dreary places in need of light.

And even as I leaned into fear, feared fear too, fear took me, through the dark to light.

Reminded me that if there were no darkness, there will be no light.

I learnt that the moment I arrived at the home of fear. I saw that even in sickness or pain, fear will welcome you in with arms so wide that all you need to do is nestle your head at its bosom.

Plant your feet by its streams and let your body rest in its arms like a baby.

My heart, my soul, my body and my mind too, all of us has snuggled deeply into fear.

We meet you all today, greet you too with these opening words out of fear.

Wondering what today would be like.

Would we truly bring light?

Are we sure in the words of Toni Cade Bambara in her beautiful book, The salt eaters, that we want this light?

What happens when light never comes and all we still know when all is said and done is fear.

I meet you today in fear, knowing that even in fear, even in the darkness that I still feel for the journey ahead,

I can still expect more.

Like what is coming after this, nothing, or air or light, from all the speakers we have assembled for you all today.

Today requires, that we see fear, acknowledge its existence, and yet move past it to light.

So welcome to our annual LIGHT festival.

Our goal is to bring light even in the midst of our fears, your fears, and most importantly all of them with healing, my healing, your healing.

We bring light even as you question whether it is possible.

We bring light’s brightness, kindle, splendor, glow, fire, because this moment, past a pandemic where public health was rendered mute, requires it.

The fire we bring, all of the light, is work that cannot be done alone.

So I want to illuminate the implications of this work for you and for us all within the LIGHT team: It will be messy, it will be rough.

There will be threats to our peace, our sanity.

And fear will always be lurking around reminding us that we do not deserve this light.

All the inside pieces will frighten us, make us want to hide back in the dark.

But We cannot.

Not when our name is called LIGHT.

So this moment, meet LIGHT, just you all know the name implies.

Meet Leaders Igniting Generational Healing and Transformation.

I close in these words paraphrased from Audre Lorde, LIGHT alone will not protect us.

We are aware of this. But yet, we choose LIGHT because our field requires the public to be heard.

We choose LIGHT to clarify and to be as eloquent as possible, that the public in public health matters.

We choose LIGHT because with the advent of today, we have learnt to work and speak when we are afraid.

Even though we respected fear, we choose LIGHT because we refuse for the weight of darkness, the weight of not letting the public into public health, we refuse for the weight of their silence to keep choking us.

The fact that we are here, the fact that we meet today, is to bridge some of these differences between us,

for it is not our difference which keeps the public in the dark, it’s our silence.

And for that reason, welcome to our attempt at breaking the public’s silences for too long.

Welcome to this space we call LIGHT.

What a day! Thank you to everyone who made this year a success.

I had a conversation with my mother in-law yesterday. We were talking about work and why I keep getting carried away with one grant after the other. Most of them are also not successful. In other words, you may be carried away with work and still have nothing to show for it. I heard myself say during the course of the conversation that I could go days without eating, if I have to when it comes to writing my grants. It also doesn’t matter if they are all unsuccessful. I also noted that I really don’t know why especially because I don’t need anyone of them. Of course becoming a successful grant writer is wonderful but the stress of it all makes you wonder why even bother. In the course of our dialogue I also framed my reasoning in this way: I don’t need wealth, just sustainable health and healing to all who deserve this right. It has always been for people and how they can have sustainable healing. Writing in this manner is full of sleepless nights and extremely stressful. I still do it because I believe in the cause. If one person can be saved through something I worked to get a grant for, then I will be content. The one I am writing these days is beyond me. I told my partner in writing that I thought we had written difficult grants but this one is something else. I may not get it. But I learnt something new about myself during this process. That I am willing and able to talk to anyone to bring my crazy dreamed up ideas to life, anyone one. That to me is the gift that grant writing keeps giving and for that I am content, win or lose. So to close: I don’t need wealth. Just sustainable health. To all those who deserve this right.

There’ll be red sand. Red stoneless sand will line all the roads you see. But still, keep walking. The distant paths will blend to red and orange and red again. You’ll drop to your knees to feel their reddish nature. The roads ahead will lay bare, but for footsteps. Hurried steps. Hushful legs. Bristling through unaware of their walk through roads of red and oranges. You’ll see women and children walking. Some with babies carried at their back, walking. Some with things on their heads, like water or oranges shaped like pyramids, walking. Some, walking and waiting for their turns on orange and black Keke’s or motorbikes. Reds and oranges blend with the sole of their feet, moving freely with all the forces within. Everyone you see will be going somewhere. Hurried and unhurried steps, will be moving somewhere. Legs will do all the walking. Mouths will do all the greeting. But eyes, will speak only what eyes see.

Image from The Dream Keeper and other poems by Langston Hughes with illustration by Brian Pinkey.

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.

Ambition to me is tied to what Ngugi wa Thiongo once described as a ‘quest for relevance.’ It is a search for a liberating perspective within which to see ourselves clearly in relationship to ourselves and to the other selves in the universe. He would go on to suggest that this question depends on the choice of material and the attitude to or interrogation of that material. How we see things, even with our own eyes, is very much dependent on where we stand in relationship to it. To him, any strong desire to achieve or do something is inherently laced with a language of struggle. And this struggle starts even from the beginning.

Sustaining global health, becoming ambitious with whatever you choose to do in this field is all about taking a leap into the land of struggle. It’s that struggle that ultimately makes you begin wherever you are, do whatever you can, to become part of the generation crazy enough to think they can change the world. I am very ambitious with global health, naming it, sharing it, so that I not only see myself clearly but work with like minded people to make the global more relevant than ever, changing how we all see it too, one story at a time. And yes, it is full of struggles, full of thinking that I can really change the world with fully-funded projects that last. How I am working to mobilize people to embrace these crazy ideas with global health is at the heart of my upcoming talk on Tuesday April 26th. It’s my hope that if you join us, you may learn ways to sustain your crazy ideas with global health, even in the midst of storms.

Her story, like many, are untold. Her pain, unknown. Her cervix, unforgettable. But her death, free.

Think of the depths she took. Think of the blood she hid. Think of the control she fought. Then think of the words unspoken.

Lusting for life, she only spoke to friends. Insisting her cervix was a private affair. Her bleeding, common. Her pain, of strong purpose. With an extraordinary will to survive. She hid it all, even from her mother. Then think of the fears unnamed. See the pain unnameable.

We called her Angie. The one who held us together. Who spoke of things being alright. While she walked around quietly in pain. But underneath, she was stronger than leaves of palm trees. Brittle, but wiser than tapped wines of palms. When you taste her, you taste joy that lingers for six hours. When you feel her, you feel love that lasts from dawn to dusk.

I still hear her calling my name. Still hear her saying, Osodieme. Osodieme. Osodieme, with a smile that remains buried deeply. Tears still flow. Words remain unspoken. For pain unknown, and fears unnamed. Anger still spills over the purple embroidery clothes so soft to hold, she once made for me, now persevered like fine pearls.

Those who live good lives find peace and rest in death. Was she not good enough? Like rain falling from the sky. Was she too hard, like drops on window pane? Or was she just dark like grey skies amidst heavy rain? Nothing and no one at all was there for her cervix. Within three months of poking at her cervix. Three months of energy slowly disappearing. Our angel was gone.

It’s been eight months of hell. The pain in her mother’s eyes unknown. Her fears too unnamed. We live with nothing but storms in place of words we long to hear, Osodieme.

I am looking over the prayers she shared last Easter. Keeping them here for I so miss her and truly sad that I won’t get her prayers anymore.

Really the children are having fun. Thank God for them.Everyone of them are looking fantastic. Happy Easter to you all. (2021)

He has risen and has taken away every of our affliction away in Jesus name Amen. Have a wonderful celebration. (2020)

I have taken plenty short trips in life. But few are as unforgettable as the past 4 days in Lagos. Imagine arriving to blue skies. No soon after we arrived, even after all the chaos we encountered at the airport, I arrived to skies perfect and blue.

I entered Lagos too with clarity. Day after day, I saw myself opening up to the wonders of this place. Opening up to the young people nurturing its greatest hope. We came for them. Came to witness all they could offer for themselves and those like them. We called it PrEP4Youth. They called it life changing. And one by one I saw as young people came up with ideas of how to care for each other. Ideas for girls without hope and boys out of hope. I saw how they told stories of themselves, told stories of their peers and dreamed of ways they could all live in a land where the skies remained perfect and blue. I kept saying nothing about you without you. They kept showing nothing for them without them. For where they come from, their is no need to ignore them, no need to divide them into those that receive or complete, no need to act as if they cannot lead things for themselves. The past four days left moments of joy, from teams exceptional and finesse, from youths thinking outside the box, in red shirts, or green shirts, braided hair, or faded cuts, Godswill, or rising up again. I saw all this and more with fullness for tomorrow. Nothing about young people without young people. Nothing about people without people. This is the change they want.

If you want to decolonize anything, start by stepping out of the way. Then proceed with this mantra, ‘it is not about you.’ Nothing for people, communities, health systems, anyone, without them. Some may write papers on this, some may even have stories to tell. I saw first hand in Lagos, the need to step out of the way, so people themselves tell their own stories. This is why I firmly believe and will continue to do my best to ensure that we are all storytellers. No degree or peer-reviewed journals required. Just come as you are. I am on a mission to build platforms for storytellers in health who dare to dream.

To lead, when one has never led, is courageous. Risky and daring, but with courage. To see it’s outcomes, it’s possibilities, so rich, is divine. To know that I lead this, keeps me on my knees. I am nothing but the grace of God and so full of thanks today for the risk, for daring and for leading courageously.

While watching WAHL street recently, I heard top pioneers in entrepreneurship share the following: ‘Are you prepared to put the work in and honor what you don’t know. Believe in your self. Believe in your idea and dive in head first. People love to tell you what you can’t you. Because they don’t want you to win. That has to drive you.’

These words personify my 72hour weekend in Lagos, Nigeria as part of the 4youth by youth 3rd Designathon focused on youth-led strategies for PrEP. I listened and watched as young Nigerians put in the work to honor what they didn’t know. I saw them believe in themselves, believe in their ideas too. I marveled as they dived in head first, to think outside the box for their ideas. I was impressed with their drive overall and all the work they did.

Today, 15 teams came together to pitch their ideas. Of course many wanted to do mobile apps, but there were board games, ideas focused on settings based ambassadors, awareness based strategies using local groups and pharmacist based ideas. We were awed, moved, inspired to see what 72 hours can do. They surprised me, elevated me, and made me feel thankful that I get to call this work. It’s more than work, more than me, this platform that I can’t believe I lead. I can’t believe how I got here too. I told that to the first team that pitched and well didn’t adhere to the 5 minute rule. They seemed dejected that their time was up before they could finish sharing ideas. I saw the look in their eyes and felt that look for myself. I have been rejected so many times. Cut off too before I could articulate my ideas. My ideas no matter how well I drafted them have also failed. I told them it took close to 30 failures to get here. If I am quiet, if am not busy or seem amazed and looking, it because I can’t believe we are here. I can’t believe I get to lead this. I know failure all too well and I encourage them to not let it get to there. There are lessons in failure worth celebrating. Hold on to it as it’s more valuable than winning. I am a living testimony. They smiled I went back to my seat, still looking in amazement that I get to lead this.

I have no idea what may come next. We have one more year of this project. But if this is all I get to lead, I am grateful. Bill and Sonia, thank you for taking a chance on me. Joe and Oliver, this was our first venture together. We were strangers when all this began and to think we end as family keeps me speechless. Thank you both for believing in me when I had no idea what I too was pitching to you. Chisom and Titi, we are of course nothing without you, thank you for leading all the way with clarity and ease and light. Isioma, well you know the beginning. This is still only the beginning and so much more is yet to come. Thank you for being in my corner always. Everyone at NIMR, so many of your from Dr Musa, Oladele, David, MMartins, Ifeoma, Nurudeen, David, Naco, I know I will miss so many other names, but thank you. Ucheoma, well you know the failures, thank you for going through them to also witness the success, you are truly a gem. Amanda and Alexis, you too capture my passion in ways words often fail me. Thank you for believing and seeing so much more in me. All the 4YBY team, all our youth ambassadors, all our judges, all that passed through us from the beginning, my mouth is speechless so I will pray. God alone knows the plans for you and I use this space to say they are good. Thank you for believing in me, when I never knew where to begin. Dr. Afadapa, we go way back. Thank you for your love and friendship. Drs. Airhihenbuwa, Ogedegbe, Conserve, Belue, Katie and Nora, Khadijah and so many others within ITEST, CCHUB, Pinpoint Media team, Chris, all of you that made all this happen, thank you.

Last but not least my family. Zobam, none of this is possible without you. I am only stronger because you saw greater things in me. Love you beyond us. I bless God too for us. My children, my better me, love you all and thank you for being patient all these years as mummy traveled for work. Mama, without you, none of this can happen. Thank you for taking care of all of us. My brothers and sisters, my in-laws, Chukwuma, Yusuf, you all have been my support and I know my words may never be enough. Thank you. 4 youth by youth to the world. This is just the beginning. Watch us now roar as we pave the way to greatness. As always. The lessons of failure are me and through this project, I can see it’s grace too.

April 8th

The scene was full of brilliance. Young people answering to their names. They see their light. They know their season too. This is it. See them rise, past all expected. Entering their destiny without error. Standing in rooms they own. Full of grace for all they know. Blooming on their own, like a promise made to flowers. Nothing about them without them they say. We have been patient for too long, they note. It’s our future after all, they share. See as we illuminate it our way, they finish. We stand, saying nothing all. Nothing we say matters. Not when their clouds are full of rain. Not when we watch them think outside the box.