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 didn’t think I would cry. But seeing this day come to pass brought tears to my eyes. Finally, we honored the legacy of Dr. Jacob Plange-Rhule with the first ever prize for his contribution to the Global Research in Implementation and Translation Science Consortium. Jacob had this vision to train the next generation of scholars interested in health services research, hypertension research, especially at the community level. He was one of the pioneers of the community based salt reduction interventions for blood pressure control in Africa. He led the first studies in this field. He also led the task-shifting strategies for hypertension control in Ghana. To know him was to know a very gentle man, a very kind man, with a great personality, and a great love for all things Ghana. To think that we will never see his smile, never hear his voice, remains painful to him. But know that he will live on with this prize, fills my heart with great joy. Until we meet again, continue to Rest in the Bosom of the Lord.

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)…

Many and wide scale efforts have been made to address some of the most intractable health disparities of our time. Still and even in the presence of evidence, many people do not have access to these evidence-based practices. How far research evidence can make an impact is an open question, one that I am prepared to answer, not necessarily with new ideas, but with disseminating existing evidence-based ones that work. Granted, they say it can take 17 years to get evidence-based practice to people who them. 17 years, while my people die and perish for tools that actually exist. We don’t have 17 years to wait. Rather, turning what works for those in need of healing is a very serious matter. Take racism for example, we don’t have 17 years to address the continuous exposure to racial trauma caused by this ism that continues to torment and destroy our spirit every day. We don’t have 17 years to wait for yet another bright idea that may never get to people in need of healing. We don’t have 17 years for even research, only solutions that usher in healing today, tomorrow in a manner grounded in sustainability. We simple don’t have 17 years to heal our differences.

Communities of color will adopt these ideas if you show them the evidence. Many of them already use these ideas but are in need of evidence-based strategies to understand for example, how they work, whether they are using them correctly or how to increase engagement or how to make them last. That’s where researchers like me come in. I am passionate about making what already works, work. I am passionate about creating platforms so people in need of healing with evidence-based strategies can use them now. We are not guaranteed tomorrow. For all we know, the future will include more racism and exposures to racial violence that literally kill our children. Our best hope, our best guide through this continuous oppression that seems to have no end in sight is to reach for light, insist on its presence with tools that are destined to usher healing from day 1.

To be forming such a group with like-minded scholars passionate about doing this work is my greatest joy. I really don’t know where this will take me but for my community, for my children, for black and minority youth in the US, my spirit is restless. I also refuse to sleep until something gives. It’s now my greatest calling, to use the gifts I never knew I had to make sense of ways to usher healing until. The more I dig with my professional life, the more I do the thing which keeps me alive, and hopeful. That thing called storytelling and grantwriting. The more I hone in on this skill, irrespective of whether i succeed or fail, the more I realize we already have tools that work, evidence-based ones too. I am on a mission to bring it to the people that need it the most, to make space so it lasts. Until then, keep penning a way through healing our differences.

We were surrounded by trees yesterday at Forest Park. Cherry blossoms trees as majestic as can be. Cherry blossoms signal the return of Spring. Like raindrops on a sunny day, they bring awe, and continuity for life’s many mysteries. They also bring joy. The mere sighting of a tree full of cherry blossoms evokes feelings of silence. Not because words fail me, but because they won’t do. The beauty of a cherry blossom tree is endless so silence is not needless. To see these trees blossom at once is to know the hidden message of trees. Life can be full of joy, full of silence, full of ease, if only we appease our deeper desire for continuity. For as sure as there will be another Spring weather, season after season, there will be cherry blossom trees too, season after season. This certainty, continuity as a certain thing, is why we should keep cherry blossoms in mind. For if we want our research to last, if we want there to be findings, season after season, for as long as the public health issues remain, then we must first begin like cherry blossoms. Keep continuity (i.e sustainability for those of us in implementation science) like cherry blossoms in mind.

I couldn’t sleep. Reimagining innovative spaces for engagement for minority youth kept me up. The past week, we hit a different space with my daughter. It’s that space every parent dreads but know it’s inevitable. The friendship zone. I remember being in this space when I first moved to the US and kids can be tough to themselves and each other for no reason other than coming from a place of hurt. And when hurt meets light, I tell her all the time, it cannot be hidden. They will try, but you are light. And for her and other black children, my thoughts kept me up. Future orientation matters according to research, alongside religiosity and of course parental support. But if we are to truly bring change, then children like my daughter need to live out this quote often attributed to Chinua Achebe: ‘Until the lions write their own history, the tale of the hunt will only glorify the hunter.’ For my daughter, and other black children, I am prepared to carve out spaces for lions.

The thought of doing something provocative, innovative, for black youth, minority youth, kept me up. And reading too. What if all children, black ones in particular knew they were light, not some days but all the time? What if I created something that could mirror my love for this light, maybe as storytelling or even poetry into positive health outcomes for young people’s lives. I want to keep this here so my brain can start imagining. We don’t do enough dreaming, enough understanding of ways kids themselves can be light? So what if we don’t speak about the problems, but about solutions. What if we give lions the opportunity to begin to claim their rightful place in history and tell their stories their way? What if we let black youth rise up and live up to their highest potentials? Rise up and be the light they were destined to be. The odds against black lives are enormous. The research on the negative effects too are overwhelming. Reading through existing literature yesterday kept me up. And enough is enough. I’m hungry and ready for a new generation of research that speaks to children’s light, speaks to their voice, speaks to their bravery and resilience despite all the hurdles they face. If we are going to intervene, so that my children and your children live in Martin Luther King’s dream, not a perfect utopia, but one full of light, then I’m all in. So I ask what will it take for us to create a platform for brave voices. One laced in the past, but for the future. One standing on the shoulders of the greatest giants, Morrison, Achebe, Lorde, and Angelou or my dear friend Ritamae. One that builds on Amanda Gorman’s light, if only we are brave enough to see it. I am. And for black youth, I am prepared to climb these hills so you know that you are light, you are loved, you are blessed and we are rooting for you. Keep being light. Be brave too and don’t stay hidden.

I was looking through my photos and these images came up. They inspired today’s post.

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 have been thinking lately about the future. Reimagining the possibilities on one’s own terms. I imagine that our minds and gaze in opposition, are liberated and transformed for greatness. Our desires, agency and voice disrupts any fixation to hold us down to any preconceived notion of what it means to excel. Language is at the heart of this disruption. One that allows us all to soar on wings like eagle, to trouble the water, knowing fully well that a world is waiting for us to rise. And we will. To exhale, we no longer wait or ask for your permission. To lead, we no longer fear whether you follow or not. To speak, we not only stay at the margins but move to the center and vice versa. That the future belongs to those who dare dream keeps my alert. That and the role young people themselves will play, for the future, afterall belongs to them.

For the past three years I have been co-leading a program known as 4 youth by youth, where young people can work not only as beneficiary or partners with researchers but also leaders with a voice in their own health care. We have organized contests, engaged close to 5,500 youth, all with the goal to foster their own unique abilities to reimagine health in ways that make sense to them. At the end of one of our innovation bootcamps, we awarded and gave three finalists an opportunity to move on to a pilot-testing phase, where they were tasked with working to implement their ideas in real-world settings. The top three teams were stellar, but it’s the team that came in 4th (the group in green in the picture below) that this keep focuses on.

Almost all the finalists were students or those with keen interest in public health. The 4th team were as well but daring. They were made up of Engineers and computer studies, with a keen interest in moving health for young people beyond the typical boundaries. Their assets meant that they were forever tinkering with new ideas, new ways of thinking about health, not just for young people, but all people in general. Enter the annual Oxfam Challenge. Just when you think your hands are full, these young people, the 4th team, dared to dream for something bigger. The rose to the occasion and pitched yet another new idea focused on improving the state of health care in Nigeria using data-driven mechanisms. Not only are they now working to empower frontline healthcare workers, but they also seek to deliver health care services and resources to patients themselves.

When I saw the image of my 4th place team, now in a first place position, all that came to mind is that the future is sterling, if only we let our young grow. The future belongs to them, if only we let them succeed. The future belongs to them, if only we raise and nurture their potentials. The future belongs to them, if only we uplift and celebrate them. The future belongs to them, if only we let them be. Our 4th place team, now in 1st place is striving towards greatness with the Oxfam innovation challenge. Their resilience, their achievement and contribution to health is worthy of praises. We still have work to do for our future. But keep young people in mind. The future belongs to them, if only we let them lead.