I had a meeting today with a very dear friend and he introduced himself to the group as a storyteller. I was taken aback. This was the first time I have ever heard anyone introduce themselves so confidently as one. Not because it’s what I really love to do, but to describe yourself as one, to showcase how one can use it as a medium to impact people’s life is an amazing feat to me. I told him I will be borrowing that line from here on out because it is who I am. I am a storyteller. I use stories to guide the work I do for a living. I connect better with stories. They help make what I do in health easy to understand.

If you call me to speak to your class about my work or global health in general, I can connect it back to a story or two. My dissertation experience for example with using malaria rapid kits at a time when the kits were $25. I use stories to illustrate the economic side of malaria and how I called the company that made the kits. I really called Binax Now and told them it was insane that a malaria test kit cost $25 when the people that need it the most barely live on $1 a day. I remember distinctively being told but it was for the people like me who travel to those places. That when we return and we become sick and present at a hospital, the hospital would have a rapid kit to see if we tested positive for malaria. The distributor went on to even say they can send me kits set to expire as many hospitals weren’t seeing many patients with malaria. They did and so the story for my dissertation research began.

Telling that story never gets old. It’s the foundation for my passion on innovations and why I think we need to partner more with companies to promote innovative tools and kits in places that need them the most. That same company today now makes COVID-19 test kits. Of course I feel tempted to call them again as this time, their kits cost $20 and most people in places I work have no access to testing of any kind. It’s stories that help me make sense of why I need to really continue what I do in public health, especially in moments where nothing makes sense and there are many moments like this.

It’s stories that keep me grounded. Stories of the youths for example with my HIV self-testing project in Nigeria, passionate about making sure that all young people they know, get to know their status. I may not be a famous or well known public health researcher. It doesn’t matter to me to become one. But a storyteller in public health, especially one dedicated to centering people in their health, takes it all to another level. I am a storyteller and I use stories to put people first. I also use stories to make health programs last. Keep being storyteller in your field. The world needs more of us.

My life is not my own. So I give myself away so you can use me. This song by William McDowell is my keep as I start this week. This is the week where I learn whether it’s time or not for God’s plans to be fulfilled in his child. So if God then is for me, who can be against me, is the song I sing. If God is with me, whom shall I fear when everything is by his design. Also the fact I could never make this on my own. So I literally give myself away.

When I look back over all I have done the past few months, I realize with each passing day that I never could have made it without God. So giving myself to him is easy. He has always been before me. Psalm 139 reminds me that he knew this week, this day would come when I was still being formed in the womb. That’s the part that keeps me in awe, win or lose. Everything is according to his design. There is no one like him. Who can ever stop us when our God is greater, stronger, higher than anything even awesome in power. It has always been about him after all. It’s his plans, it’s his work, it’s his words, all written through me, but for his glory.

I am stronger because he allowed me to use the gifts he gave to me for his glory. I am wiser because I would do it again whether I fail or even win. I know how to still win even when I fail. That part keeps me grounded. Failure is always an option with God on your side. It’s all for his glory still and I am just a vessel that he uses to bless his children, uses to light a path, blaze a road through a vast forest of nothingness. I could not do any of this without him ordering every single step. So win or lose, being discussed or not, is all a reminder that if he is for me, who can be against me. If he is for me, whom shall I fear. And if no one knows me, he still adores me and I will do my part to remain his light. For a city built on a hill cannot be hidden. I cannot be hidden. Keep giving yourself away to God.

The sounds of the times are changing. Stop a while for a moment and see how we refuse to bend to your unchanging. See our power. See our audacity. See our brilliance. See our grace. See as we turn our backs to your places and spaces. See how we elegantly uncover all our hidden secrets, all things that make us sacred. Our black has always been excellent. Always been graceful. Always been brave. Always been bold. Open your eyes and see for yourself.

Ooh and we are so brave, so full of grace. We are a bright light in a world that’s fallen far from grace. Though you may choose to remain the same. We know, that we are at a critical junction where being bold and brave is our middle name.

The moment to reckon with black women in academia is now. We are not some butler at a party, opening the doors for your arrival or all you allow.

It’s our party now.

Come in and stay awhile if you may. Eat our jollof rice and barbecue ribs with fried plaintains if you may.

Drink our palm wine or chocolate beer if you may. Dance to our music, ooh dance and no do, no do, shakara for me ooh. That’s the song we play.

Laugh, yes, let your soul laugh as you play with our children. They are our very own butterflies. Get to know how they make us fly.

And while you mingle, take a good look at all the other people in our inner circle, our interior life. Every one of them is a testimony of our strength, our tenacity, our perseverance, our power, our brilliance, our hidden secret, our reason for being, our greatest treasure, our life’s work, our legacy.

Like an Hibiscus flower at dawn, we bloom because of every single person we call our own, even single person ready in their battle gear, to fight this battle, just so they too can say we won. We do not fight this battle on our own.

Ooh and we won.

Every single person walked a thousand journeys with us just to help us win this battle. They cried too when we cried, for every time your insults were belittling, every time you questioned our credentials.

They carried us when we fell, when we stumbled, when we broke down under the weight of the pressure you felt was essential. They nursed us when we were sick and because of them we rise on our heels. Our bold rise today is because they lifted us up yesterday.

We are so powerful beyond these words we choose to speak with to you. Powerful beyond what you think you may know of us. We know our worth and are prepared to be audacious to leave spaces and go to places where we will be celebrated and not tolerated. Places that will help us thrive and not stifle our drive.

And why not. When we can cook and clean and write and sleep, all while running to make mango popsicles for our children, our butterflies, our greatest legacies.

We know whose we are and by God, we will be bold where we are.

You can’t stand in the way of all that is designed for our destiny.

You may wonder if this is the right moment, pacify us to keep mum for this moment. But what you forget, is how he alone knows the plan he has for us. Something great still will come out of this moment.

You may view us a a symbol of love and hate. But we are human beings too. You may view us as difficult too. Try to keep us mute too. But this is our supreme moment of destiny. This time is so long overdue.

So make your decisions. Decline, offer, deny, call it a difficult decision. Nothing will stop what is ours.

Nothing.

We will boldly decide and fight for what is ours. Even if you think it’s within your power to deny what is ours.

It is still ours. Our destiny. Our story. Our song. Our blessed assurance for a changing time where only bravery and boldness are all we know. One where praises will be sang by all the people gathered around our table, all the day long, including you.

Keep being bold and brave Black woman in academia. Thank you for showing us how Nikole Hannah Jones. And read her statement for rejecting tenure under her own terms here https://t.co/eMgYqRXbTL?amp=1

There is an Igbo saying that states: The cock that crows in the morning belongs to one household. It’s voice though is the property of the neighborhood. Every single thing we do in life, has a ripple effect. Our actions maybe ours alone. But they too matter for others. I remember growing up listening to a cock crow. It’s was one of my favorite things to start the day. Long before the day took it’s toll, the cock made you feel at ease. Made you feel prepared to take on whatever the day may throw your way. It may have belonged to one household, but it’s voice was for all of us. So too is this thing called mentoring.

When I look back at my career in public health so far, I have been surrounded by mentors, whose power continues to reverberate for me. Every time I speak to them, I feel wise in all sense of the word. It’s an immense gift that literally keeps giving. One person in particular was the first person who took a chance on me when I was clueless with life. The first person that taught me about culture and why it matters. The first person that made being different and learning to accept failures, appealing. The first person that allowed me to claim and own my space whatever I wanted it to be. The first person who helped me make sense of my journey in academia. The first person that made me feel like a leader and not a follower. The first person who continues to help me as I finally come to my calling (I laugh, but my true life’s work is just beginning). The first person who literally planted and harvested in me. Everyone calls him Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa. He is the intellectual Father my God created just for me. All my ideas have truly awakened in his hands. The eye of my mind were given wings to fly away from the moment I first met him as an undergraduate student. I have been flying ever since. I am who I am today because he first saw it in me. He took the time to plant things in me that are only now starting to ripen. Some may think I have done my best work. Truth is, it was a planting season. Everything is finally making sense. To think that I have been in a limbo paying my dues to get here makes me humble. The season was not a waste.

Now the harvesting begins. The sweetness of the fruits being harvested in my life these days keeps me in awe. Things I barely even know I possess, are ripe. Ready for harvesting. Public health for me, has always been messy. Complex too. But I learnt from the best to remain comfortable with being uncomfortable with the mess. If it’s makes no sense, then you are on the right course. If it’s complex, even better. Complexity is your middle name. True, you may have failed. You may still fail and fail again. There is a lesson there too. Ooh and try again. He once told me to fail brilliantly too. I have been doing that also and with no regrets. Everything was for this moment in my life. My entire career has this as a foundation. All because I was blessed with a cock that crowed in the morning. Though his voice may belong to many, the thought that I’m in the household where it emerges from keeps me grateful. Keep being grateful for mentors who plant and harvest in you. They are like cocks who crow in the morning.

I saw a vulture up close today. It is as menacing as literature as depicted it to be. My middle son actually saw it first. It was perched on our grounds and it stopped him in his tracks while running towards me. He kept saying I can’t come and I kept saying, just come. He managed to mutter that there is a giant bird on the ground. I ran over and sure enough the giant bird flew up to the tree by the side of our home. I tried to go close and the picture below is what I could take.

Vulture by our home!
Kids and I running close to the tree!

It doesn’t do enough justice. This bird is not only a giant among birds. But it’s perch is regal too. It looked at us unfazed and it wasn’t until we tried to get to close that it flew away. That’s when I saw it brilliance up close too. This bird is truly majestic. Every circle it took, was breathtaking. Every flight, fertile with faith. Not like the drizzle of a despondent dawn Achebe alludes to. But more like the rise of resolute rewards truly within reach. (The skies were crystal blue, so it can only mean rewards). Seeing this bird, felt like I was seeing a premonition of sorts. For every stride it took, was quite simply spell-bounding. I was mesmerized. I stood there for 1-2 minutes just watching the bird as it flew higher and higher into the sky. Every elevation, equally extraordinary.

Mama was gardening at the back of the house and I told her I just saw a giant bird. She saw it too and called it udene, which means vulture in Igbo. She also noted that it symbolizes bad luck. I said what, then why is it flying by our house. She noted not necessarily bad luck to us, but that it must be sensing something amiss around, like the carcass of something dead and it waiting patiently to perch low to grab it’s reward (I was right afterall). We never saw the bird again and so it’s hard to fathom whether it got what it wanted.

The researcher in me searched the literature to get a better sense of the bird alongside what our mama just told me. Sure enough the symbolisms of the bird are just as vast. Not only is a vulture known for its resourcefulness, but it’s also the most patient bird you will come across. They are the kings of finding things useful to them and when they do, even when it’s within their reach, the patiently wait for the right moment to grab their reward. That’s when it dawned on me. In life, seek things that will be useful to you and even when they seem within reach, still patiently wait for the right moment to take them. For what belongs to you will never pass you by. It’s an Igbo proverb too.

That and if no vulture is seen after an offering has been made to the gods, then something serious must have happened in the land of the spirits. The vulture is also a courier. According to my cherished Enuani book of proverbs, the vulture is expected to descend and carry the sacrifice to the spirits to whom the offering has been made. This August visitor by our home today can only mean that maybe all our sacrifices are not in vain and that even as things seem close, we must still patiently wait. It’s a tough one to understand as I know that being patient can be difficult for me but I’m listening. Thank you for the message and I’ll keep working on being as patient with my life dreams as the vulture. Keeping this here too for the right moment when this all makes sense.

From Enuani Maxims and Proverbs.

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)…