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.
I see things differently with each passing day. I know things differently too. Where one thing stands, another thing will stand right beside it. That was Achebe’s thing. I get that. Also that the storyteller is the eagle’s feather. It’s all he spoke about. I am also seeing that our focus on certain things like publications as settings and backdrops of life, impact, call it what you want, eliminates the connections we make with each other, our community. I entered scientific writing at my own peril. I have know it’s headache for too long that I pity the next generation stuck in its ways. I see it traps them in it ways. Makes a mockery of them into thinking they own its ways. But academia will always be academia, always prepared to choke you and spit you out if you do not know who you are. I do. I have always know that I am my grandmother’s child, a fierce persister when all things fail. It’s in my DNA to never give up. It’s how I was literally formed. So if you want to know why I do this work, don’t waste time trying to guess. Come close and I may tell you. I also may not because I feel sorry for you. Feel sorry that all you see is what you think you see. If only you know the legions guiding my feet, then you would know that he alone knows the plans and of course they are good. Perhaps change will come and nothing will distort all we know about writing for the public. Nothing will also stand in the way of how we connect with them too. We could also pick our pens and write. Why not, when we are all storytellers. And this business I am in now, demands that we all do, not just the experts, everyone whether 5 years old or 85 years old. Everyone is an expert storyteller of their own health. You owe it to humanity to connect with your stories.
The bits and pieces of my heart are slowly coming together through words. The prolific writer, bell hooks is my muse and guide through this process of undoing as well as so many other writers. But Ms. hooks speaks to my heart. I have been reading a lot about bell hooks of late. I began dancing in her words more when the pandemic began. She was the perfect salve for healing in a time of uncertainty. I buried myself deeply into everything she wrote. Her death took it to another level and well, not a day goes by these days that I am not pouring into anything she has ever written. She was a rare breed. My sister, my mother, my confidant, my friend, all in my head of course. She is the writer I long and dream to become. One unafraid to simply write. With no fear of sanctions or anything. I began reading about why she wrote her memoir “Bone Black,” which mostly focused on memories of her childhood. One thing I remember was her struggle to even begin. She once shared that when she made the decision to write about her journey to becoming a writer, there were no words.
Secrecy and silence for example, initially blocked her ability to write. To write about one’s life, to leave a trace of it, was frightening for her. Writing for her though became something to hold on to, to keep close. Writing ultimately helped her see the world clearly. These days, for me, writing has become a way of looking and seeing, a way to of undoing all that keeps holding me back from telling the stories I want to tell. I too have stared and continue to stare at blank screens, holding back for fear of breaking whatever bond, I have for keeping my thoughts hidden. Becoming bell hooks, choosing that named helped her kill Gloria Jean Watkins, her real name, and real self. To Ms. hooks, telling one’s story, even the process of telling, is tied to a longing to recover the past in such a way that one experiences both a sense of reunion and release. This longing for release compelled writing but concurrently fostered reunion, one that enabled her to write about her life in a way that allowed her to find herself. Like a living memory writing about the past can shape and inform the present, can foster self-growth and change in a practical way. One that I am truly looking forward to now that I am slowly delve into my undoing.
We told our son that he is a bird. Free to fly far and wide as he chooses. His teacher told him he is terrific. Free to reach for space and beyond. Now I watch as birds reach for outer spaces. I watch as my son becomes a bird.
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.
The words rise up. I note them. They come on their own, with their own nodes, own goals, that unfold one note at a time. They come with their own meaning everytime. I am obedient to the sounds that flow, the insights that grow, within minds long in need to ignite, in need of light. I am light. Like a tree that grows higher, and higher, branching out in different directions, like thick branches with lush green leaves full of water. I am green. I sit, listen, and let the words sway like trees on a windy day after hurricanes that stroke with water-like canes. Still these tree rise up and grow. For where trees grow, water flows. I am water. So to are my words. I have been discovering for the past year that where words flow, stories flow. I am stories. For one year, the stories in my mind, in spaces and boxes I once carved as private, have been flowing like a river. I am a river. A naturally flowing river, in search of an ocean, or a sea, a lake or another river. I have arrived at my destination. Words are my water, collected now in a river that flowed through a complex meandering path I called keep lists. There were no short paths. Every thing that mattered were loosened and dislodged like the rocks along the sides of river beds. I became loose with words that deepened my riverbed, eroded my hard phases, and elevated my soft places, all with grace. I am grace. An amazing grace, once blind but now open to all the spaces that make me whole. I poured myself into this space, poured my soul to the possibilities of this phase, of writing something to keep, words to keep, in a list to mold and shape as my own, in a list to own. And through this list, my words became fast-flowing. A source of energy, of life. I became soaked in the opportunities and form of each word, each list of things to keep. I am a list.
I have been reading a lot lately about lists, about why people use them in the first place. Most people write lists, to-do lists for example, to stay organized. Some write lists to stay in control, ticking things off when completed or moving things around to track completion. The first time I saved a list was in the middle of the pandemic. There were nothing to do with my lists. Nothing to track or even complete. My lists were focused on what to keep. A keep lists of experiences. The only objective: to write one list a day. The list was expected to make sense of life as a mother, a black working mother in academia with four children, one born in the fifth month of the pandemic. There were no organization necessary. No length was too long. Or to short. Everything was allowed in the lists. My thoughts, the news, my work, my family. Writing long lists was gratifying. So too were short ones that cut right to core. But lists about meaningfully people in my life, like my children, my students, my mentors, even the experiences of my husband on the frontlines or the last days with my sister in-law and her battle with cervical cancer were extra fulfilling. The pandemic and it’s impact were intense for all families. It was also equally frustrating, equally challenging, yet equally mesmerizing, and equally joyful. Not for the illness it brought or the deaths or sorrow it left behind, but for the discoveries, unexpected ones, like making a list, a virtual keeplists of time in a pandemic. There were no end in sight too. The pandemic held us all in a tight grip. And so the list grew and moved beyond the pandemic itself to capture life as we lived it one day at a time, all to preserve and protect all that mattered in a time where living was truly fragile.
Today marks the one year anniversary of this list. Words still do not fail me. They have become my everything, my hope, my joy, my hurdles, but yet my triumphs. I thank all of you that have read anything I wrote here. I thank you for coming on this journey with me. There is still no end in sight. Only that where my words still flow, my stories will surely flow.
They call it an eloquent flower. A flower full of eloquence. Poems have been written about it. One by Cummings who described it as love, and how it’s love moves with brightness to all places. We noticed it on a walk this week with by baby. I rarely go for walks these days, but something about the group of people I have been interacting with all week, made me seek air and the sun and light. I see a lot better when I walk. I also reflect better and say prayers of thanksgiving during long walks. I owed my maker one, hence the walk to just reflect on the journey so far, the insights so far and all the people I have met along the way so far. It shouldn’t be this easy, I kept saying. It shouldn’t be that we tell the stories of our why over and over again, almost to infinity and everyone we speak to gets it over and over again. So a walk was due. I need to check my blind spots, to stay humble, to listen and see the world once more for there are truly so many wonders to see, on long walks. Infinity stories being on my mind.
For this walk, our eyes were greeted by Crepe Myrtles. Their bright pink colors were hard to miss. They stood out amidst a row of green short and tall shrubs. I initially ignored them at first and kept walking. It has been a while since I walked and so I was focused. But the colors kept greeting my eyes, as if to say hello. Finally, I gave in and greeted the flower back. I smelt it as always and opened my app to learn a bit more. I have shared in prior posts how I have lived blindly through life not knowing one flower from the next. But since I started to walk in light, all sorts of flowers have become my friends. Crepe Myrtle is about to be my best friend.
Not only are it’s beautiful lush flowers appealing, but per my app, this flower is a symbol of eloquence, good luck too. I was in awe and grew closer to see why. In full bloom, it’s flower petals appear wrinkled but full of rich texture that produce brilliant crumbling spiral patterns. These spirals gather together like a crepe, hence the name Crepe Myrtle. But eloquence don’t stop with the flowers alone. Soon, the flowers will fall and it’s leaves will turn glorious gold, orange, red and purple in fall before falling off. Then, it’s bark completes this flower’s trifecta. The bark on many Crepe Myrtle peels in puzzle patterns to reveal smooth cinnamon or tan colors that glow during winter. All of this combined, helps to symbolize Crepe Myrtle’s eloquence. They also help to tell my never ending keeplist of stories of becoming a mom in light. An infinity story in the making.
On the surface, everything seems fine. A family that I am blessed to call my own for all the love, support and gifts of belonging they provide to me. A job that I am grateful to carve as I want, grateful for when things stay and last or fall off as with passing of time or even failed grant attempts. But when you peel my surface, when you come with me and feel my journey, even peel all my outer layers, then you will understand what rounds my trifecta. I am just coming to terms with it. I am a storyteller in all sense of the word. It’s where I get my eloquence, my reason for being, my persistence, my tenacity, my love, even my drive with life. Every single thing I do has a story connected to it.
Being a mother for example, one of my greatest stories ever told, one some of you may read here on a daily basis. The stories around how me and my greatest joy, my Zobam met and continue to journey through this life keeps me on my knees with gratitude to my maker. He truly saved me. Then there are the stories for how I have navigated pursuing a career in research. To think you can go to school to become a researcher seems unheard of but that’s how I earned my degree at the end for the day. I was literally trained to become a researcher from undergrad even, not in grad school. I owe it to Dr. Cassandra Veney, my very first mentor in undergrad who inspired me to probe deeply too during my days as a McNair scholar. Then of course there their stories from grad schools. Trip to Senegal all paid for by my department, just to get to Senegal and I don’t have a hotel room and I barely spoke French or Wolof. Yet, this trip would forever change me life and inspire me to be a a global health researcher passionate about seeing the world and working with people whether I spoke their language or not.
Then there are the malaria dissertation stories. Even the process of writing my first NIH grant to do this work under the guidance of my doctoral advisor Dr Collins Airhihenbuwa has a story worthy of praises for how he pushed me to become enamored by grantwriting. How I got my first job in Paris at UNESCO following graduation has a story. UNESCO itself has a story I have yet to tell but it shaped my resolve for sustainability. How I worked or lived in Paris for 2+ years has a story. Do you know what it’s like to navigate owning an apartment in a place where you barely speak the language or raising a new baby, my Belle with my mother in-law whom I met for the first time at CDG airport in Paris? The stories are out of this world.
Of course there was a growing young family at that time navigating long distance. We have stories to tell. The ones with my first job upon my return to the US are cringe worthy whenever I think about them. They tried, boy they tried to destroy me but little did they know that greater is he. Then there are the stories of how I mastered grant writing from the king himself, Dr Gbenga Ogedegbe. I owe him a lot for showing me things I never even knew existed within me. Or how I met my partner extraordinaire Dr. Joe Tucker. He is truly on another level when it comes to collaboration. Find your partner with research and you literally find heaven. This blog has been privy to stories of navigating a child on the spectrum and raising black children in America. Even cancer’s sting is now a story I intend to tell fully with all my might.
The eloquence of crepe myrtle personifies my life fully. I choose to live it out now, more brilliantly like never before, more brightly too like an infinity story. These stories are my light. Through light, I will move eloquently, one story at a time, to all places. I am a storyteller and I am inspired by the endless eloquence of Crepe Myrtles.
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.
What’s your story? I have been struggling with this lately. A friend called me out too. Said I call myself a storyteller but struggle with each story I tell. There was some truth to it. I write and stop writing. I tell stories and stop telling them. Not because I don’t want to write or tell my story but because of distractions. There have been a lot this year. Broken pipes, cancer, death. It’s only August. What my story? It’s still unfolding, not sure if the world deserves it yet too. But I’ll keep trying to tell whatever story I can. It’s a beautiful struggle too.
A league on their own, each petal is a colorful ray, of doubled flowers, in yellow or purple-ray florets, whites, ivories, and scarlet rays too. All in multiple whorls of ray flowers, all forming circles, forming clusters, forming bunches so compact, that it can only be described as motherhood. Dahlias are like mothers to me, so intense is the experience to me.
Their golden round and its countless petals, are like countless stars, that circle my being, with a stillness, so formless, so nameless, and so restless. The sighting of Dahlias are like mothers on days things are barely fathomless, days things are formless, even days we feel so flawless.
Dahlias indeed are stars. The blind see nothing. Both those who see, open their hearts. Their minds too open. To a stillness that is forever dazzling, forever haunting, each glimpse, forever brilliant, forever etched in memories as with days forever mesmerizing or days forever feeling helpless, or forever full of deep thoughts, that maybe forever inspiring while at the same time, make your feel forever dreamless, until moments become once more forever captivating, forever full of passion, in the midst of wild terrains that are forever demanding, even as you stay forever looking, yet feel like everything is forever in vain. Dahlias and their intricate whorls are forever full of surprises with every whorl which summarizes all that motherhood forever epitomizes.
The mere sightings of Dahlias galvanizes you to become one with all you desire, all you despise, all you disguise, even all you downsize as your journey from your base to your inner interior, the space where you hide your deepest desires, first for you, the place where all your dreams resides, all for you.
I have been there before. Of feeling lost, yet finding myself, of knowing how to proceed, yet loosing my way, but everything slowly making sense once my eyes greeted Dahlias.
Time stood still for Dahlias. They invite you in, invade your being, demand that you literally stop to recognize them, greet them, with all you possess, all within your power to soar as you devise ways to harmonize being one with your inner strength, one with this intricate flower. This is what Dahlias are known for. An inner strength so haunting, that you may fail to recognize the moment you give your self away to all the flower symbolizes. You may have been here before. Every time your eyes meet Dahlias. The sighting burrows deep in your soul. Like the soft kiss of a breeze. Dahlia’s kiss are forever captivating, forever etched in memories, that are forever lasting.
Yellow Dahlias gently kissed me while taking my baby to his daycare this week. Red ones too, ushered a tenderness so divine, gently caressing my restless heart, like fine wine. Slowly, I pressed forward, running out of excuses to delay this moment. He was supposed to start last week. It was his first time, and my heart and speech where rambling in chaos. Even though this was the day we have been waiting for.
I have been here before, with three other children. But something about baby number 4 made me nervous, made our day restless. Nothing was packed properly. Not his snack, not his water bottle, not his bag. Nothing was labeled properly either, not his diapers, not his wipes, not his bag. I should be happy. I should be pleased. No troubled mind, no demanding time. No breastfeeding, not restless feeding. Finally, all my children will be out of the house. Finally, all time, would be mine to claim. Sleep too. Yet, I was restless, nervous too. I fought through pain, until Dahlias met my eyes. With their sweet embrace, they encircled my being, forcing me to rise, to open to the sweet tenderness of this moment. Like the warmth of deep blue skies, I opened to their sweet embrace.
These are some of the secrets that I tend to keep hidden until now. Tend to ignore, dismiss too, until now. Stopping to recognize the power of opening up, was the gift I got from Dahlias. That and letting go. Of all the pains and joys of motherhood. The hopes and dreams we have that slowly dissipate, when we put others first. Slowly die, when we fail to put ourselves first. Even when we give our children the will to fly. We forget to fly too, afraid we will fall. I should be happy. I told myself 100 times, it will be okay. I knew this. We have been here before. Letting go, was painful. Unleashing a power, that made me rethink this moment, this freedom, this time that I knew would come one day. All children have to grow up. My baby, my last born, the one I bore during the pandemic was slowly walking to embrace all that life has to offer. I should be happy. Yet I felt lost.
I was lost, until Dahlia found me.
I was lost in its petals. This ethereal beauty, filled my restless soul with ease. Our greeting was gentle, a soulful ease. Like lovers we caressed each other, gently took hold of each other. With stillness so profound, so earth shaking. Time stood still, and Dahlias held me captive. We held on to each other. Afraid to blink, our eyes remain captivated by each other. Letting him go became easy. Watching him go with such reverence, became easy. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and caught him as he looked back. I saw something. Movements he initiated. Eyes locked with mine. As if to say are you coming. I am, always and forever, behind you, looking at you, loving you, captivated by you, inspired too by you, my baby, even as your journey through this world, through life. Keep Dahlia’s in mind for your journey through motherhood.