I have spent the past 2 days sinking into Toni Morrison’s knowing so deep essay. It’s my go to essay when I try to understand my place in this world. The wisdom, accuracy, relevance of her words are worthy of being kept every single day.
If black women are to survive, if we are to truly brighten our future, while building strength for today, then we need to constantly shape this untenable reality of a life we want. We need to mold it, sing it, reduce it to manageable transforming essence, so that change itself can occur. We are what the world needs. A disturbing disturbance that is not hawk nor stormy weather, just us, rustling like life. We are life.
This knowing so deep has comforted me the past two days. It’s my keep for the day and all through this year. Keep knowing black woman, especially black mothers, that your sweep is grand. Continue to Rest in Peace Tyre.
I think about us today. Black mothers wherever you are. I think about the thoughts we have for our children. The fear we have too. I think about what tomorrow may bring. What today brings. I want to say it will be better. It may not be. I want to tell you to dry your eyes. You can cry too. I want to only see love and life in your eyes. Though I see hate and death too. How did we get here too? When did we turn on our own in this way too. Another death, another life. By our own hands. With our hands. How did we get here. The universe keeps turning they say. We keep spinning too. Round and round and round and back to where it all began. The failure to relate to others. When others fail to relate. Young black men full of hate, howling hate, for each other. How did we get here? Life now imprisoned, death now, our best offering. The thinking that history happens all the time. Only this time, his name is Tyre. He called out for you, his mother. Mama, Mama, he said. Today will be hard. Tomorrow too. But listen, you are still the rim of the world. Your horizon is grand. Without you, who will they call. They will call you, always, mama and you will rise again and rise again to catch the sun, your son, rise again.
Keep black mothers in mind, all of us raising black boys in America because I don’t know how we got here, how death is our best offering to those that look like us now. The system is rigged and racist. I get it. But to each other. No one thought hey, that maybe my own brother. That is the part that has my heart in pieces. We don’t even see each other anymore. So I really want to know how did we get here. Who are you besides what you do and why didn’t they see him as their own brother.
I spent 2 hours today learning, absorbing, and exchanging wellness, healing from what it means to be black and woman in academia. Many of us have been battered. The weights of all we carry chokes and continues to choke. But the power of our narrative, the gifts we offer and the knowledge we provide, our very essence which Toni Morrison once’s described as the ‘rim of the world,’ all of the the pieces of us, are valued, visible, no longer on tiptoes but standing tall and erect because we choose to transform our silence to action. The meeting was for a future podcast with Health Promotion and Practice. I was open about my experience and time as a public health researcher. Something that happened because of this blog.
Early on in the pandemic, I re-read Audre Lorde’s transformation of silence into language and action. In fact, it was my first attempt at facing myself as a black woman in academia. There have been many casualties along the way when we think of the black woman’s experience within a system we were never meant to survive in. There have been few warriors too.
I wanted to be one of them. So that meant I needed to confront the words that I did not yet have.
I knew there were things I needed to say. I knew I had swallowed so many things that even choked me in silence. So I choose to face my fears. I started my blog, as well as writing letters as we published in the journal, to acknowledge that I too, I am a Black woman, a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend, myself, doing the necessary work of transforming my silence into action.
I hoped that through the blog and letter, other women like me would face their fears. These words from Ms. Lorde were the torch light for me: this idea, ‘that you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent.’ And to survive, each of us needs to learn first that we were never meant to survive. I channeled that knowledge into strength, and created a space where I have been chronicling all the ways I survive and continue to survive within a system I was never meant to survive.
So the fact that we are here, and we have this blog and now letter as a paper, even the podcast was our attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, knowing too for so many women that look like us, there are so many silences that need to be broken. Keep breaking them. You can download the paper below or read here: Dear Health Promotion Scholar
Each day, nearly 28 women die from cervical cancer in Nigeria. Angela Akumuo, my sister-in law, was one of them in the summer of 2021. She was 53 years old. Her death, like those of many women who continue to die from cervical cancer in Nigeria and globally, could have been prevented. It was also discovered late. She lived in pain for years, and died within 3 months of finally opening up about her illness. There are so many effective evidence-based tools to prevent, diagnose or treat cervical cancer. Research too, with the field of dissemination and implementation science, my chosen field of study. Yet, why are women, like my sister in-law, in the prime of their lives, still dying from cervical cancer in Africa?
Look at the state of cervical cancer in Nigeria and many other African countries and you’ll understand. With an estimated population of 206 million individuals, Nigeria has over 56 million women aged 15 years and above who are at risk of developing cervical cancer. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus, with 67% attributed to HPV 16 and 18. As a result, the government recommends screening for cervical cancer from aged 30. Young girls and women are recommended to get vaccinated as well from age 9. Yet less that 10% of eligible women are screened and 14% of girls are vaccinated. Is it any wonder that cervical cancer remains the second most common cancer among women in Nigeria, also one of the most preventable?
In 2020, nearly three years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) and 194 countries, pledged for the first time to eliminate cervical cancer by pursing three key steps: vaccination, screening and treatment. A recent costing exercise by WHO for the Nigerian government’s strategic plan on prevention and control of cervical cancer estimated that $18.1 million will be needed to fully immunize Nigerian girls at $3.98 per girl aged 9-13 years, $919 million will be needed to provide 24.8 million screening services and 2.2 million pre-cancer treatments, while $59 million will be required for cancer diagnosis, treatment and palliative care. Right now, Nigeria dedicates 5.75 percent of its budget to health with about N81 billion naira (roughly $100 million dollars) to health care services, all of which are insufficient to help the country reach its global goals for cervical cancer elimination by 2030. The cost of vaccination, screening and treatment remains an obstacle for many Nigerian women and girls. So, it’s no surprise then that Nigerian researchers and key stakeholders are turning back to Nigerians themselves to find innovative ways to lead the national response to eliminate cervical cancer.
Enter For girls and women by girls and women. This new crowdsourcing program led by myself and researchers at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research led by Dr. Oliver Ezechi and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, led by Dr. Joseph Tucker, is the latest from our, for youth by youth group, that has spent the past five years working to promote HIV self-testing with Nigerian youths themselves using crowdsourcing open calls, 48-hours designathons, month-long innovation boot camps and subsequent implementation of finalist programs in community settings. Crowdsourcing allows large number of people to become involved and engaged in developing solutions to health issues. Our program, now in its fifth year, boldly displays how Nigerian youth themselves can be partners and leaders with HIV prevention interventions and not just beneficiaries of interventions designed by researchers alone. Interventions created by the group, has led to an increase in HIV self-testing from 29% at baseline to 90% at 3 months follow.
We are striving to repeat the same success but this time with HPV vaccination among girls and HPV screening among their mothers or female caregivers. We know that the thought of cervical cancer may strike fear in people’s heart, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But it is possible to act against it by partnering with us to lead the design and implementation of HPV campaigns, particularly HPV vaccination of young girls and HPV screening of eligible women. Our crowdsourcing open calls will be launched in Nigeria this January and it is our hope that through our program goals, Nigerian girls and women can become prime leaders in designing, implementing and evaluating interventions that increase uptake of HPV vaccinations and HPV screening, while eliminating cervical cancer as we know it.
Angela Akunmo may have died from a disease so preventable. However, through the launch of the crowdsourcing open calls for HPV campaigns for girls and women by girls and women, her death will not be in vain.
It was at this very hour, nearly 14 years ago, that my father transitioned to become an ancestor. I always remember this day with love. For I was indeed lucky to have known love from my father. I am very much his legacy and I pray that through me, his name will become synonymous with hardwork and perseverance for my dad was a hard worker. He also put his family and children first, something I keep learning everyday. That and the road I must always take.
Nestled in the middle of a West African book of verse is a poem entitled ‘Mesh’ by Kwesi Brew. A love poem that finds the poet lingering over his choice. The first lines, ‘we have come to the crossroads’ personifies my present mood for 2023. For I have indeed come to a point, where I must decide which road to take. The choice, at times, seem clear. There are of course doubts, plenty of them to, but deep in my heart, I know which road to take.
Even if I should fail, lord knows, I love failure too, I will always remember something my Father always said to us, ‘what you learn, the big, the small, every single thing is worthy of praises.’ So I dedicate these words below, to the memory of the one who first taught me, the power and love for learning, named me ‘Isioma’ too, which in the end is all I need.
I’m not a poet. But I am mesmerized with how words come together to evoke meaning. Those that dimple everyday. Those that promise things simple, golden and gay. The lines, the forms, all the meters, and style are appealing as they are intriguing. Those who specialize in poetry have my deepest respect with the magic they form through words. Especially those that lift off a page and spread over mind’s reach. Those that terrify or haunt. Words that perplex or amuse. Those that fight or lose. Either way, the grace and beauty of words that stare, those that hurt, those indifferent, those that settle in deep within your soul, are the gentle reminders that we are humans after all. And words can make us drunk, even as they flow or cease to be.
I once imagined what life would be if I became a poet. It was during my stay in the village. The sighs of trees in the early hours of the day, next to cocks crowing, forces words to your head that describe, clarify or nullify anything that may derail whatever feelings trees quivering portray. I’m still not a poet. But I will not walk away from a challenge of putting words together. Enter my thoughts on never walking away. It’s penned for that moment when I was told to teach more because I seemed to want to give birth more. So I wrote this as a reminder of what I kept instead. Not their demands, but my resolve to still do academia on my terms with time.
This is my year of no. I’m loving it already. I have been asked to add another trip to my already packed work schedule in the middle of raising four young children who are school-aged. The answer is no.
I was also asked to do a favor for some in need where the need was more like a bandaid and not the solution they need. I said no.
I was asked, do I want more on my plate, more work, more demands, more on a plate that is literally overflowing. The answer my friend was no.
I have never said this much no and it’s just the beginning of the year. It feels like the thing I never knew I had in my power to do. Uncharted territories comes to mind, like riding a horse alone through fields littered with never ending demands.
Because truly deep down, I am a people pleaser. I want everyone around me to be happy and content and see me as a good guy willing to do what it would take so everyone is happy with me. This year, to literally hell with that.
If you are not happy with me, the doors are wide open. I am coming with a force and a legion that is unstoppable.
If all I have being doing the last couple of years was gathering storm, we have reached our peak. Watch me explode now that I know how to say no.
‘What you see is what you are and what you will become.’ Ben Okri said it best in his book ‘Astonishing the Gods.’ These days, what I am seeing is beyond me. They are truly wonderful things. Things that make one’s heart full. My heart is indeed full. I tried to dwell on it over the weekend. I’m still trying. Words fail me but know that I am grateful. January is cervical cancer awareness month and I get to launch a project that is near and dear to my heart in Nigeria tomorrow. I saw the project immediately cervical cancer came knocking at my door. In fact, I wrote the first version and submitted it before I knew how deep it would bury itself in our home. It buried itself and we are finally making sense of the journey ahead. Which is why I am all for those prepared to go on the journey. This isn’t a favor. Lord knows anyone around me isn’t doing me a favor. Know you came into my life. In situations where it is the reverse, know that my addition to your life is always for good. So whatever you see is me, is what we shall become. I will continue the journey with or without you. I know who started it and I know he will lead me all the way. Keep what you see!
To a girl or a boy alone, know that you have a people, with their own histories, their own stories, their own mysteries, their own adversaries, their own victories, their own jewelries, their own galleries, their own sceneries, their own groceries, their own factories, their own sanctuaries, their own vocabularies, their own stationeries, their own missionaries, their own legionaries and their own visionaries. Even when you feel alone, know that you can always begin again with your own history.
I saw first hand, the power of never forgetting your history during our stay in Nigeria. It was at my husband’s mother’s home and I was mesmerized by the histories that remained within the home. For example, we came across a wooden stool, probably over 100 years and in close to pristine condition. The stool had a language of its own, with a history of its own still waiting to be told by generations that follow. I asked as much questions I could ask about it, took pictures to preserve our meeting together and that’s when it dawned on me, that I am never alone. Not when I have a history of my own, with stories and mysteries of my own. I wanted to know who made the stool and why. Who used it and for what occasion. I also had questions about the carvings, it’s four legs, the striking lines at the bottom, and the markings across the top. Here was a stool, in it’s own room, it’s own house, it’s own language that still conveys a message of it own, all while built with hands long gone. Even though all that is left is this image, the mere presence of the stool, is a reminder that our existence, our history matters. Keep it all.
Children would laugh and I would sit back and sigh.
There is no place like home.
Not in form, for some.
So thank God for all the roosters, turkey, cows goats and monkeys we saw along the way.
Also thank you to all the trees that swayed around, ushering gentle kisses along the way.
They allowed me to keep dreaming and my children to keep laughing, keep being limitless too.
We will be back, only though I know with whom and where we belong.
There is no place like home.
Not in form, for some.
I am a mom to a child on the spectrum. Our trip to Nigeria over the holiday break made me choose to tell our stories more in 2023. Why? I saw ugliness and disdain for autism in Nigeria. Also not from strangers, but from those I call family. I have asked myself questions upon questions. Wondered out loud whether I thought things would be different all became we came home. We came home after all and so yes, I expected acceptance, love, understanding, patience, even joy. There is no place like home after all.
But rather, I was met with an attitude that might as well be described as hatred. We of course had a bumpy ride when we landed. We were stuck in a hotel room, exposed to the loud sensations of Lagos and yes, my child longed for the sanctuary of our home in the US from the moment we got to Lagos. It didn’t help that our first week there meant that I was working so I wasn’t even present to help calm his anxieties. And they were a lot. Justifiably so. We live in a home that is literally surrounded by trees because I know first hand what green space can do for children on the spectrum. I literally took a semester long class focused on this during my time at UIUC. We were lucky to see some trees in Lagos but the noise and constant chaos meant that the first couple of days were full of dread for the place we were to call home for a month. When work ended and we finally moved to our new place the following week, things began to settle in place. He had his music. We had more space and life seemed to move at an easy pace. We also removed ourselves from things that triggered his anxiety and that helped a lot.
But the time we got to the village. Even in the midst of all the flies that would often trigger a loud response from my son, he finally was at peace. I watched him everyday waiting for one loud scream or loud tears or even anything. But I got nothing. He was at peace. I would secretly watch from afar how he interacted with folks. They were minimal, but still something. He didn’t scream, didn’t cry, didn’t even yearn to return home. Rather he played with his siblings and cousins, ran around with all the animals he saw around him, named them too like Ellie the Cow and Sam the Turkey. I was struck by his sense of joy for a place many dare not travel too due to the uncertainties in Nigeria. Indeed, when you are home, there is no place like it.
I was born and raised in Nigeria but this was my third trip to a village so I too was taken aback by the serenity we felt for this space. Then it occurred to me. People will never understand your ways. Home is home and something your spirit know has no bounds. Even when people judge you and count you off even when things go wary, when you are home, your spirit knows. So keep living beyond their limits for you. Keep being limitless too. If we only stayed in Lagos, our trip would have indeed been miserable, but the village changed all of that for us. The Igboness side of me, felt that it was because we were truly home and there is no place like it. It was as if my son’s spirit knew that he was walking on the land his people once walked, once lived in too. His spirit, or chi felt at peace at home. Mine too. I saw beauty beyond words for a space that welcomed me, welcomed my children, and allowed us to see joy, feel joy and know joy, even if only from animals that roam around or tall trees that sway around or the perfect peace that resonates when you are surrounded by those with whom you truly belong to.
I look forward to giving this back to him some more. The memories from this trip and our time at the village was priceless for us and especially my son. It restored my faith with being a mom with a child on the spectrum and living in Nigeria. We will be back. Only now, we truly know with whom and where we belong.