“I shall not give up” – The story of a PhD student and her life after

1. December 2020
Alumna from Uganda in front of car of "Doctors without borders"
APPEAR scholar Esther Mukooza from Uganda completed her PhD in Anthropology at the University of Vienna and is currently working with Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Kingdom of Eswatini in Southern Africa. She tells us about her professional journey after her studies in Austria and explains why one should focus on the goal and not the in-between.

My research interests are vested in a wide array of social issues. Originally a high school teacher of Biology and Chemistry, I obtained – first a bachelor’s degree in Social Administration and thereafter a Master of Arts degree in Social Sector Planning and Management from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. For a number of years I taught undergraduates in the Institute of Social Sciences at St. Lawrence University in Kampala before I moved to the energy sector where I worked with the Uganda National Renewable Energy Agency (UNREA) to promote the use and adoption of renewable energy sources alongside efficient energy use. Then I was nominated for a scholarship to pursue doctoral studies in Austria. The funding was within the APPEAR project MEDANIH through which the first ever Masters programme in Medical Anthropology and International Health in the sub-Saharan region of Africa was implemented at Gulu University, Uganda. This project has since then yielded a number of medical anthropologists currently practicing in different capacities in and out of academia in Uganda as well as abroad. It has also led to increased community participation and involvement in research activities carried out within local communities.

In 2014 I went to Vienna to pursue a doctoral degree in Anthropology and I hasten to add that it was no mean feat given that I was a new mother who had to juggle being a student and full time parent at the same time. Nonetheless, during this time I was also privileged to participate as an assistant lecturer to MEDANIH students at Gulu University as well as speak to medical students at the Medical University of Vienna, anthropology students at the University of Vienna and medical anthropology students at the Webster University as a guest lecturer before finally graduating in 2019. This was after successfully defending my thesis on the local perceptions of nodding syndrome (NS) in northern Uganda and their implications for interventions under the supervision of Priv.-Doz. Mag. Dr. Ruth Kutalek, Medicatl University of Vienna.

Nodding syndrome is an illness that is until now not well understood. Victims are children aged between five and 15 years with recurrent head nods often followed by seizures as the major symptoms. Progression of the illness leads to death. This illness has been confirmed in the sub-Saharan African regions of northern Uganda, southern Tanzania, and South Sudan. For 11 months I carried out multi-site ethnography in northern Uganda and my study findings show that the explanatory models local affected communities have about the cause of NS are embedded in time (the civil conflict period) and space (internally displaced people’s camps) characterised by extreme levels of hunger and very poor sanitation. They also highlight the health consequences of war such as the breakdown of public health and transport infrastructure as well as the impact severe poverty has on the health of an already vulnerable population. Beliefs like witchcraft and spirits also feature in what people think about the cause and illness experience of NS and about the healthcare of victims. Without watering down the respondents’ narratives and explanatory models, however, it is also evident that the media and past research activities have an influence on how NS is perceived. At a Meta level, NS in northern Uganda is shrouded in structural factors that are political, biological, cultural, and socioeconomic in nature.

For me to say this journey was challenging seems like an understatement. After all I had never set foot in northern Uganda before let alone travel to the home area of the still elusive Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel leader Joseph Kony under whose rebellion local communities suffered maiming and several other untold atrocities in a two decade civil war. However, a young man in the small trading centre in one of the locations where I briefly stayed during the fieldwork phase came and sat under the Olam tree (te Olam in Luo) early every morning with his radio loudly playing a song by a local artist – Labert Dickson entitled “Never give up”. Anyone who has walked this path will agree with me that there is a point (or several points for that matter) when one contemplates giving up and incidentally I was often at this point because of the challenges of ethnographic fieldwork hundreds of miles – in a very rural area for months, studying a poorly understood illness that claimed children’s lives almost daily, away from my young children! Listening to this song play practically every morning enabled me learn the lyrics by heart and thank God, these lyrics perpetually played out in my head that they were the force that kept me going with fieldwork day in day out.

The “I shall not give up” mantra further helped me through the thesis writing period and influences me even now as I work with Medecins Sans Frontieres – Operation Centre Geneva (MSF- OCG) in the Kingdom of Eswatini (land of the Swazi) in Southern Africa. According to UNAIDS (2018), HIV prevalence in the kingdom stood at 27.3% in 2018 for adults aged 15-49 years. At the moment my team and I are qualitatively exploring the feasibility of implementing an acute HIV (AHI) diagnosis and treatment approach to HIV as a way of reducing the rising numbers of new infections for an already over-burdened population whose rate of infection is at a record high.

Finally, in a bid to consolidate the gains from my doctoral studies and strengthen collaboration with Austria, early this year I was elected country representative of Uganda member Universities in the Austrian-African Research Network (Africa-UniNet) which was initiated to create a long-term, stable basis for cooperation between Austrian and African universities and research institutions under the leadership of Univ. Prof. DI Dr. DDr. h. c. Hubert Hasenauer; Rector of BOKU. Conclusively, I would like to sincerely mention that the generosity of the Austrian government through all these programmes has immensely contributed to the person I have become which encapsulates my current and future contribution to society and for this I will eternally remain grateful.