Picture of Joseph Bahemuka

February 9, 2013

PhD candidate returns to Uganda to study water issues

For many graduate students in the joint McMaster and United Nations University Water Without Borders program, a trip to Uganda to learn about water issues would be a unique and life-altering experience.

For Social Work PhD candidate Joseph Bahemuka, it's a trip home that reminds him of a childhood tainted by the everyday struggle of accessing fresh water.

"Water issues tormented me while I was growing up," says the 33-year-old Bahemuka, who sacrificed schoolwork and play time as a child in order to fetch up to 20 litres of well water each day for his family. "I still feel a little bitter over the punishments I suffered because of my responsibility to collect water."

Bahemuka is one of ten McMaster University graduate students who are stationed in Uganda this week as part of the one-year Water Without Borders program. The trip is mandatory for students in the program, which is open to any McMaster graduate student and considered unique to North America. The aim of the program is to develop experts in the area of water health.

"I feel this is a great opportunity because I now have the practical and theoretical background to help," says Bahemuka. "This has been one of the most important experiences in my life."

In Uganda, the group of students are meeting with government officials and representatives from the World Health Organization. They will also meet with local community groups to gain a better understanding of how a lack of access to clean water effects lives of individuals and communities as a whole.

Bahemuka recognizes that he will bring a unique perspective to the group of ten students. In addition to completing Uganda Christian University's Master of Public Health Leadership program, Bahemuka worked for 10 years coordinating and managing projects for organizations such as United Nations and World Vision International that focused on HIV and AIDS, gender-based violence and water and sanitation.

Despite his in-depth professional and personal experiences, he believes the WWB trip to Uganda will allow him to view the country's water issues from several new angles. This is because the students accompanying him on the trip come from several different disciplines from across the University, including Engineering, Global Health and Philosophy.

Corrine Schuster-Wallace, a program advisor with UNU, says this multi-disciplinary aspect is the true strength of the program.

"The students learn as much from their peers as they do from us," says Schuster-Wallace. "By the end of the trip they are spreading their knowledge through each other and new ideas start forming."

"I still have a lot to learn," admits Bahemuka, who was first introduced to the WWB program through McMaster Social Work professor Susan Watt.

Watt joins students on the trip through her association with UNU. In addition to being involved with the UNU program, Watt is acting as Bahemuka's supervisor as he completes his PhD, and has spent the last 30 years traveling to Uganda to complete research on the health of women and newborn infants.

The trip to Uganda won't be all work and research for Bahemuka, however. He is planning to stay an extra week to visit with friends and family.

For more information on the WWB program, which has a 2013 entrance application deadline of April 30, check out the initiative online.