Story and photos by Jimmy Siyasa
Two tragedies occurred in the early life of Simon Mwima. One, he lost his sister to AIDS. Two, the son of his departed sister succumbed to the same scourge. Those two deaths left an indelible mark on Mwima that later determined his career path.
“Due to structural and institutional barriers, poverty and stigma, my sister, Alice, could not access the care that she needed, leading to her death,” he said.
After watching his sister and nephew die helplessly, he made it a mission to fight against HIV and AIDS. And he is now a medical social worker, as well as an academic at Uganda Christian University (UCU).
Mwima recently won a four-year, merit-based scholarship worth $70,000, including tuition and stipend, with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s School of Social Work. According to the Times Higher Education world university rankings, the university ranks number 48.
The offer did not come on a silver platter for the 36-year-old who is the first person to pursue a PhD program in his family.
“I applied to five PhD programs and I must thank God that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was impressed with my academic credentials and my research interests,” he said.
Looking back at the path of material scarcity that Mwima has trodden since his birth in the eastern Uganda district of Budaka, he cannot be more grateful for where he is now.
Mwima also earns his daily bread working for the Ugandan government in the health ministry. He has been a medical social worker for the National AIDS Control Program since 2016. A celebrated national trainer for the Ministry of Health, Mwima has so far educated over 500 social workers, as well as spearheading various HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns.
He is a cog in the wheel of the COVID-19 Mental and Psychological National Taskforce. Here, Mwima has contributed to the development of the national psychosocial plan for COVID-19, as well as serving as a social epidemiologist.
Mwima, a son of retired primary teachers, Simon and Agnes Mukubba, previously worked as a clinical social worker at the Mulago Most At Risk Initiative (MARPI) clinic in Kampala. At the clinic, he managed cases of vulnerable adolescents. He is a research fellow for the Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) implementation program, a new HIV prevention intervention.
He holds two master’s degrees – the first in public health, from Lund University in Sweden (2015) and in sociology (2020), from Makerere University. His undergraduate degree, which he obtained in 2009 at Makerere University, was in sociology.
When one knows what they are doing, they will not need to chase after opportunities. Opportunities will instead chase after them. Indeed, prospects sought Mwima, for him to start teaching at UCU.
Five years ago, he was invited to the university as a guest speaker. Kasule Kibirige, Mwima’s head of department at UCU, said the guest lecture excelled that they were left with no option but to ask him to join the institution. And he said yes to the proposal.
From then, Mwima has been lecturing in sociology, anthropology and social works. He also supervises students conducting research at both undergraduate and master’s level at the institution.
“He is quite resourceful. He has come to the department with a wealth of practice experience because of his work and rich networks from the Ministry of Health and its partners,” Kibirige said.
As a result, Kibirige said, Mwima took into the department consultancy work that has “helped advance some of our interests in the external world, as a department.”
Mwima considers his employment at UCU a blessing because it has offered him opportunity to translate knowledge through lecturing, an experience he believes has afforded him friendships with fellow academics and students.
The teaching job also came in handy during his PhD application.
“The teaching experience is critical and matters while PhD programs are assessing applications for admission,” he says. Mwima intends to invest plenty of his post-PhD time conducting research to inform sexual health policy and practice.
Fiona Niyijena, a third-year student of Bachelors of Social Work and Social Administration at UCU said of Mwima: “He is an understanding lecturer. He often shared with us his personal story and encouraged us to pursue further studies. I look forward to pursuing a master’s course.”
Dustan Katabalwa, another student, said Mwima gives them audience when they have issues they want to share with him.