Joseph Erume is unusual in several ways. Most prominently, he is the first postdoc to work at Makerere University. This is primarily because postdoc funding is extremely difficult to secure in sub-Saharan Africa. Second, he may be the only water researcher at Makerere (or perhaps anywhere else) to drink from the same spring he is studying for pollution.
“When I came back to Makerere as a postdoc,” he said, “we moved into a house that happened to be near one of Kampala’s big valleys, where the water from the hills seeps down. People build springs near the bottom of the slopes, and then they build their houses closer and closer to these springs so they don’t have so far to carry the water. Of course they dig their latrines right below their house, so that that their sewage goes right with the water seeping down to the spring. Sometimes they pile their garbage nearby, and that gets into the water as well. In my house, part of the day our water comes from the city, but it stops flowing all the time, and then we have to get water from the spring. Of course we boil it.”
Joseph has been selecting springs to study, and cultivating relations with the nearby residents so as not to antagonize them by his presence. In the first picture, he and his colleague Irene Naigaga dodge a gutter of trash as they descend to one of these springs; in the second picture they chat with the community “chairman” who is sympathetic to their mission. “We have not yet begun our water collection, so as not to move too quickly into the communities. But we have a lot of people dying of cholera, and amoebic and bacterial water-borne diseases rob people’s energy, and it’s very likely there is a correlation between illness and sites like this.”
Joseph was born in the Amuria District of eastern Uganda, about 300 km from Kampala. His parents were not educated themselves, but made sure he and his siblings went to high school, even though he had to travel to the neighboring district. At that point he didn’t know what career he would pursue – until one of his family’s cows went into a difficult labor. There was no veterinarian in town, and finally the cow died when the calf could not be released. A second cow caught a tick-borne disease called East Coast fever and died as well. “These were our cattle, and their deaths showed me this is the life I had to pursue.”
On his own initiative, he won a scholarship to the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Makerere, where he earned his BSc. After that he took an MSc in veterinary microbiology at the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London. He returned to a job he had already secured at Makerere as a lecturer until he had an opportunity to travel to the University of Nebraska for his PhD in integrative biomedical sciences, with a major focus on E. coli. Finally he has the support to embark on his own research – moving across the thin line that divides people from other animals. To Joseph, the larger task is to prevent disease and reduce suffering among all living beings.