Pursuing the dream of education

3 black-and-white photos: Ida hugging Matt Damon, Ida with Stephen Lewis, and Id
3 black-and-white photos: Ida hugging Matt Damon, Ida with Stephen Lewis, and Ida walking with Matt Damon
Ida Mukuka is an internationally renowned advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and research. She’s worked with the Stephen Lewis Foundation, co-authored numerous articles and addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. And now, she’s pursuing her dream at the University of Waterloo. Mukuka is a master’s student in the Department of History, researching the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zambia with a focus on the impacts of gendered stigma and violence. For Mukuka, this work is more than just an area of interest - it’s rooted in her own life story.

Becoming an activist

Mukuka was born and raised in Zambia along with eight siblings. She was closest with one of her brothers, who later contracted HIV. "HIV takes a long time, so I watched my brother go through all the stages," she says. "It was very painful, and there’s nothing you can do. There was no medication." While he was sick, he would often encourage Mukuka to continue her education, knowing she had a passion for it. "I loved school, but it’s an opportunity I didn’t have in life."

In 2000, Mukuka lost both her brother and her husband to HIV. Left with her two daughters, she knew she wanted to create a better world for them and honour her brother’s dying wish. "Him telling me to do something about HIV enhanced my passion to really move forward with being an activist." Soon after, she began working at the Centre of Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ) and piloted a successful support group program for pregnant women living with HIV.

Becoming a student

Her work at the CIDRZ exposed Mukuka to many celebrities and international leaders, including Oprah Winfrey; Matt Damon; Hillary Clinton; Graša Machel, a Mozambican politician and widow of Nelson Mandela; and Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Through meeting the latter, Mukuka was able to complete a diploma in Community Development from St. Francis Xavier University and then began working with the Stephen Lewis Foundation as a field representative in 2007. While travelling around the world supporting grassroots AIDS organizations, she realized the importance of empowerment and education in creating change. "If we can’t give proper education to girls or women, they will never be activists," she says. "I’ve seen how it has helped in my own life."

Mukuka continued looking for opportunities to learn, and one came when she met Dr. Susan Roy. Roy invited Mukuka to speak at the University of Waterloo on the impacts of HIV/AIDS as part of her Global Indigenous Rights class, and then again during the History Speaker Series. Through this connection, Mukuka applied for graduate studies at Waterloo and received a scholarship to begin her MA in History in 2023. She knew she wanted a way to tell her own story of loss, trauma and community, so she decided to conduct an auto-ethnographic study, allowing her to draw on her personal life history, her on-the-ground experience in Zambia, the larger socio-economic and political context of her work as well as in-depth archival research. "A story can really help people learn in different ways. So what is it that I have to do?" she asks. "I have to write about myself."

Inspiring others

For Mukuka, studying at the University of Waterloo is a culmination of her long-standing passion for learning, first encouraged by her brother. "Waterloo is a special place," she shares. "It’s given me an opportunity at 50 to be able to do my master’s, something that has always been my dream." With the support of her peers, professors and supervisor Dr. Katherine Bruce-Lockhart, Mukuka has developed new friendships, critical thinking skills and the tools to become a stronger activist. "Education is a source of activism. It gives you authority," she says. "As an international student, I really appreciate this opportunity."

Most importantly, education has allowed Mukuka to create a better future for her children. "I know I’ve given the best to my kids," she reflects, grateful that she could pass her love of learning onto them. Mukuka’s oldest daughter now works as a lawyer in Zambia’s High Court, and her youngest works in community development in Zambia. Although she’s unsure where her master’s degree will lead her next, Mukuka hopes that writing her story will continue to inspire others. "Girls and women that want to pursue the dream of education will read it and say, look at this woman. She went to the University of Waterloo. This is what happened."
Olivia Vanderwal