Peace begins with communication

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Eddah Mutua-Kombo

Eddah Mutua-Kombo leads a discussion with St. Cloud high school students about transforming lives through communication.

During spring break Eddah Mutua-Kombo flew halfway across the world to deliver the same basic message in her native Kenya that she offers in her classroom and her community: Peace-building begins with communication.

Invited by the Commonwealth Secretariat communication and public affairs office, London, to address journalists and leaders in a country healing after a period of political crisis and violence, the St. Cloud State assistant professor of communication studies encouraged them to give greater voice to women, children and other traditionally disadvantaged groups. "Allow them to express their pain in their own language and terms," she told her audience. "Do not dehumanize them by ignoring them."

Mutua-Kombo believes individuals need to learn how to build trust in each other through interaction and to develop one-on-one friendships before they can create the kind of connections that make a difference in community, national and world relations. "It’s in the mind that we construct war, but it’s also in the mind that we construct peace," Mutua-Kombo said. Getting students to think about how they can help construct the ideals of peace is a powerful lesson she offers in a variety of ways.

For students in Mutua-Kombo’s intercultural communication classes, the Communicating Common Ground Program in local public high schools provides a unique opportunity to get personally involved in applying their teacher’s philosophy with a racially and culturally diverse group of local young people.

Mutua-Kombo developed the grant-supported program with St. Cloud school district administrators after hearing first-hand from her neighbors the challenges that immigrants face in the community. Worried parents are asking for help with children who are sometimes driven to anger and frustration by harassment and discrimination they experience in local schools, she said.

Participation in the program is giving Mutua-Kombo’s St. Cloud State students tremendous insight into the intercultural problems that exist in many Minnesota communities. Sitting down to converse with the diverse mix of young people is giving them the tools to understand and tackle these issues. "I didn’t realize there was this much conflict between cultures and ethnicities," said Nicole Lemmer, a sophomore communication studies major from Lindstrom, Minn. "I can tell we’re impacting the kids. They need someone to talk to about these problems."

During the series of six afterschool sessions aimed at fostering conversation and problem sharing, the Technical and Apollo high school students talk about barriers they encounter and the mocking and verbal abuse they experience from other students who lack understanding and sensitivity to people who look and dress differently from them. But this diverse group is clear about why they’ve come together.

"We’re here to share what we have in common," one said. "We’ve come so we can diminish racism and coexist although we have different backgrounds and opinions," said another.

"I try to teach them to be a little bit smarter," Mutua-Kombo said, "to try to work out a strategy for how to change things – to engage others more. If you
can’t transform the way 100 people think, transform one, and bring in allies,
one by one."

"She’s very, very committed," Lemmer said of Mutua-Kombo’s efforts to foster community and global intercultural communication through her teaching. "I’m learning so much. It’s made me stop and think before I say things – to be sure
I’m not saying something that would hurt someone."

Mutua-Kombo is not only a teacher and a mentor to the different communities she touches, she’s a role model. "Education will set you free" is advice she has lived.

"I tell my students I have to pinch myself that I’m a professor standing before students in the greatest nation in the world."

Her journey to St. Cloud State began humbly in rural Kenya. "Mother couldn’t afford to keep me and sent my sister and me to live with our grandfather," she said. "I walked barefooted the 10 kilometers to and from school and did homework by natural sunlight, as the single lamp was reserved for times when I would be preparing for national examinations."

"That background is in my mind all the time," said Mutua-Kombo, who studied hard and at 14 got into a missionary girls’ boarding school – a place with electricity and opportunity. "I did well and proceeded to go to national school where substantive academic preparation paved my way at the University of Nairobi. It was an exciting time – the ’80s movement for women’s rights, UN meeting in Nairobi, people fighting for an end to apartheid."

Mutua-Kombo, who went on to earn her master’s degree at the City University of London and doctorate at the University of Wales, thought about all the possibilities for what she could do with her education. But in the end she said she was honored, privileged and blessed to become what her grandfather always encouraged her to be – a teacher. A teacher whose message just might change the world.

- Marsha Shoemaker

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