Trials and Tribulations

Graduate student Jonneke Koomen investigates the global politics of human rights.
By Susie Eaton Hopper

Jonneke Koomen in West Africa.

Would the accused be found guilty or innocent? Her instincts were taking her to more subtle matters. Where was the defendant seated? How was the witness being treated? Those practices, formal and informal, put a thought in her head that wouldn't go away. Those court processes were the perfect way to study power.

Her idea would soon propel the University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, and to study global governance and gender and women's rights with the Maasai in remote parts of Tanzania.

Born and raised in Oxford, England, Koomen was named top student in her undergraduate program at the University of Warwick, where she graduated with a B.A. in politics and international studies in 2000. Her adviser saw a bigger future for Koomen and recommended graduate schools, including the University of Minnesota.

Koomen laughs that she had to get out a map to locate the state before she researched the renowned Minnesota programs. She took the Graduate Record Exam, her first multiple-choice test, and applied for a scholarship. A late-night call from a man with an American accent let her know she'd been accepted. After a week-long stay on campus, during which she attended both graduate and undergraduate classes, she was knocked out by "how coherent the program here was. Everyone knew one another and they were talking about issues," Koomen says. "The professors were very involved with the graduate students." The land grant institution left an immediate impression. Even the warnings about cruel winters didn't scare her off.

Arrivals & Departures

Soon she was on campus, meeting amazing peers and professors, working as a teaching assistant, and immersing herself in her studies. She was not only studying politics, she was also becoming an activist. Her passion for politics led her to campaign for the access-to-education movement, the Equal Access Coalition, the graduate union, and the campaign to keep General College. She excelled in classes and thrived on research; it paid off handsomely when she won several travel grants and fellowships, starting in 2002.

With the help of several professors, Koomen found funding to go to West Africa for the first time in the summer of 2005; she worked as a visiting researcher at the ICTR. A string of other fellowships from the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change and the political science department, including an Efimenco Fellowship, have enabled her to return each year.

To prepare for the war-crimes tribunal research, Koomen had to learn some qualitative practices, quickly. Dan Kelliher, one of her political science professors, told her she'd have to conduct interviews at places where she was very uncomfortable. An emergency room near campus and a local gym provided plenty of practice.

She took basic Swahili at a community college in St. Paul. She read everything she could get her hands on about the tribunal, including many journalistic accounts. U of M workshops on "Gender in International Context" led by Dr. Karen Brown infused Koomen with knowledge about research and collaboration that continues to influence her methods.

Her mother had friends in Tanzania through her Baha'i faith, so Koomen knew she would meet host families with ties to her own. "I didn't know a single person in Tanzania, and now I have a family,'' she says.

Arriving at the ICTR, Koomen focused on a group that was not commonly studied, the translators who prepare witnesses and victims to take the stand and who translate the proceedings. These hearings were conducted to take seriously the sexual violence during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Many victims and witnesses have had to tell their stories countless times over the years.

Koomen detailed one witness's testimony in her paper, "Human Rights and Human Suffering: Retelling Violence at the International Criminal Tribune for Rwanda" (as told through the interpreter): "I'd like to tell you this: during the war I was a witness to things. But I cannot recount what I saw as if I was reciting a poem. I'd like to tell you this: at the cathedral we were attacked twice. . . . Now I'm telling you about the genocide. I am not . . . recounting the story of a wedding."

The translators reported feeling numb, being sickened by accounts of the violence and genocide, and feeling responsible for repeated suffering from the forced retelling. They also were keenly aware of the problems of translating the official court languages, English and French, and the witnesses' language, Kinyarwanda. They told Koomen that officials never helped the survivors left behind in the genocide. Watching the hearings sent her thoughts back to the Hennepin County courtroom where she had watched gestures, nuances, and official behaviors play out in detail. This time she was watching a courtroom scene on an international stage. The witnesses were strangers in a strange land, flown to Arusha, dressed for court, moved from their homeland to an invasive, intense environment that forced them to recall the horrors of the past.

The next summer, Koomen returned to the tribunals and started her research following Aang Serian, an independent, nonprofit non-governmental organization started by Maasai youth that is dedicated to preserving indigenous traditions and knowledge in villages in northern Tanzania. International efforts and grassroots activists collaborated on promoting other rites of passage as alternatives to the genital cutting of Maasai girls. Informal village groups discussed how to be a woman in modern society. Older women who had previously performed the cutting procedures were retrained to be non-circumcision educators in the community.

Between the Global and the Local

"It hit home that global politics doesn't happen somewhere 'up there,'" Koomen says. "It happens in the village meetings--human rights, women's rights--even if they don't use that language." The experience of seeing global politics taking place before her eyes fueled her dissertation, "Between the Global and the Local: Women, Gender and Global Governance."

She ate meals of ugali, rice, goat, and chai with Maasai women. She hung out with children, some of whom were able to translate for her because they were learning English in school.

The Aang Serian activists "face tremendous obstacles, but their achievements are remarkable,'' Koomen says-especially in building schools and educating the villagers on health issues like AIDS. She and the director, Lesikar Ole Ngila, who is also a local leader, became friends. His insistence on eating food "without petrol'' influenced Koomen greatly. Now back in Minnesota, she has planted a garden and shops for food at a co-op. Her relationship with Ole Ngila led him to visit Minnesota last year.

Koomen will get her Ph.D. this fall and has no doubt that she will continue to teach, the thing she loves most, while continuing to research and write. She stresses to students that education is not just about books--it's also about talking to people and interacting with the world. She wants to pass on the support she's gotten from the University. "This was a place where I knew I would learn a lot,'' Koomen says. "I just didn't know how much.'

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on November 14, 2008 11:57 AM.

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