By Anna Colom
In the previous article (‘What does citizenship mean for young people in Busia?’), I described what citizenship meant for the young people in Busia who took part in the research that I did with the support of Siasa Place. I broke it down into a set of citizenship capabilities. Many of the capabilities that mattered to young people, like respect, voice, access to timely information, access to services, or meaningfully engaging in decision-making, were difficult to achieve. The obvious way forward would be for governments to fulfil their promises, to meaningfully engage with young people and listen to their needs, to be transparent and be held to account, to implement the policies and to provide services for communities and youth to thrive. But when these are lacking, how can civic education and engagement programmes better support youth to claim and enact their citizenship? I explored in the analysis what is it that helped youth achieve or claim these capabilities.
One way to help young people achieve their citizenship capabilities was through activating their citizenship by providing resources like training, information, and a safe space of collective belonging, like Siasa Place or peer groups did. Narratives also helped in activating citizenship, such as sharing the view that young people and women are a majority and that change is possible if it is sought by many. These were all aspects that helped people to find the collective support needed to move forward and to realise that it was important to be more engaged as citizens. The other way to access their capabilities was through enacting or performing citizenship itself. For example, standing up to ask a question to an MCA in a public participation meeting, signing and delivering petitions to government desks, citing the articles in the Constitution, pointing out inconsistencies in county budget plans, or creating groups to plan are help each other were ways to perform and claim their citizenship.
I also researched how the use of instant messaging, in that case WhatsApp, helped in these processes of activating or performing citizenship. Other research has found that WhatsApp can spread misinformation, but in my research I found that using WhatsApp in small, trusted groups of like-minded people helped participants to communicate, mobilise and organise themselves. While this sounds obvious, using instant messaging also helped in other important ways: it helped participants to feel free in a safe and trusted small group of people, to have a voice and to feel their views mattered, to suggest ideas and to show what was possible and what was being done. It helped to have agency and to build narratives and discourse. For example, young people would share photos of themselves delivering petitions, asking questions in public participation meetings, or training others. Sending photos, videos, articles, or sharing and discussing government documents, like the County Fiscal Strategy Papers or County Integrated Development Plans, helped them to enact the citizenship capabilities they valued or practice how they should claim them once out in public meetings. It was a way to build and perform citizenship as an inwards, safe, encouraging and more intimate process before enacting it in the public sphere.
I also found something else through the research: the impact of inequalities. As I said in the previous article, the meanings attached to the citizenship capabilities vary depending on the inequalities or oppressions people face. Similarly, what works to activate citizenship might not work in the same way for everyone. For example, some participants might not feel they belong in a youth group because they might feel dismissed as women, as it happened to some participants in the research. Others did not feel as confident speaking English as others, or they might not be able to afford transport to attend a meeting. Some participants faced control and even violence from their husbands if they spent too much time outside the house. Similarly, the extent to which WhatsApp was useful for people also varied. To start with, still many people do not have meaningful access to Wi-Fi, data or to a working phone. During my stay in Busia, some participants were offline for months because they could not afford to repair their phone. For many who had access, this access was intermittent, and this meant that they could not follow all the conversations. Some did not get information in time or did not get it all. Others had to share the phone with other family members.
So, in the process of activating citizenship and supporting young people and women through civic engagement activities, it is important to consider inequalities and how people are differently situated. The young people in Busia that I interviewed shared many aspirations and views on what was important to them as citizens. Receiving training and information, having a collective space of belonging to build narrative, attending meetings, and signing petitions helped them to activate and enact their citizenship. On the other side, the research also shows that there is a lot of diverse realities within the label of ‘youth’ and that it is important that all young people feel they belong. The support required will need to adapt to different needs so that all young people are respected and can thrive equally, regardless of their gender, education level, socio-economic class or location. I also found that using mobile phones and instant messaging in small groups and constructive ways was very helpful in accessing the citizenship capabilities young people valued. However, using it without taking these inequalities into account can further exclude people from valued capabilities.
Anna Colom is currently a Visiting Fellow at The Open University (UK). The findings of this article are part of the doctoral thesis: “Citizenship Capabilities and Instant Messaging in Western Kenya: an Intersectional Approach”.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Siasa Place and all the participants across Busia county for your generosity. You offered trust, hospitality and care, and let me walk alongside you for a bit of your collective and individual journeys. I do not take this for granted and cherish the memories we shared.