By Anna Colom
What does it mean for a young person in Busia to be a citizen? And what helps ‘to activate’ citizenship or to act like a citizen? I am not referring only to acquired legal citizenship, understood as belonging to a state with entitlements to a passport or identity card. I am referring to citizenship in a broader sense, as belonging to multiple or different groups and spaces and in relationship with governance structures. What do young people aspire to as citizens with different spheres of belonging, in interaction with each other and with governments, to thrive and live well? And how does the use of instant messaging help if at all in the process of being a citizen, and for whom?
I wanted to explore these questions keeping in mind how we are all differently situated even when we live together. This means considering inequalities and different types of oppression and this is why I approached these questions with an intersectional lens: how is this all different depending on your gender, your age, where you were born, your parents’ income, or access to health care and education?
I explored these questions during my doctoral programme with The Open University at the UK and it was possible with the help of Siasa Place, who offered for me to do the research in the context of the civic engagement work they were doing in 2019 in Busia county. I interviewed 25 young people and women, some of whom were directly involved with the seminars and trainings offered by Siasa Place. Some were also training peers in their communities on the rights enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution, and on the mechanisms for engaging to demand rights and hold governments to account. I also was an observer in three WhatsApp groups that participants used to communicate and I attended in-person public participation meetings in the county, as well as seminars and trainings. Aware of the limitations that come with my position as a foreign European researcher, at the end of my stay, I held a session with some of the participants to share with them my interpretation of the findings. In the methodology and the analysis process, I also reflected about the role my presence and interpretation played in the research journey.
To understand citizenship in a broader sense that considers different belongings and positionings, I used a theoretical framework called the Capability Approach and did an analysis of the discourses and conversations that I listened to and observed. It led me to identify a set of citizenship capabilities. Some of the citizenship capabilities in this set may be considered more obvious when thinking of what being a citizen is, such as the capability to participate in decision-making or to exercise sovereignty and rights. However, I identified other citizenship capabilities that kept coming up in the analysis of the conversations with young people and women. These include the capability of mattering, voice and belonging, or the capability of integrity and respect. As a participant wrote: “Being a citizen today means to be seen and not heard #BitterTruth, unless you are influential in terms of
resources and finance” and there was a common view that young people were dismissed. The capability to access information and of social interaction were very important too and were also ways to access other citizenship capabilities. Being able to aspire and have a purpose, be it economically or in contributing to society, a fair access to basic services and resources, and the capability to drive change and improve the lives of communities were also important. As some said, ‘it is not about politics, it is about helping the community’. Yet, participants found that they were often dismissed and disrespected for being young or being both and women. They also found little options to aspire to jobs or found that political leaders hid information from them to avoid being held to account. Their communities did not often have access to the basic resources they valued, such as sufficient and accessible water, good transport, or well-equipped health centres and schools. Though the Constitution is clear about people’s rights, they found this legal framework is not often put into practice by those elected to represent them and implement policies.
Each capability meant slightly different things depending on people’s realities. For example, social interaction for some women was more than a way to receive information or mobilise. It was also a way to find emotional healing, share experiences of violence from husbands, and to support each other financially through table banking or merry-go-rounds to ‘lift each other’. Another example was in relation to the capability of mattering. Young people felt dismissed if they tried to engage in public participation but women were dismissed for both being young and being women, even among peers: “Even during my monthly training! Even you can tell people, at least be silent, we want to talk, we want to have some training. Some would just shout at you: ‘aaaaah’. You know, because if you are a woman, somebody just shouts for you, ‘aaaah you leave me alone, we are all mature people, we are 18 and above’. Eh? Aaaah, we women, we are really underrated.”
So what helped participants to achieve the citizenship capabilities they valued, or, in other words, to claim or be the citizens they aspire to? How can young people and women be better supported? I cover this in the second part of this article: ‘How can civic engagement better support young people in claiming and enacting citizenship?’.
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.