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Competence for Citizenship

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White ants are a delicacy in the subregion Acholi in northern Uganda. Since fresh ones are available only once a year when they become flying roamers, one 100-kg sack of ants can bring in as much money as a teacher in a public school earns within two months. Patrick was thrilled to be able to collect two sacks of white ants, but then his neighbors claimed the land on which the anthill was built as their own. The conflict between Patrick and his neighbors quickly escalated: he was terribly beaten by youth whom his neighbor had paid, unsuccessfully, to retrieve the sacks of ants. Patrick explained to me that the youth might have expected that deaf people like him were not able to defend themselves. The elected chairperson of the village, mainly referred to as LC1 (Local Council 1), who wasn’t around at the time of the incident, immediately intervened in the conflict upon returning, and a meeting was announced in which an agreement was reached: Patrick had to pay a given amount to his neighbor as a form of compensation for the lost ants, the youth were rebuked for their behavior, and Patrick was ordered to leave the anthill alone in the future. Considering his injuries and the hospital care he had required, as well as the loss of greatly needed profits from selling these ants in the future, I asked him why he wouldnt report the incident to the police and make a legal claim of ownership to the land.Because I want to stay in this village,” he answered. 

Conflicts over land were not infrequent during the first few years after the end of the prolonged civil war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and Ugandan government forces (19862006). At the peak of the war, more than 90 percent of the Acholi population were forced to live in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps or towns. After the war, decisions had to be made about when and where to move – or, for some, whether to stay. One’s social network of kin and neighbors played an important role in the decision, as well as in the process of resettlement. According to Ugandan law, both women and men can own land, but in practice it is less a legal right than a matter of claims being made and negotiations taking place in the social networks of kin and neighborhood. In Acholiland, disputes about land and distribution were mediated within communities; social relationships were significant as means of discussion and making claims to land. Accessing land is based on claim-making in the polities of kin and neighborhood, which in turn is based on social relationships. The competence for citizenship regarding land is distributed in local social networks.  

For Patrick, making a case to the police and thus setting the stage for a legal claim would mean disagreeing with the decisions made within the polity of his community. More importantly, it would mean risking his highly valuable social relationships with his neighbors. Moreover, making legal claims requires financial resources in Uganda: not only are payments necessary for the police or court to motivate the right people to get the process started, but for many, transport costs to town are far too expensive. Claims can take a great deal of time and might lead to unforeseen results, in which case they appear as nothing more than a waste of money, time and energy.  

Citizenship means being part of a polity. In ancient Greece, the polity in question was the city-state, today it is mainly applied to the (nation-) state. The concept of the polity involves an idea or ideal of duties and responsibilities and the possibility to make claims as a recognized member. However, Patrick’s case shows that the relationships between the state and the individual do not guarantee citizenship; other relationships within and beyond societies are of importance in order to claim rights as well as take responsibilities. For my interlocutors, other social and institutional networks other polities of kin, community, work or newly established sign language networks played a much larger role in enabling people to make meaningful claims and thus create competence for citizenship. Furthermore, gaining competence for citizenship depends on the judgments and recognition of others, as can also be seen in the case of Patrick. Competence is constituted by recognition; in the context of citizenship, competence entails becoming part of polities to be able to make meaningful claims within them. Competence for citizenship means gaining possibilities: possibilities to become involved withor to become an insider in different polities, and the possibility to set meaningful claims.  

Uganda’s disability politics have been praised as a showcase of best practices regarding the implementation of rights for people with disabilities, but many experiences, like Patrick’s, have brought into question how the rights-based approach for people with disabilities (including deaf people, according to the Ugandan political framework) is able to transform their lives in Uganda, as well as what precisely is being transformed. During my research, I have been focusing on the transition of deaf people’s competences for citizenship with regard to the introduction of new disability and deafrelated institutions, as well as the introduction of Ugandan Sign Language that reached Acholiland during the time of war and encampment. To better understand and analyze (deaf) people’s possibilities and ways of claimmaking, I have developed the conceptual framework of “competence for citizenship. Instead of defining citizenship in the liberal understanding as merely a relationship between the state and the individual person, this concept helps to uncover different polities, how people are able to make meaningful claims within them and the extent to which polities change over time and place. 

In my work, I demonstrate that the rights-based approach for people with disabilities and with it, the focus on educating disability activists, with the main function of implementing rights in national constitutions supports practices that are largely uncoupled from opportunities to gain competences for citizenship in daily life. At first glance, through the establishment of institutions and organizations, deaf people gained competences for citizenship in a neoliberal understanding: as students, teachers, trainers, or coordinators they changed their status from an unemployed poor person into a productive citizen. At the same time, however, these new positions were limited, and projects were only funded over a specific period of time. While deafness became a new social category, offering access to special support and resources, people with disabilities, including deaf people, could hardly make meaningful claims as recognized insiders within this polity. Instead competences for citizenship became deeply connected to the criteria and categories of various international aid organizations, as well as important political relationships and loyalties. 

Yet I also analyze how legal recognition of people with disabilities played a crucial role in establishing the impetus for setting up new competencies for citizenship: it was important in pushing forward deaf- and disability-related institutions with the support of external funding. In doing so, new sign language socialities were formed, extending deaf people’s competences for citizenship in important ways. Patrick, for example, was involved in different income-generation activities, including photography and bicycle repair. He also received support from organizations for school fees and had support from the government. Many of these opportunities were bound to one’s location and access to information, to other people with disabilities, and to projects and programs. Deaf people’s proximity to the town of Gulu in Acholiland offered important additional income, and many relied on deaf connections for accommodation and jobs. Those new to Gulu could find support and help through other deaf people in town. Especially for families, the town offered diversification through small jobs and agriculture, as well as new possibilities for deaf people to face challenges or uncertainties. Only a few people considered vocational trainings mainly organized by specific programs for people with disabilities, such as carpentry or tailoring workshops to be important. 

Getting a job and being able to earn income were not only based on formal skills; indeed, not very many deaf people worked in a field in which they were formally trained. Nevertheless, such workshops were important for them to connect with other deaf people in order to deepen their sign language skills and strengthen social relationships. The importance of deaf socialities for most deaf people living in Gulu is evidenced by their decision to move there from parts of Acholiland after the war ended. Deaf socialities extended the competences for citizenship in that they extended the social relationships that allowed for company, chatting and the exchange of news and information; deaf connections, which could help people find jobs in town; and access to projects and programs. Instead of analyzing deaf people’s lives in already defined polities of citizenship – namely, the state the concept of competence for citizenship helps to analyze the kinds of polities recognizing deaf people, deaf people’s possibilities to set meaningful claims in multiple spaces, and the ways in which they can create competence for citizenship within different polities. 


Gitte Beckmann is associated researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich, Switzerland. With a regional focus on Northern Uganda, her PhD thesis explores the possibilities that deaf people have to make meaningful claims within varying polities, including kin, national and international organizations of and for people with disabilities, sign-language-related networks, and the Ugandan state. She is currently revising her dissertation for publication. 

Disability from the South: Toward a Lexicon” is a series edited by Michele Friedner and Tyler Zoanni. Contributors in this series consider what changes in theorizations of disability when research is located in places marked “Southern” and offer reconfigurations of keywords and concepts typically utilized in the study of disability.


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