How do we define citizenship?

A few weeks ago, this newspaper ran a news story about 20 foreigners applying for Rwandan citizenship. The paper helpfully captioned the story with a picture of a white man taking the citizenship exam, his face furrowed in concentration as if his very life depended on it.

A few weeks ago, this newspaper ran a news story about 20 foreigners applying for Rwandan citizenship. The paper helpfully captioned the story with a picture of a white man taking the citizenship exam, his face furrowed in concentration as if his very life depended on it.

My first reaction was ‘Wait, we have a citizenship exam?’ It turns out that said examination is a requisite for acquiring Rwandan nationality.

Evidently this was not a trivial issue, but I could not suppress the thought that there was an element of comedy to the proceedings.

Seeing a group of adults taking an examination high-school style, struck me as somehow incongruous-citizenship via the methods of academia.

To add levity to the proceedings, the article revealed that one of the applicants-an Asian man- had spotted a misspelling of a Rwandan icon’s name in the exam. The irony of that surely did not escape the examiners.

But this approach did make me think of more serious issues. How do we define citizenship? For many of us, it is a pretty straightforward affair.

It is so straightforward in fact that we hardly ever have to think about it at all because we struggle to pin down exactly what it means.

However the foreigners applying for Rwandan citizenship cannot say the same thing; they have to struggle to get what so many of us take for granted and they have to do the sort of deep soul-searching that automatic citizenship rarely inspires in others.

Of course citizenship necessitates certain bureaucratic involvement. Furthermore, there are certainly practical reasons why things like citizenship exams would be useful indicators for potential applicants.

Knowing a lot about your adopted country is certainly a good indication of your ties to it.

That said, how effectively would this exam reflect tenets of citizenship? This exercise is not only unique to Rwanda; the United Kingdom has a similar exam. But it does make you wonder whether the stress is on the knowledge of the country or on other factors.

A citizenship exam reflects the former, but bears little relation to whether that person would be a model citizen.

Are we looking for a sense of belonging or indeed, a desire for one? Or are we more interested in the ability to replicate local knowledge and culture?

Probably it is hard to quantify things like passion for the country or how strongly a would-be applicant feels Rwandan. And even if we could, how much weight would we give those factors?

And one cannot help wondering about the vast majority of Rwandans who are natural citizens. Do we take this for granted?

After all, foreigners who apply for citizenship have to engage with the concept in an active way. They have to struggle for it, both in bureaucratic terms, and in the sense of a struggle to be accepted as one of us.

If the article was any indication, some of them are more in touch with the general concept of being Rwandan than the average person in the country.

This is not a criticism of citizenship exams or the general approach to citizenship. However it seems to me that country’s views of citizenship is always an important way to get a glimpse of its psyche. Whichever way you look at it, citizenship is a pretty complex affair.

minega@trustchambers.com

 

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