According to the “Native Registration Rules, 1919” every registered native in the East African Protectorate was to be supplied with a “metal case” to hold the “certificate” of registration. Natives were required to carry this metal case and to produce it when it was demanded by colonial authorities. This metal case soon came to be known as the Kipande, and registered Africans were required to wear it around their necks. The certificate of registration was colloquially known as the Kipande Pass.
The Pass demanded that registered natives trace their lineage through their fathers, as only the father’s name was required on the certificate. It demanded “tribe” and “location,” wedding ethnicity to place, a practice central to creating “native reserves,” and setting in place the still-dominant fiction that Africans in rural areas were fixed in place, tied to land by blood and obligation. It also demanded one’s “Circumcision Age,” generating the idea that all Africans in the Protectorate practiced circumcision and, more generally, taking circumcision age—anywhere from 14-18—as a general guide for when native men were ready to work and to be taxed. It fixed identity.
Above all else, the Pass existed to identify registered African men as workers. The dominant part of the Pass noted the employer, dates of employment, wages paid, food provided, and, when applicable, dates of discharge. It noted which African men were working and which were available to work. Initiated African men who attempted to leave native reserves were compelled to register as laborers, and the dominant assumption was that their work belonged to colonizing Europeans.
Much of this seems very basic, and, indeed, I learned much of it in primary and high school. Kenyans interested in history are familiar with the Kipande Pass, and how it created the categories of working African and employing European, which depended on policing African movement. It also seems basic to note that to be registered as a native was to be registered as a monitored worker. “When space for Employer’s endorsement is full the native must go to a District Commissioner for an additional sheet.” For the colonial state, the registered African’s potential as an employable, productive worker was more important than ethnicity or place of origin.
Within Kenya’s mainstream imagination, the Kipande Pass is the forerunner to today’s identity cards. With an ID, you can vote, buy alcohol, get a driver’s license, enter bars and clubs, and acquire a tax number. If, however, you belong to a minoritized Kenyan group, the ID functions much like a Kipande Pass: it ties identity to place and restricts movement based on state recognition.
The Pass has many afterlives in Kenya.
Malls in wealthier areas often have announcement boards featuring letters by expatriate workers endorsing their African workers: “John is a good driver.” “Wanjiku is a good ayah.” “Samuel is a good driver.” “Otieno is a reliable gardener.” Many announcements feature pictures of the employable personnel, and national identity card numbers. As with the 1915 Kipande Pass, these employer endorsements distinguish between expatriates and working Africans, positioning Africans as laborers who require endorsements.
As you enter many “secure” office buildings, you are required to log in your ID number. Too, private residential areas require you to log in your ID to gain access. Some even insist on keeping your ID until you are ready to leave. As Kenya has become more obsessed with security, the ID has become more and more like the Kipande Pass: a document that restricts mobility.
Recently, the Kenyan government announced that Kenyans would require a new identity card. This card would consolidate the many documents Kenyans need, and generate one unique number that could be used to access all government services.
Two elements of the new document reach back to the Kipande Pass. To register for the new ID, Kenyans are required to provide detailed addresses, including plot numbers. The ID card is supposed to be equipped with GPS, meaning that government agents can track every single Kenyan who holds this document. Also, when the state discussed the document, it said that biometric information would be collected, including voice prints, retinal scans, and DNA. It later walked back on the DNA, but the state is still demanding a lot of personal information.
Sociologist Simone Browne has said that we need a biometric consciousness: a broad movement that questions what biometric information is collected, where it is stored, how it is used, and most importantly, how we can manage how our information is collected and used. Who, she asks, owns our biometric information. Who should have access to it? How can we control that?
These conversations are absent from Kenya’s mainstream spaces. And principles are easily compromised. The last time I traveled to India, I had to provide biometrics at my local bank for the particular transaction I needed. I simply didn’t have the energy to fight about principles.
Given the range of services the government is tying to the new card—acquiring and renewing passports and driving licenses, paying taxes, buying property, opening businesses—Kenyans are being blackmailed into acquiring this new ID.
I have often wondered why Kenya’s newly independent government retained laws demanding that residents of Kenya carry identify cards. At their most banal, such cards distinguish between those recognized as being in the right place and those considered out of place. Kenyan police routinely harass—and imprison—those found without such cards, extending the colonial state’s practices of surveillance and punishment.
Despite the many technological elements being added to the new ID, it works like the Kipande Pass: restricting identity, restricting mobility, tracking Kenyans, and serving employers.
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