The politics of identity and belonging in Kenya

ID cards remind refugees and locals alike that they will never be Kenyan enough.

A Masai woman holds her ID card as she waits to vote [Reuters]

When I was 18 years old, I went along with my classmates to the local chief’s office to apply for my national identity card. Like most Kenyan high schools, every year, the members of the final class were taken to the nearest chief’s camp and guided by a supervising teacher through the process of applying for the card. Technically, the process is supposed to be straightforward – the ID card is theoretically a right because the identity card allows you access to all government buildings, to a bank account and to cross regional borders without a passport. In many ways, it allows Kenyan adults to access the privileges of citizenship. Sadly for me, the process of applying for an identity card was far from straightforward and it would be my first and most personal lesson in the politics of citizenship in the contemporary Kenyan state.

The pass was both exclusive and inclusive. You took on the shame of being tagged like an animal for the apparent freedom of joining a group of Africans allowed to move freely within a region.

If you think about it, the idea that an individual’s personhood can be rooted to just one place and then distilled to the information that can fit on a laminated card is absurd. There are more countries that require identity cards than those that do not. This would not be a problem if states didn’t restrict the access of identity cards to groups on one end, to later persecute them on the other end for not possessing one.

Obtaining a ‘new’ identity

This is exactly the quandary that Kenya’s Somali population faces. As we speak, hundreds of Somalis, many with full Kenyan citizenship, are being detained in the country’s largest stadium, ostensibly because they did not possess identity cards.

The identity card in Kenya is a direct descendant of the pass that Africans in urban areas were required to have on their person at all times during the colonial era, particularly in areas they were likely to encounter Europeans. During this time, it was a metal plate – a large dog tag – that identified the person, his father, his grandfather, his place of birth and his employer, so that the person “responsible” for the African could be easily contacted if the African was found to be “out of place”. Out of place, because all major cities in Kenya were racially segregated, and the pass was a method of keeping Africans out of European and Asian areas.

My grandfather was based in Nairobi while he worked with the East African Railway Corporation and was forced to wear a pass. On the one occasion I asked him about it, I recall seeing him visibly recoil with an emotion that looked like shame. It was a mark of dehumanisation. The pass took something from him: The young man who once moved freely in pursuit of his dreams was replaced by a man who was tied to a place he barely knew.

The pass was both exclusive and inclusive. You took on the shame of being tagged like an animal for the apparent freedom of joining a group of Africans allowed to move freely within a region. You were subjected to the daily shame of wearing your inferiority around your neck in exchange for the relative security of not being harassed, of not being rounded up like a pack of stray dogs, of not being huddled into a prison cell and humiliated by guards for their entertainment. It was protection against “deportation” to the “reserves” – overcrowded rural spaces where many Africans had been moved to free up fertile land for colonial plantations.

Proving your past

Today, Kenyan adults aren’t required to wear metal plates around their necks, but they are required to carry a small laminated card that speaks volumes of the state’s failure to exorcise the demons of colonialism and its rapacious desire to create categories and assign benefits of belonging. Of my entire high school class, two of us were told that we could not get identity cards on the day we went to apply. One was my colleague, a Kenyan Somali, who was born and raised in the South C neighbourhood of Nairobi, but was told he had to return to Mandera where his grandfather was from – almost six hours away – and apply for his identity card there. Authorities told him, “You couldn’t possibly be from Nairobi”.

I was also denied an ID card along the same premise. My mother’s side of the family had lived in Nairobi for almost 60 years. However, in Kenya, ID applicants are required to use their father’s identity documents to prove citizenship. Even though my father died when I was four years old and had no contact with that side of the family, the chief asked me to return to my father’s village and prove my my identity using my father’s lineage. 

I opted out. I had the luxury of defining myself differently – I had a passport and a driver’s license.

I was frustrated by the idea that the state wanted to bind me to an ethnic identity that I had not embraced myself.

But for millions of Kenyans, travelling abroad or driving a car is not an option. It is the humiliation of being told you could not possibly belong to the only place you have ever called home. It is being asked to look up the father that left you, or that village that forced you to leave. It is rejection. More importantly, for the people currently languishing in Kasarani with almost no intervention by the national and international human rights community, it is the tyranny of bribery and violence. It is the exchange of ever-increasing sums of money for a tenuous recognition of one’s fundamental right to be protected from arbitrary detention.

As a teenager, I didn’t think much of what it actually meant for an independent African state to continue the degrading tradition of tagging citizens like cattle; a modernised but still problematic echo of the tactics that had been used to humiliate my grandfather. I struggled – albeit less eloquently – with the gendered notions of self that the document perpetuated: This idea that I could only inherit identity from my father. I was frustrated by the idea that the state wanted to bind me to an ethnic identity that I had not embraced myself. Instead, I embraced my national identity.

I eventually got my ID card because I could afford to wait it out, but I struggle with the idea that the independent Kenya that humiliated my grandfather is falling to pieces in part because the burden of the pass has made a comeback, reminding so many that they will never be Kenyan enough.

Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst, currently based at Harvard Law School.