With bullets flying above their heads, the famished soldiers and their followers trudged on, dodging their tormentors. They were out of their depth and were flirting with death deep in the enemy territory in Iringa, Tanzania, which was occupied by the dreaded Germans.
Here, their enemies came in all shapes and forms. Most were invincible, some diminutive, inaudible and invisible and packed a killer punch which in numerous occasions felled war veterans with astonishing ease.
Most dreamt that after miraculously escaping bullets, malaria and other tropical diseases as they marched on empty stomachs through the enemy lines overloaded with back-breaking cargo, that the worst was over. The Kenyans serving as soldiers or carrier corps in the First World War were wrong, for a nightmare awaited them once they were discharged.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, the British imperialists were confronted by a new challenge. They were facing the Germans who lived next door in Tanganyika and who were determined to import the hostilities playing out in Europe into East Africa.
The British there went about recruiting Africans to act as porters for their weaponry and other supplies as their battalions went after the Germans. At the time, Kenya was not yet a colony and was known as the East Africa Protectorate.
Failed on this score
The recruitment of Africans to go to the battlefront led to a new method of identification which was to be used for the processing of salaries of the civilians who were working alongside the army.
It is against this background, Geoffrey Hodges explains in his book Kariakor: The Carrier Corps, that an identity token was introduced. The Kipande was considered a vital tool in running the carrier corps and was introduced through the Native Registration Ordinance of 1916. The ordinance was ultimately enacted in 1919 and would bring more misery to Africans and Europeans in the years to come.
At the dawn of its introduction in 1917, the British military in East Africa Protectorate (Kenya) required 160,000 men but only got 120,000 carriers. Although the Kipande was touted as a panacea for the headache of managing the ever ballooning wage bill, it failed on this score.
The hopelessness and confusion heralded by the gadget was captured by a report prepared by a British soldier, Captain J H Carnnelly, who detailed how all porters lost Kipandes or had them destroyed by rain. This happened in 1917 in Dabaga, 30 miles from Iringa in Tanzania.
Carnelly wrote, "Although warned that their pay depended on the production of their own Kipande, a good number gave their Kipandes to one headman to carry. This caused hopeless confusion.”
The porters were under a lot of stress as they were only receiving quarter rations during the marches undertaken in bitter cold where and only a select group was provided with blankets. At the same time, the loads they carried exceeded the stipulated 50lbs.
At some point, the porters protested and others deserted, in the process compounding the paymaster general’s work as there were scant records of how much they were owed. Things got so muddled that the government at some point used the employees verbal testimony on how much they were owed as trying to reconstruct the payroll would have cost even more than any overpayment.
There were cases where some deserters were recruited by different units and the tool which had been designed to identify African porters failed spectacularly. Carnelly reported in December 1916 that the paper Kipandes were useless as a porter could draw pay anywhere as he could be identified and credited with his dues even if he lost his disc. This was the metal plate where the identification documents were kept.
By February 1919, Hodges writes that 10,000 lost disc numbers had been traced and their owners re-registered. At the time, pay cards had not been introduced and there was such a backlog that at some point there were 70,000 unbalanced cards.
Triggered a riot
This created a nightmare for the government in 1917 and caused a shortage of cash which triggered a riot after some workers were paid with paper currency instead of the coins. The government had literally run out of coins and India was unwilling to offer more Rupee coins.
After the war, the use of Kipande became mandatory requirement for the identification and employment of Africans, a development which was not well received. To make matters worse, Kenya became a colony in 1920 and the Africans became subjects of the British Empire.
Some of the Africans who had participated in the war were scandalised that while their white colleagues were welcomed back with gifts of land, the government enhanced taxation of the indigenous people and controlled the labour market by use of the Kipande.
Kikuyu Central Association led by Harry Thuku and his friends prepared a memorandum which was read during a rally in Dagoretti on June 24, 1921. It read:
“When we went to do war work, we were told by his Excellency the governor that we would be rewarded. But is our reward to have our tax raised, to have registration papers given to us, and for our ownership of land to be called into question; to be told today we have title deeds and tomorrow for it to appear we are not yet to receive them?”
In an interesting development, the government announced plans of introducing a universal ID for all people in the Kenya colony.
And in an ironic twist, just as the Africans had been catapulted by the implementation of the Kipande to start Kikuyu Central Association under Thuku and Kavirondo Tax Payers Association championed by Archdeacon Jonathan Okwirri, the Europeans too coalesced around political outfits.
At first, the Europeans had welcomed the idea of an ID card in 1948 but when they realised this meant fingerprints for everyone, they revolted. A colonial politician in the Legislative Council in the Rift Valley, Michael Blundell, succinctly captures the outrage of his constituents in his memoirs, A Love Affair with the Sun: A Memoir of Seventy Years in Kenya.
Blundell describes the reaction of the whites as a political explosion which degenerated in open revolt as the government planned to rope in all races.
“At first the idea of an ID card had been accepted by European voters but when it was suddenly realised that this meant finger printing for everyone, a storm broke. Europeans with conservative ideas immediately associated this with criminals,” Blundell recounts.
One such outfit was a civil society which used the Union Jack, Britain’s national flag and sang God Save the King in their political rallies across the country where they denounced the colonial government.
The white settlers vowed to boycott the ordinance which they perceived to be demeaning because it attempted to equate all races in the eyes of the government, contrary to their perception that Africans were inferior and ought to be treated as subhuman.
This marked the birth of right wing political parties such as the Federal Independent Party which fought for European domination of the Africans in all spheres of right.
The metal disc, which was introduced during the First World War, still haunts this country more than a century later. Like the porters who lost their pay in 1914 when they lost their Kipande or the migrant workers who could not secure a job in colonial settlements, it is equally impossible for a Kenyan today to get any job or service from both government and private firms without an ID card.
Most corporates insist that their employees hang a badge on their necks just like the old Kipande which was supposed to be permanently displayed.