Echoes from the past: The kipande’s dark past

By Amos Kareithi

Mean boots smashing peasants’ doors at ungodly hours has been a common phenomenon in some parts of Kenya.

The tyranny of security agents against peasants has been going on for a long time. In fact, it started in 1919, about three years before Kenya became a colony, when the kipande was introduced.

Although identification documents have become a must worldwide, with biometric identification being used to determine who qualifies to live in a country or travel abroad, a number of historians are convinced that Kenya’s system has a negative past.

The kipande was introduced shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, and a Kiswahili word was adopted for it because it was only meant for Africans, since Europeans had passports. It consisted of a small red book in a metallic holder hung around the neck.

Historians William Ochieng’ and Robert Maxon shed more light on the introduction of Kipande in their book, An Economic History of Kenya.

According to the duo, the kipande was first introduced in 1915, but was only implemented four years later. Its introduction coincided with the return of the white soldiers who had participated in the war.

The returning soldiers were feted by the East African Protectorate’s government and given huge chunks of land as a reward. To help them engage in viable farming, the government formulated policies that made it easier for them to access cheap labour.

One of these policies was the kipande system, which required Africans to wear the kipande around their necks like a dog collar.


To the Africans, the kipande was an oppressive badge of slavery. Failure to produce it when required, attracted instant punishment, even incarceration.

Ochieng’ argues that the kipande was a tool of keeping track of the supply of labour and ensuring enforcement of labour contracts. The law provided penal sanctions against any African who deserted his place of work. If an employee absconded from duty, government agents could return him with ease as the details of all previous employers were contained in the kipande.

The details carried by the illiterate peasants around their necks also made it impossible to negotiate for better pay because a prospective employer could read how much a worker was worth. This, Ochieng’ writes, enabled the colonial government to standardise wages for Africans.

The kipande affected the Africans, as explained by Nancy Clark and Edward Alpers in their book, Africa and the West: A Documentary History; From Colonialism to Independence.

Since Africans were supposed to have the kipande all the time, they were worried whenever this document, variously referred to by Clark and Alpers as ‘the red book’, was missing, and lived in misery until they got a replacement. The red books were issued by the Labour Exchange Office.

Through the kipande, some sadistic employers who were not content with sacking their workers also made it impossible for them to secure jobs elsewhere.

The authors have an anecdote of a cook, Muchaba, who unwittingly forgot to carry his kipande when he ventured out of his work place in Nairobi. As fate would have it, he and his friend, who did not have his kipande either, were accosted by police officers as they sauntered along the streets of the African location. They were released after many hours of harassment in a police station.

When Muchaba returned to his place of work in the European quarters after dusk, he was greeted by an angry and hungry boss, who would hear none of the cook’s excuses. She angrily demanded his red book and wrote her comments in it before declaring that she had fired Muchaba.

When the illiterate Muchaba showed his friends the kipande, both were shocked: “He works fast but likes sweet things and may steal sugar if he has a chance. Sometimes his thinking is like that of an eleven-year-old.”

Knowing that with such recommendations, no white man would employ him, Muchaba threw his kipande in the fire. He was prepared to take his chances with the Labour Exchange as he sought a new document rather than carry a useless kipande.

Although the Africans hated the kipande, they were unable to compel the colonial government to scrap it. Some Europeans wondered why the Africans so readily submitted to the unjust system, and the answer is provided by The Report of the Committee on Police Terms of Service, 1942, which says that Africans were too disorganised to offer resistance at that time.

The European employers and the colonial government knew this, and capitalised on it.

The Africans’ lack of organisation had also contributed to their lack of representation in the Legislative Council, where they were not represented by one of their own but by whites, handpicked by the government.

Instead of showing Africans how to rise above their ethnic cocoons, the colonial government made good use of the divide-and-rule strategy. The kipande, Mbuga Wa Mungai and GM Gona argue in (Re)membering Kenya, Identity Culture and Freedom, were used to fossilise and intensify ethnic consciousness.

The government emphasised ethnicity so much that details of one’s tribe were given prominence in the kipande. European settlers also exploited this tactic by ensuring that workers from different communities were not allowed to mix.

Consequently, the settlers fuelled ethnic hatred by playing different communities against each other even as they encouraged tribal labelling. By keeping ethnic groups segregated in their respective villages, the whites made sure there was distrust between members of different communities.

This, the authors argue, was why during the 2008 post-election clashes, attackers demanded to see their victims’ identity cards. They had been socialised to believe that members of certain communities were dangerous enemies.

For the 28 years that the dreaded kipande was in force, Africans tried to oppose it in vain. The government crushed demonstrations ruthlessly.

In 1931, the whites protested when the colonial government tried to scrap the kipandes, and accused the administration of betrayal. The settlers wanted the kipande in place so that they could be assured of a continuous supply of cheap labour.

Sixteen years later, the kipande system was abolished. It had outlived its usefulness as there were more labourers than the settlers needed.

At the same time, an attempt to introduce a universal method of identification for all the races was met with hostility from the Europeans, who believed they were higher in social class than Asians and Africans.

For a time, Africans enjoyed the rare freedom of travelling without being harassed on account of missing a kipande, but this did not last long.

When the agitation for freedom climaxed in the 1950s and political violence escalated, leading to the banning of all political parties, it was only a matter of time before the colonial regime devised yet another form of kipande.

In 1952, after the declaration of a State of Emergency on October 20, the government introduced a kipande specifically for residents of Mt Kenya region. This kipande had to be stamped by the administrators to allow a bearer travel out of their home district.

It has been 98 years since the kipande was first conceptualised in Kenya. Sixty-six years after the kipande was scrapped by the colonial government, police officers still randomly stop Kenyans to demand identification.

So, when a security guard manning a public building asks for your ID before allowing you access, remember that about 100 years ago, your ancestors had to hang their kipande around their necks to placate security agents.