I am a Passport


I am a Passport.

I began my life as a letter issued by Kings and Queens to request the safe passage of travellers going to foreign lands.

Some say I came into being in the biblical ages around 450 BC when prophet Nehemiah was issued letters by King Artaxerxes requesting the governors of the lands beyond to grant him safe passage to Judah.

How I got my name is a matter of debate. Some say I was named after the maritime ports I escorted travellers through; others say I am named after the gates on city walls, which the French called, “portes”.

In the early 20th century I changed from a letter of safe passage to a document of identification. I featured a photograph, signature and a short physical description of my owner. The physical description included shape of the face, complexion and features such as a bulbous nose, a short forehead, or beady eyes were also noted. In this way I developed a new bond with the traveller; they not only possessed me but now depended on my confirmation of their identification.

In colonial Kenya, I was called a Kipande- Swahili for pass- and I was issued to all Kenyan men leaving their reserves. I recorded my owner’s name, fingerprint, ethnic group, employment history and employer’s signature. The Kikuyu put me in a small metal container, the size of a cigarette box, and wore it around their necks. They often called me a mbugi, or goat's bell, they would say "I was no longer a shepherd, but one of the flock, going to work on the white man's farm with my mbugi around my neck." I became one of the most detested symbols of British colonial power, though the Africans had little recourse but to carry me, their identity, at all times.[1]

I was an identifier used to posture the owner for better or worse.


I am a traveller.

On a recent trip to Japan I lost my passport.

I was sat on the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo, to my right was a Japanese businessman sorting through documents in a folder. He pulls out a folded map, which he begins to trace over with his index finger. To prepare for the trip, I too had brought a folder where I stored my itinerary, maps and passport. It took me roughly five seconds for me to realize that unlike the Japanese businessman to my right, I did not have my document folder. In utter disbelief I rummaged through my backpack - nothing, checked underneath my seat - nothing and checked my luggage - nothing.


I will openly admit that sometimes I can be a bit inattentive, but losing my passport on the second day of my trip, is a special fuckup. How the hell would I get on board my flight to London? And even if I managed to somehow board the flight, with the current ‘migrant crisis’ I doubt UKBA- United Kingdom Border Agency - would let a Kenyan without sufficient identification through its borders. My passport was lost which meant my mobility was lost.

After deducing that the only place my passport could be was Tokyo, I alighted at Kyoto and went to the tourist information desk. At the counter I explained my predicament to an elderly Japanese gentleman who spoke very little English. He smiled, perhaps to calm me down. He then picked up a large directory and dialled a number that he or someone else had highlighted. I smiled back to mask my anxiety.

His telephone conversation was short and after an even shorter silence he put the phone down. Smiling he tells me, “They have not found a Kenyan passport in Tokyo.” Immediately after hearing those words I began to sweat A LOT, on my forehead, my armpits and my palms. I became nauseous; it felt like someone had kicked my stomach really hard. After hearing the devastating news I stumbled on the next train to Tokyo hoping that somehow I would still be able to find my passport.

Four hours later I arrive in Tokyo. I rush to the information desk and ask at the counter if they had found my passport. “No one has handed it in yet” the lady at the counter replied. I was on the verge of tears. The lady at the counter sympathises and closes her till, she asks me to follow her to the lost and found office to fill a missing item report.

We arrive at the lost and found office, she goes behind the counter and into a room. I begin to fill the report. Minutes later she returns, “Carl Jones?” she asks. I have never been so happy to hear my embarrassing middle name; I reach over the counter and give her a huge hug and shout, “Yes that’s me!”

She reunites with my documents and my passport. I thank her again and hug her several times.

After that ordeal my passport became precious to me; its value derived from a fear of losing it.

The loss of my passport is the loss of freedom, the freedom to emigrate, the freedom to transit and the freedom to return.


I am a travelling passport

I have evolved from a single page letter, a 32-page booklet into a small micro-chip, embedded discreetly within the thumb of the traveller.I am the size of a grain of salt. I store the traveller’s country of origin, visas, my port of last entry, fingerprints, retina scans and photograph.

I am connected to highly complex digital network of satellites and computers that monitors travellers.

After I was introduced there were no recorded cases of lost passports. But with embedded passports came stronger state surveillance, anyone with a passport could now be tracked down by the state.

A condition many have accepted as part of modern society.

I began my life as an object. An object that was distinct from you, an object that had its own identity. As years passed parts of your identity became mine and as the distinction between you and I as separate entities thinned, we morphed into one.

I am your passport.

I am part of you.

I am you.

[1] Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya.

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