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February 18, 2019

G-Spot: I wish I was a free man not a number

Free man
Free man

There is a line from 1960s' spy/sci-fi TV show The Prisoner that says, “I am not a number, I am free man.” Today, I have my doubts that anyone can say that, unless they are completely off the grid.

Life is more about being identified by a number or a pin code or a password than ever before. This became obvious to me during recent dealings in Nairobi with my bank as well as later that morning, an M-Pesa bureau. During these encounters, I was required to recall, off-head, numbers including my ID, passport and Kenyan mobile phone number.

My memory tends to serve me well on many fronts, but when it comes to numbers, I tend to experience a mental block. That said, there are some numbers that come to me unbidden, such as our home telephone number from childhood and the registration numbers of all the cars my parents owned through the years.

Struggling to remember these vital numbers at the bank and elsewhere probably made me seem like a fraud, especially since most people can recite all these numbers as fast as their own names. 

We have to all remember the different pin numbers required by banks, M-Pesa, probably the office entrance and your computer. If you bank online, you need various internet and telephone passwords, usernames, ID numbers, memorable names, places, dates, etc. And all of these need to be stored in our minds, which are already full, as we might endanger our security if we scribble them down on a piece of paper in our wallets or somewhere.

In South Africa, without a national ID booklet number, you might as well not exist. The numbers involved here frighten me. The first six numbers are one’s date of birth in YYMMDD format; the next four are gender-related; the next number is the country ID, so 0 is South Africa and 1 is not; the second-last number used to be a racial identifier but apparently now means nothing and the last number verifies the rest of the number. Phew!

In Kenya, I found you are a nobody without M-Pesa, and increasingly, if you have not signed up to the e-citizen forum. This became clear to me when I visited the AA offices to renew my driving licence for three more years. While I was amazed by the promptness of a service that at best used to take a day or two, it would have been impossible to do so without my ID number, M-Pesa access and e-citizenship.

It appears to me now that actually, I am no longer a free man. My existence has been “filed, stamped, indexed, briefed and numbered”, and I have been reduced to a series of numbers and passwords.

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