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We’re riding on the African Express, all aboard the train



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In February, the 32nd Summit of the African Union will discuss guidelines on the design, production and issuance of the African passport, described as a step closer to free movement across the continent.

I have always imagined that the travelling griots I meet traversing parts of West Africa – who are libraries, museums, poets, living archives, musicians and storytellers all rolled up into one human being – as already being in possession of invisible African passports.

Griots narrate and sing current affairs and oral histories with the precision of search engines, passing knowledge from generation to generation, preserving genealogies and keeping traditions alive. Griots know everything and everyone. The stories they tell have been handed down over generations.

How often have I wished, as an East African, that every village in Africa had its own griot!

If this was the case, maybe the griots would tell of the year 2019 when the African passport became the reason the trips to Dubai, China and Turkey whose grand finale is some of our people trooping back home bedecked with loud jewellery, shrill iPhones and makeup that lives up to its name by making the wearer look made up, ended.

This was the year we sought, through the African passport, cultural experiences that showed us how enriching the pluralistic differences of the African continent really are.

The griots would marvel that before the African passport, we were content with standing on the 148th floor of the tallest manmade building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, without having laid eyes on the Mosi-oa-Tunya – the Smoke that Thunders – also known as the Victoria Falls, on the Zimbabwe and Zambia border, the world’s largest sheet of naturally falling water, roughly twice the height of Niagara Falls.

The griots would tell us the African passport showed us that the biggest shopping mall in Guangzhou is nothing in comparison with the majesty of the heady durbars held in northern Nigeria by the Emirs. A durbar is defined by vibrancy; the splendour of the colourful turbans and flowing robes of the Emirs, horse riders stretching as far as the eye can see, the horses kitted up in colourful regalia – headgear and brightly coloured handmade saddles – strutting on the beautiful fabric that “dresses” the ground.

When the muskets roar and the horses come to a thundering simultaneous stop within inches of the dais, one can only hope that African passport holders see and claim ownership of this magnificent display of culture.

Maybe the griots would have composed a poem wishing the African passport brought its carriers to the world’s largest permanent desert lake that is also the world’s largest alkaline lake for the annual Lake Turkana Festival in Kenya? This is one of the few places in the world where culture, largely untouched by modernity, is on display. Some 14 ethnic communities – the El Molo, Rendille, Samburu, Dassanech, Gabra, Borana, Turkana, Kosno, Sakuuye, Garre, Waata, Burji and Somali – in a show of the essence of pluralism, present beautiful songs and dances.

Would the griots narrate the history of how Africans flocked to the longest running Swahili cultural festival in Kenya, the Lamu Festival? Would the griots record the surprise of the Nigerians whose country is dotted with magnificent towering rocks such as the Zuma rock depicted on the 100 Naira note when they saw similar rocks such as Sibebe rock, in eSwatini, which dates back 3.5 billion years?

They would tell the stories of Africans performing at the Sauti ya Busara Swahili Music Festival in Zanzibar and the Cape Town International Jazz Festival for thousands of African passport carriers. The griots would sing that one never forgot hearing, for the first time, the sound of the pounding of a Baganda drum by the Ndere Troupe in Kampala.

The AU describes its vision of the passport as one that calls for “the integration of Africa’s peoples by breaking down the invisible and physical barriers that have limited the movement of people and weakened the spirit of pan-Africanism.”

May our traditional and modern griots – today’s storytellers, musicians, novelists, artists become the first recipients of the African passport and help us tell our story to ourselves first, before we tell it to others.

Alice Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. [email protected]

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