KIRIAMITI: REFORMED BUT STILL WITH HIS ‘EAR TO THE GROUND’ By Margaretta wa Gacheru: Published in Daily Nation, DN2 May 28, 2013/// When My Life in Crime first came out in 1984, its author John Kiriamiti was still in jail, serving the maximum sentence for robbery with violence, 28 years. It was a crime (or rather crimes) well documented in the novel that was to become an instant best-seller and one that continues to be top of the charts. Indeed, despite the pundits complaining that Kenyans do not read, the public quickly swept the bookstore shelves for Kiriamiti’s debut novel. Asking the author what he thought was the instant appeal of his book—a book soon to be made into a film by Janet…and Neil Schell, Kiriamiti said it could’ve been curiosity and the fact that violent crime was on the rise in Kenya yet the press was barely covering it; but here was someone revealing criminals’ dirty secrets from an insider’s point of view. “It could also have to do with the simplicity of the writing,” he suggested. But to me, it also has to do with the fact that Kiriamiti is a great storyteller whose protagonist, Jack Zollo, seems to be writing a first-hand account of his experiences, struggles and illegal schemes to not simply survive but thrive ‘by any means necessary’, including bank robbery with violence. Kiriamiti wasn’t aware of the book’s impact on the outside world when it initially hit the streets. “I was busy teaching English to inmates,” said the son of two school teachers. It wasn’t until he got thrown into solitary confinement that he discovered his book was a best seller, albeit one that disturbed the powers-that-be so much they had to stick him in solidarity for several weeks. Yet Kiriamiti had been a model inmate prior to one of his students’ squealing to the authorities that it was he who wrote the book that painted an unflattering picture of Kenya’s penal system. He had been such a humble, polite and all round ‘nice guy’ that he’d managed to persuade the prison welfare officer at Kamiti Prison to let inmates attend classes like the one he would teach twice a day. He also managed to get books allowed into the prison for inmates to read. “It was in prison that I started reading all of James Hadley Chase, Robert Ludlum and Peter Cheney,” said Kenya’s leading crime writer who had only made it halfway through Form One at Prince of Wales Secondary in the early Sixties before he hit the streets and got into his infamous life of crime. “I was actually expelled in Form One for getting into fights with the white boys who still were dominant in the school [which subsequently became Nairobi School] and who weren’t keen on having to share their facilities with Africans like me,” he confessed. Having been kicked out of school at age 15, Kiriamiti was only 20 by the time he first went to prison. “Initially, I was very depressed, but soon I met older inmates who’d been there 12 years or more, and they assured me my life wasn’t over. I’d still be a relatively young man when I got out. And so I decided to get to work. I decided not to waste any time. So like the African American revolutionary Malcolm X, Kiriamiti chose to use his time in jail to educate himself. He even studied Journalism by correspondence, having befriended one of the wardens who had all the course materials and shared them freely with him. “That warden was actually one of my students in the English class that I taught,” he recalls. Kiriamiti made friends with another warden who used to slip him paper, pencils and pens, and also help him smuggle out chapters of his first book to his older sister on the outside. “It was my sister, Connie Wanjiku, who handed the completed manuscript [of My Life in Crime] to Dr. [Henry] Chakava [of East African Educational Publishers] who in turn passed it on to Ngugi [wa Thiong’o] to read. ”It was Ngugi who actually told Chakava to publish the book,” he added. Kiriamiti only stayed in solitary for a few weeks. Then after 13 years [rather than 28] he was released and subsequently inundated with media attention—an experience quite unlike that of the ex-convict in his fourth novel, Son of Fate. That book, which Kiriamiti claims is his favorite of the six he has written thus far (with a seventh, entitled City Car Jackers, on the way), recounts the trials and tribulations of the ex-jailbird Adams Wamathina, who truly wants to reform and come clean, but finds social forces incessantly working against him until finally, he gets an unexpected break, which unfolds in what the author calls the sequel to Son of Fate entitled The Sinister Trophy. In any case, Kiriamiti didn’t enjoy the limelight for long. “I was picked up and thrown back into prison, supposedly for being a member of Mwakenya,” recalls Kiriamiti who doesn’t conceal the fact that he’d been embittered for having to endure three more years inside as a consequence of Moi’s paranoia. His only consolation was that he met many of his old friends in prison, many who he claimed were far more clever crooks than he would ever be. “The only advantage I had over them was that I could communicate my story in my writing, but they knew far more about criminality in Kenya than I ever will,” says Kiriamiti, who notes that many of them were either ex-Army or ex-police who were members of secret networks which they continued to participate in despite their being behind bars! There’s little doubt that the writer’s years on the streets and in prison, rubbing shoulders with criminals gave him extraordinary access to otherwise ‘privileged’ information which would become fodder for his novels, including the three [My Life in Crime, My Life in Prison and Millie’s Story] which will be re-shaped into a screenplay by Nell Schell, appropriately entitled My Life in Crime. My Life in Prison was also written clandestinely by Kiriamiti while in prison. “It was only after the death of one of the wardens [at Naivasha Maximum] that I couldn’t write for some time. During that crackdown, several inmates actually died and over a hundred were maimed for life,” he recalls. The gruesome murder of the prison warden and the bloody aftermath are graphically portrayed in My Life in Prison and are likely to be integral elements of the film. When he was first released from prison in 1984, Kiriamiti went straight to work writing for Sam Kahiga and the late Brian Tetley at Men Only. “Sam in the one who edited My Life in Prison, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best edited of all my books,” said Kiriamiti who was also a close friend and colleague of the late Wahome ‘Whispers’ Mutahi during that brief period before he got thrown back in jail. Released on February 12, 1990, (“The same day that Nelson Mandela was released and Robert Ouko assassinated”), Kiriamiti admits he “was a man who wanted revenge.” As a consequence, he went looking for his old criminal buddies and seriously contemplated returning to a life of crime. “What saved me was my wife, Julian,” confessed Kiriamiti. “She’s the reason I changed completely,” he adds, admitting he used to take his future wife out on dates in stolen cars, “but she didn’t know it at the time.” Meeting Julian in Bahati through his old friend, Father Grol, Kiriamiti was working with street children at the time. “Do you believe I married an ex-nun!” he said, clearly amused by the irony of his good fortune. Now the father of three, girls, his first born is in university, the second about to go there and the third still in secondary. Clearly delighted to describe himself as a farmer after having moved back to his portion of the family farm in Murang’a, Kiriamiti actually stays mainly in Murang’a town where he works as a full-time journalist who founded and edits his own monthly newspaper, The Sharpener, which circulates throughout Murang’a county. He also has a popular monthly column called Ear to the Ground. But in the coming days, Kiriamiti won’t easily avoid again becoming a celebrity, now that his film is about to be made. Already the film has generated a buzz, both because he’s recently been on radio and TV talking about it and because of the casting which the film’s producers have already promised Kiriamiti’s part to a Nigerian star called Jim Iyke. “They claim it’s because they want to market the movie to a Pan-African audience and Iyke is well known in West Africa, especially in Nigeria and Ghana,” said Viraj Sikand, who volunteers in Kibera and who recently met Iyke when he was touring Kenya while filming a segment for his reality show. But already, Kenyans who have heard about the Nigerian are up in arms about the idea of not choosing a Kenyan to play their favorite criminal’s role. Kenyans don’t care that Iyke is a Nollywood superstar. I have heard comments from critics on the street whose biggest complaint is that Kiriamiti is an iconic Kenyan who deserves to be represented by a fellow Kenyan. One of the most salient complaints comes from those who question how easily this ‘super-star’ is going to learn Sheng, which has to be an integral element of the film. “The producers think he will be okay speaking in English,” said Kiriamiti who has tried to dissuade Janet and Nell from going with a non-Kenyan. “They claim he can easily pick up Sheng if he hangs out with me for three months before the film shoots begin,” adds the writer who agrees that by choosing a non-Kenyan, the producers are sending a wrong message about the creative capacity of Kenyan actors, many of whom I know could easily play Jack Zollo with relish and the necessary charisma. Kiriamiti recalls how much he enjoyed a film like Nairobi Half Life, although he says the scriptwriters got a few things wrong. But as far as the casting is concerned, he thought it was excellent, especially the characters of Oti and Mwas. As for an outsider’s ability to pick up on Kiriamiti’s back-story, that might not be hard if he reads all the novels, although the writer’s life is so tightly woven into the warp and woof of Kenyan contemporary culture, Iyke will have to do more than reading to get the knowledge as well as the emotional ambiance of Kenyan everyday life, especially life on the back streets. And if he starts now, reading all of Kiriamiti’s novels along with all of those by writers who have influenced him the most, writers like Mwangi Gicheru whose Over the Bridge was the catalyst that got Kiriamiti writing in the first place, he might catch up a bit. “I love Mwangi’s book but I realized despite his writing about crime, I knew a whole lot more about it than he did, so his book became my incentive to start writing myself. And since then, Mwangi has become one of my best friends.” Today, no one seeing this slender, unassuming journalist walking on Nairobi streets would suspect that this is a man who, after Ngugi, Maillu, and Gicheru, earns more from his book royalties than most people would ever suspect. “People claim that writing books can’t earn someone a good living, but I wonder how many books those people have written and how many they have sold,” quipped Kiriamiti who is happy to encourage his fellow Kenyans to write about their lives just as he has. Whether they will be as successful is another question, but certainly the man deserves to be seen as an inspiration to the tens of thousands who read and re-read his books and feel they know the man intimately.