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Monday, 27 May 2013

The Kenyan Most Wanted Thug Who Married A Church Nun

When My Life in Crime first came out in 1984, its author, John Kiriamiti, was still in jail, serving a 28-year term for robbery with violence. His 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 pundits’ complaints that Kenyans do not read, the public quickly swept bookstore shelves for Kiriamiti’s debut novel.
Kiriamiti was himself astounded by the fame that the book — soon to be made into a film by Janet Kirina and Nell Schell — brought him and he attributes its instant appeal to curiosity and the fact that violent crime was on the rise in Kenya in the ’80s, yet the press was barely covering it. His book, then, served two purposes: it titillated and thrilled and also went where newspapers dared not — exposing criminals’ dirty secrets from an insider’s point of view.
“(The success) could also have had to do with the simplicity of the writing,” he suggests. What he is not saying, however, and what everyone who has read his books agrees, is that the instant appeal of My Life in Crime also had to do with the fact that the man 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 just survive, but also thrive “by any means necessary”, including violently robbing banks.
Kiriamiti was not 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 was not until he got thrown into solitary confinement that he discovered that his book was a bestseller, albeit one that disturbed the powers-that-be so much they had to stick him in solitary for several weeks.
Yet Kiriamiti had been a model inmate before one of his students’ squealed 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 had managed to persuade the prison welfare officer at Kamiti Prison to let inmates attend classes, like the one he would later teach twice a day. It was he who also managed to get books allowed into the prison for inmates to read.
“It was in prison that I started reading James Hadley Chase, Robert Ludlum, and Peter Cheney,” says Kenya’s leading crime writer who had only made it halfway through Form One at Prince of Wales Secondary in the early ’60s before he hit the streets and got into his infamous life of crime.
“I was actually expelled from school while in Form One for getting into fights with the white boys, who were dominant in the school (later renamed Nairobi School), and who weren’t keen on having to share their facilities with Africans like me,” he remembers.
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 that 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 a student 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.

“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,” Kiriamiti explains. “It was Ngugi who actually told Chakava to publish the book.”

Kiriamiti stayed in solitary confinement for a few weeks. Then, after 13 years in the slammer (rather than the 28 he was sentenced to serve) 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.
John Kiriamiti
That book, which Kiriamiti claims is his favourite of the six he has written thus far (with a seventh, titled City Carjackers, on the way), recounts the trials and tribulations of 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, titled The Sinister Trophy.
In any case, Kiriamiti did not enjoy the limelight for long. “I was picked up and thrown back into prison, supposedly for being a member of Mwakenya,” recalls the man, who does not conceal the fact that he had been embittered for having to endure three more years inside as a consequence of then president Moi’s paranoia.

His only consolation was that he met many of his old friends in prison, many whom, he claims, were far more clever crooks than he would ever be.

“The only advantage I had over them was that I could communicate my story through 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 servicemen or ex-police officers who were members of secret networks which they continued to run from behind bars...Read More Courtesy of Daily Nation

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