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.
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.
There is little doubt that the writer’s years on the streets and in prison, years spent 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 titled My Life in Crime.
My Life in Prison was also written clandestinely by Kiriamiti while in prison. “It was only after the murder of one of the wardens (at Naivasha Maximum) that I couldn’t write for some time. During the crackdown that followed, several inmates actually died and over 100 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,” says 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 Nelson Mandela was released”, 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. She’s the reason I changed completely,” he says, admitting that he used to take his future wife out on dates in stolen cars, “but she didn’t know it at the time”.
When he met Julian in Bahati through his old friend, Father Grol, Kiriamiti was working with street children.
“Do you believe I married an ex-nun!” he asks, clearly amused by the irony of his good fortune. He is now a father-of-three — his first born is at university, the second about to join, and the third still in secondary school.
Clearly delighted to describe himself as a farmer after moving back to his portion of the family farm in Murang’a, Kiriamiti stays mainly in Murang’a town, where he works as a full-time journalist at his own monthly newspaper, The Sharpener, which circulates throughout Murang’a county.
But in the coming days, he will not easily avoid becoming a celebrity again, now that his film is about to be made. Already, the film has generated a buzz, both because he has recently been on radio and TV talking about it and because of the casting — the producers have promised Kiriamiti’s part to Nigerian star 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,” says Viraj Sikand, who volunteers in Kibera and recently met Iyke when he toured Kenya while filming a segment for his reality show.
But Kenyans would rather have one of their own play the role and do not care that Iyke is a Nollywood superstar. Their argument is that Kiriamiti is an iconic Kenyan who deserves to be played by a fellow Kenyan.
One of the most salient complaints comes from those who question how easily this “superstar” 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,” says 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 the wrong message about the creative capacity of Kenyan actors, many of whom “could easily play Jack Zollo with relish and the necessary charisma”.
As for an outsider’s ability to pick up Kiriamiti’s back story, that might not be difficult if he reads all the novels, although the writer’s life is so tightly woven into the warp and woof of Kenyan contemporary culture that Iyke will have to do more than read to get the knowledge as well as the emotional ambience of Kenyan everyday life, especially life on the back streets.
Might catch up a bit
And if he starts now, reading all 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.
“I love Mwangi’s book, but I realised that, 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. And since then, Mwangi has become one of my best friends.”
Today, no one seeing this slender, unassuming journalist walking down the streets of Nairobi would suspect that this is a man who, after Ngugi, David 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,” quips Kiriamiti, who encourages people to write about their lives, just as he has.
Whether they will be as successful as his 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 that they know the man intimately.