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New memoir details the story of a woman determined to reform prisons in Kenya

Saturday January 25 2020

Wanini Kireri

Wanini Kireri is the Assistant Commissioner General of Prisons, Nairobi County. She won the inaugural Public Servant Employee of the Year Award in 2015. PHOTO | WILLIAM OERI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JOAN THATIAH
By JOAN THATIAH
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Wanini Kireri’s captivating memoir, aptly titled The Disruptor, details an extraordinary woman’s trailblazing exploits in the Kenya Prisons Service. In this candid 142-page book, she tells all about her steady rise through the ranks in the prisons service in the 1980s and 1990s.

Wanini’s life story was inspired by Prof Wangari Mathai’s story of the hummingbird. Like this bird, she has through the decades reigned in the Kenyan prisons without ruling.

She writes beautifully and paints a clear picture of her life, first as a child from an ordinary family in rural Kenya in the 1960s and 1970s and then as a young adult suddenly thrust into the unfamiliar prisons world and, finally, as an adult woman determined to change Kenyan prisons. An adult woman who manages to achieve and also sustain these changes.

Whilst she admits that she sometimes faltered, there is no hint at all in The Disruptor of self-pity. This read brings to mind Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Both women detail their lives blow by blow, not forgetting to give credit to the people that held them up every step of the way.

Wanini Kireri’s captivating memoir is aptly
Wanini Kireri’s captivating memoir is aptly titled The Disruptor.

After her high school education, Wanini stumbled into the Kenya Prisons Service by chance. This was at a time when, in the words of Dr Willy Mutunga, who has written the foreword “ … any stint in a Kenyan prison was tantamount to a death sentence”. Through anecdotes, life lessons and hard-eyed wisdom, she narrates her challenges and subsequent wins on her quest to give a face to the then infamous Kenyan prisons — a quest that most around her at the time thought was impossible.

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She candidly tells us about what it took to bring forth prison reforms, her resilience through it, her focus, determination and remarkable leadership skills. The book offers rare glimpses into private moments of frustration and fear. She calls them the ups and downs of being an agent of disruptive change.

As the reader will see, she has earned a reputation as the indefatigable advocate of prison reforms. For instance, had it not been for her own individual effort, the now much celebrated annual family days in Kenyan prisons would still only be a dream. She also gave a new face to Lang’ata Women’s Prison, which is now the first stop for anyone seeking to see how effective our prison system can be. Here, she introduced cultural days, sporting activities and even beauty pageants.

In her candid fashion, she admits that with regard to Kenyan prisons, we are not there yet. She speaks of the horde of challenges that still need scaling. They include improvements on the existing infrastructure, overcrowding and provision for children accompanying their mothers to prison. While our prisons are not completely human-friendly, she also acknowledges the strides that she helped take.

It’s interesting to read how an ordinary girl in Kihome, central Kenya, who lived for the sheer thrill of the Christmas Day festivities and, like many children of her time, wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, grew up to be one of the most admired and respected women in the Kenya Prisons Service.

Unlike some memoirs that are filled with exclamations of how hard work and long nights are the secret to success, in this one, Wanini actually wants everyone else to succeed. She details the lessons she learnt on her journey up and, perhaps, using her counselling background, offers insights into how these lessons can be applied to result in a win.

Wanini Kireri has served for close to four decades, trailblazing all through; a great legacy indeed. She is the first female commandant in the Kenya Prisons Service and the first female officer to head a male maximum security prison.

Her work has not gone unnoticed as she was a recipient of the first ever Public Servant of the Year award. She was also the recipient of the 2019 Crime Si Poa Lifetime Achievement Award.

As she writes, “Your work will actually shout on your behalf and it is never long before people notice the difference that you are making in the society.”

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