By KIUNDU WAWERU
John Kiriamiti enters a restaurant in Murang’a town one Monday morning. He is a familiar figure in the town and several patrons greet him in recognition.
The 62-year-old writer, who is here to give an interview to The Standard On Saturday, acknowledges the greetings with a wave and smile.
One man, seated at a corner table, whispers to a woman and gestures. She bolts upright to get a better look – mouth open.
Kiriamiti has elicited such reactions many times before. In his quasi-autobiographical books, My Life in Crime and My Life in Prison, he called it “seeing with their mouths”. Mostly, he claimed, the reactions were sparked by his daring exploits as a violent robber in the 1960s. Crime, as he describes it, was not the grim dirty business of desperate men, but the preserve of the fearless.
Released in 1984 by East African Educational Publishers, Kiriamiti’s first book gave him a special place in Kenyan folklore. Allegedly written in confinement at the Naivasha Maximum Prison, the book was a first-hand account of a criminal career across several countries and spanning close to a decade.
It was not the first major work in the crime genre: It was preceded by others such as Meja Mwangi’s The Bushtrackers (1979), Mwangi Ruheni’s The Mystery Smugglers (1975), and Paul Kitololo’s Shortcut to Hell (1982).
In its wake came Frank Saisi’s The Bhang Syndicate (1984), Wamugunda Geteria’s Black Gold of Chepkube (1985), and John Kimani’s Life and Times of a Bank Robber (1988). Yet, perhaps because it was billed as partly autobiographical, Kiriamiti’s book was a hit with the public. One gushing reviewer called it, “an unputdownable story (about) a boy who graduated from (being) a mere pickpocket to a charismatic gang leader”.
“Even if you hate robbers”, readers were assured, “you will enjoy reading this book”. As to how much of it was true to life, debate has raged since the day publishers first saw Kiriamiti’s handwritten manuscripts.
The question is set to intrigue fans once more, as his books become the subject of an upcoming movie with a proposed budget of Sh360 million. As one of Kenya’s best-known criminals is immortalised on film, readers wonder: Did the daring robber described in the book really exist? Did the incredible incidents he narrates actually happen? Or did a petty criminal with an active imagination concoct the whole story out of the experiences of others? Does it even matter?
The book was written at the Kamiti and Naivasha maximum prisons during the last months of a 13-year jail term Kiriamiti served for robbery with violence. The particulars of his actual crimes, however, are indistinguishable from the ones he makes up for his main character ‘Jack Zollo’.
Indeed, the tall tales suggest more creativity than the writer admits. Kiriamiti claims to have once escaped arrest at an airport by fleeing through a toilet window as hapless police officers waited at the door, machine guns at the ready.
In My Life in Prison he claims he feigned madness and was admitted to the Mathari Hospital, successfully escaping a 20-year jail sentence. He wrote of life as a fugitive in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, where he allegedly worked as a Greek tycoon’s driver. He was so trusted in this position, he wrote, that he had access to a Mercedes Benz 300 SE and a monthly 1.5-million-franc payroll for the tycoon’s farm workers. His improbably idyllic life abroad was only disrupted when he impregnated both his employer’s daughter and secretary then had to steal the farm workers’ pay and flee.
There are few records or contemporaries available to corroborate Kiriamiti’s tales. Several inconsistencies in his claims, however, suggest he was flexible with the truth, if not spinning a yarn out of thin air. Kiriamiti claims to have been arrested in Murang’a on the eve of a planned wedding to his long-time girlfriend Milly. He was then moved to Nairobi’s Central Police Station on December 14, 1970. Central OCPD, Robinson Mboloi says verifying this is difficult.
“We do not keep records for such a long time,” he said.
However, recalling that last arrest in My Life With a Criminal (also written by Kiriamiti), Milly’s account is less dramatic: “The next thing I heard… was that he was in the hands of the law; this time never to make his witty (jail) breaks.”
Kiriamiti writes that he never let criminals know his home. Milly, however, says she once saw him with accomplices in their Eastleigh house. She also narrates two instances when a fellow gangster called Captain visited the home.
Some of the characters in the books are fashioned on real life individuals. In My Life in Crime, Kiriamiti identifies his partner in crime, Stanley ‘GG’ Githinji, as “a former Sergeant Major in the Army”.
The Standard On Saturday tracked GG down to Gakurwe, Murang’a. Confirming many of his experiences with Kiriamiti, GG, however, clarifies that he is a former policeman who served alongside the military in the Shifta War of the 1963-1967.
Kiriamiti insists his works are factual, faithfully recreated with the help of his accomplices during his long stay in prison. “I created my own style of narrating my experiences,” he says. “I recreate the scenes for my readers, down to the last details.”
Dr Jennifer Muchiri, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature, says readers should look for autobiographical truth in Kiriamiti’s books, rather than factual truth. “Are there contradictions and silences in the narrative?” she asks. “What is the author telling us and not telling us? What is his motive for telling the story?”
Kiriamiti says his motive in writing the book was to show that crime does not pay, not glorify it. Today, he is invited in colleges and police academies to lecture on crime. And he continues to write. He says he wakes up at 4am to work on his latest offering, a book on city carjackers based on interviews with criminals. Another manuscript, Abduction Squad, is with his publishers. He says it is based on the true but untold story of criminals serving jail terms who are recruited by State agents to commit crimes.
“Trust me, a lot happens in prison,”