The first time we met, I was astounded by how youthful John Kiriamiti looked. That was in Murang’a two years ago.
He had donned a cap over his white hair and sports white sideburns reminiscent of Daudi Kabaka – he actually does keep his just like Daudi Kabaka, he intimated. A little known fact is that he used to be Daudi Kabaka’s dancer back in the 1960s.
He was unperturbed by how surprised I was. In my mind, I thought the person who was arguably Kenya’s most famous ex-convict would look a bit more intimidating, with his looks worn away by having spent a total of 16 years in prison.
But no, he expects that every time he meets someone new. “Most people expect a big guy when they are meeting me,” he said.
“But I have a very innocent face.” That, he certainly does. In real life, that is. Pictures do not quite capture how harmless he looks.
As we walked along the streets of Murang’a to the restaurant where we were conducting the interview then, several people stopped excitedly to greet him.
Murang’a people are proud of their son. Even the people who used to be his worst enemies – the police - are now his best friends.
“My car got stuck because of the conditions of the road being constructed near my place, so I was given a ride by one of the superintendents of police to get here,” he said.
When we meet again at the Standard Group HQ this week, Kiriamiti is now 71, but has hardly changed. He is soft-spoken, eloquent and clearly intelligent – it is clear how he was able to evade police capture for years back then.
Those qualities are probably what also helped him convince a nun to marry him in 1992, despite his former life, and to convince other nuns to party with them to the disco beats that he treated them to while he was dating his then-girlfriend. They now have three daughters.
I leaf through a large, yellow file, the manuscript of his sixth book, The Abduction Squad. It is a marked-up copy, with signs of editing.
A cursory perusal of it shows that he has not lost his touch with words since he wrote what is likely Kenya’s best-selling book of all time – My Life in Crime – back in 1984.
And why would he, being the voracious reader he is? “I have to read a minimum of 30 pages every night,” he says.
All this reading is what got him into writing when he was imprisoned in 1971 for bank robbery. “I used to smuggle books into prison, but reading Mwangi Gicheru’s Across the Bridge is what inspired me to write my own story,” he says.
He was a Form One dropout, having dropped out of Nairobi School. The school was then known as Prince of Wales and had a lot of white people who he says were were racist. Kiriamiti was identified as one of the ringleaders when chaos ensued in retaliation.
“I was told to go home and get my parents and because my parents were both teachers and my mother was very strict, going home was out of the question. I knew my mother would teach me a serious lesson, so I ran away to Nairobi and got onto the streets and into a life of crime,” he says.
He had already served 13 years in prison when the book about his life in crime was published in 1984, to a massive reception that shocked him.
“I did not expect it. I was so surprised. I give a lot of praise to Henry Chakava because he made me. He got the transcript and did not care that I was in prison, read it and then gave it to Ngugi wa Thiong’o who said it was publishable, readable and would be a hit.”
And it was, given the snaking queues that were observed when the book was published, with everyone waiting to buy it. Such queues of people waiting to buy books had never been seen before in Kenya, and have not been seen since.
“When I got out I saw one of those queues. A friendly policeman told me, ‘Do you see this queue? They are waiting to buy your book’,” he says.
It had not been all rosy when it was discovered by the government that the bestseller had been written by a criminal who was still in jail, against the will of the prison authorities. “The Nation wrote a piece on the book, saying it had been written by a prisoner.”
Given the fact that he had used one of his many aliases in the book, no one knew his real name. After a few days, he was found out when his cellmate gave him away and he was locked away in solitary confinement.
His parents had no idea he had written a popular book, but eventually, his mother found out through a friend who recognised the people described in the book. “My mother was the first person to get royalties from the book. That time it cost Sh28.40. She got Sh5,000, which was a lot of money back then and bought several cows, finished building her house and such things.”
When he got out three months later, released early because of good conduct, his literary heroes, the likes of Mwangi Gicheru and Sam Kahiga, became his closest friends. He got into writing, became a journalist and would pen pieces for The Standard and Nation newspapers.
He would be arrested again together with the likes of Wahome ‘Whispers’ Mutahi during the Mwakenya era.
In the midst of torture while in detention, Ochieng Kabaselleh, then a renowned Kenyan musician who was also arrested and accused of being part of the Mwakenya anti-government group, mentioned he had given Kiriamiti a gun.
“I was imprisoned on trumped-up charges that I was using money from bank robberies to bankroll Mwakenya.”
He was sentenced to seven years then, but the sentence was reduced on appeal to three years and he was released on February 11, 1990, the same day Nelson Mandela was released, and two days before his birthday.
He got married in 1992 and began The Sharpener, a popular newspaper in Muranga, went on to write more books and is now working on his sixth one, with his daughters having inherited his literary genes.
Was he apprehensive about his children reading his books, describing his criminal ways and raunchy scenes in some places?
“Very much. I wondered what they would think of their father doing all these things and with these women. I once tried to stop them and my daughter said, ‘Dad, I have read that book three times.’ The good thing is that I have daughters who I am very free with and who love me very much.”
He says that My Life in Crime has been reprinted over 80 times to date, but he is unhappy with the publisher.
“They have not been good to me. I am bitter with the managing director, who never picks up my calls because he does not know what to tell me. I am not willing to publish my books there anymore.
He gets paid, but he believes the firm could have done much more. “They do not know how to publicise,” he says.
“I do not want to be another Congestina. You know I went to visit her in Mathare. It is very sad and you just wonder what the government is doing, letting her end up the way she is now.”
The rights to his books have been bought three times to take the story to the big screen, but none of them has ever come to fruition.
Kiriamiti’s life out of crime today, however, continues. When not writing, he is a businessman. Often, he is invited to numerous places to speak to students in secondary school on behavioural change. He also speaks to university students, police, army and navy cohorts, and trainers in various areas, and some of the talks have been written based on his books, both here and abroad.
“I enjoy the questions I get sometimes, like once when a detective asked me, ‘Every criminal has a mark they leave at the scene of crime. What was yours?’ I realised that that was true, my friends who were criminals used to have distinguishing marks, although I have never known what mine was.”
Crime is, however, not a life he wishes on anyone. His advice to parents on keeping their children out of it.
“Criminals are born every day. There is no woman who is segregated in the maternity ward because she will give birth to a criminal because all children are born innocent. How they grow up is what turns them into criminals. Stay close to your children. Note even the smallest changes. If for example your child has been timid and is suddenly exceedingly brave, there is someone behind that courage. Someone who has probably told them, ‘If this one touches you, come to me.’”
“Children also join crime and these gangs coming up nowadays because they want protection. Let them feel that your home provides that love and protection so that they do not seek it elsewhere. Start talking to your children about the right things to do at an early age.”
Kiriamiti comments on the state of crime nowadays. He is dismayed by the fact that criminals kill people during robberies.
“We never shot anyone. The only time anyone in our group ever fired a gun was to the ceiling and that was once,” he says.
I remind him of the Kenya Commercial Bank heist that happened in Thika and how it compares to his own. “In most cases, it is an inside job. Even during our time, someone would guide us and tell us, ‘Do not take from Counter Four, because that is where people’s salaries are. Go here and there.”
What does he feel about having a reputation as a former criminal? “I do not think about it. I just know people love me, which is so interesting,” he says.
And what if he had stayed in Nairobi School and not gotten into crime? How does he believe his life would have turned out? “I do not think it would have been any different. I think this was always my destiny.”
After all is said and done, though, all Kiriamiti wants to do now is to live a quiet life. “I just want to relax, to be who I am, to be with my people. I am not rich, I am not poor. I just want to be John.”