When John Kiriamiti’s My Life in Crime came out in 1984, there had never been a book like it.
And even the author, who wrote the manuscript while doing time at Naivasha Maximum Security Prison, could not have anticipated the scope of his work and the influence that it would carry.
The hype surrounding the book’s release was so big that buyers reportedly queued outside bookstores to get a copy.
With 40 reprints to date and a Dutch translation, My Life in Crime remains the best-selling Kenyan novel of all time. And soon, fans of the timeless drama will get to relive the drama on the small screen.
A Kenyan TV production company, AfreDev, has optioned the TV rights to My Life in Crime and its sequel, My Life with a Criminal: Milly’s Story for a TV series scheduled to begin showing on local television in June 2018.
According to Ramadhan Nungu, filming for the first season is complete. The company bought the rights for an undisclosed amount in early 2017.
The TV script and plot will stay as close to the books as possible, says Kiriamiti, who has been retained as adviser on the works.
“This is an opportunity for my fans to enjoy my work all over again,” says the author.
A FEW CHANGES
“A few changes (were necessary) based on obvious changes to the scenes depicted in the book over the years,” says Ramadhan. “But if a scene is in, say, Congo, we shoot in Congo. We have kept it as real as possible.”
That the book is being adapted into TV is for many fans overdue, but not quite. In many ways, My Life in Crime was already TV-ready. For anyone who came of age in the 1980s and most of the 1990s — the pre-Internet age — Kiriamiti’s two most popular books provided material vivid enough as to be a moving picture.
The books’ appeal was as much in the content and delivery as the politics of what was legit and what was considered contraband in many schools.
My Life in Crime was not exactly the book school libraries were overshooting their budgets to stock. The few copies available usually went limp, the cover frayed from the frequent exchange of hands.
“I remember reading the book after lights out, in bed when I was in Form Two,” recalls Isaac Waweru, who went to high school in the mid-1990s. “I used a pen-torch and I couldn’t put the book down.”
THE FOX IN REPOSE
I meet Kiriamiti at the Ma ‘H’ bus stage. It is a fitting place to meet; the stage derives its name from nearby Ma ‘H’ hotel, an establishment that, much like Kiriamiti, was the news in the 1970s and ’80s.
Joseph Kamaru sang about it, the celebrities of the day patronised it. We decide to take a walk down main street. Kiriamiti, I discover, carries quite some celebrity around town, and, in keeping with his old life when he went by several aliases, hardly anyone refers to him by his real name.
“Muthige, hallo!” shouts a man carrying a load of second-hand clothes.
“Muthige!” Kiriamiti hollers back.
Muthige means fox in Kikuyu language, Kiriamiti tells me. It is the name most people know him by, a moniker he picked after he moved to Murang’a town following his second jail term.
At the height of the government crackdown on dissidents, Kiriamiti was imprisoned for three years by the Moi government on Mwakenya charges in 1987.
At 67, Kiriamiti is a sprite of a man. Save for his nearly wool-white hair, which also gives him a serene air, he appears youthful and laughs at the slightest provocation.
His famous chin is as oval as ever, with the trademark clutch of hair below his lower lip.
John Kiriamiti was 15 years old when he dropped out of high school. With Sh600 stolen from his father’s jacket, he took a bus from his home village of Thuita in Kamacharia, Murang’a County, and moved to Nairobi with dreams of making it big.
TOUGH CITY LIFE
But life in the capital city soon proved to be tougher than the teenage Kiriamiti had imagined it.
Out of money and means, Kiriamiti soon fell in with a gang, first as a petty thief before progressing gradually up the food chain into hardcore crime, and the fast life. By the time he was nabbed, in 1971 at age 21, Kiriamiti had participated in bank heists of such daring that he was on the list of the most wanted criminals in the country.
After serving 13 years of his prison term, Kiriamiti was released on recommendation for good conduct, and pioneering prison literacy while in jail. Unbeknownst to him, celebrity had preceded him by the time he tasted freedom; five months earlier, the manuscript for My Life in Crime had made its way to the desk of Henry Chakava, the renowned publisher at the time working at Heinemann Publishers.
The runaway success of My Life in Crime inspired Kiriamiti to write the follow-up, Son of Fate — a fictional take on his life; The Sinister Trophy and My Life in Prison — solid if unspectacular books. But it was My Life with a Criminal: Milly’s Story that transported readers back to Kiriamiti’s first book, if for the romantic angle and re-imagining.??
Before the TV project came up, Kiriamiti had settled into a quiet, easy life, shuttling between his farm at Kamacharia and some business interests in Nairobi.
After he was pried free from jail in 1990 and for the next two decades, Kiriamiti sought anonymity in Murang’a town. He needed to be away from Nairobi and the trappings that had sucked him into crime. Plus, he was raising a family.
He is the father of three daughters.
“This was the best environment for me and my young family. My first born daughter was born here,” he says.
He started a news publication, The Sharpener, which ran the gamut of Murang’a town and environs, carrying politics, gossip and business. The paper folded several years ago. He is currently working on his sixth book, cautiously titled Abduction Squad.
But for all his literary success, Kiriamiti considers raising a solid family his greatest pride.
The girls are their own selves, growing into their own. His first born, Annrita, 23, is a blogger and actor.
“I grew up amidst books,” says Annrita. “We had a big library and I took interest in reading while still very young. But I didn’t grow up under any shadow; I chose my career.”
Kiriamiti has been on the lecture circuit, giving talks to secondary school students. He talks to students about writing, about dreams, but it all comes round to the genre that made him for a while, broke him, and which he can never really escape from, but is no longer imprisoned by: crime.
“Look,” he says. “No child is born a criminal, or a professor, or pilot. All children are born the same, it’s the upbringing that shapes them.”
About a decade ago, while going about business in Murang’a town, Kiriamiti stopped short: down the street was a gaggle of street boys idling about, smoking. The old fox in him reared and in a minute Kiriamiti fashioned a whip and rounded up the boys.
“I saw them and I realized many were on the wrong path,” he says. “And all they needed was guidance.” With the help of friends and a few referrals, nearly all the children were placed back to their homes with some provided with basic skills and are now fully rehabilitated. In retrospect, it was him repaying a debt, but then again maybe not, just a bad man turned good. As he writes in the intro to My Life in Crime: As concerns my part in it, be good and forget it, I am already a reformed person.
That little part might also play out in the TV series. He hopes it does. It is part of what he hopes to be his legacy.