|Photo courtesy of Margaretta wa Gacheru|
The average Kenyan reader is familiar with John Kiriamiti. In a way, young Kenyan readers are inducted into reading through texts that are populist in nature – appealing to a wide audience. Kiriamiti’s My Life in Crime, My Life with a Criminal: Milly’s Story and My Life in Prison fit perfectly well within this paradigm. In these texts, Kiriamiti attempts to reconstruct the story of a criminal, that of the girlfriend turned wife and that of a prisoner respectively. Using a persona to creatively put together a story that is essentially about himself and those close to him, the writer succeeds to share his escapades and experiences in crime and punishment without necessarily indicting himself as a person.
On the contrary, it is in his My Life in Prison that the writer retrospectively writes in a manner that casts him as remorseful. Much of what appears in his first two texts could easily pass for thriller/adventurous stories that celebrate the personae’s cunning and conquest of law and order. Take note that the three texts underscore the personalisation of the stories by way of the possessive “my”. It is an attempt to own the story and to entice the reader that the ‘tale’ s/he is about to listen to is a first person’s account/witness of the way things were. As a result, the reader is wooed, albeit unconsciously, to identify with the persona.
The choice of the use of the possessive “my” in the trilogy helps the personae in the story to own up to the events and actions thereof. Such personal stories resonate with autobiographical writings and it would be expected that the texts would edify the reader especially since they deal with criminal experiences. Unfortunately the first two books are more or less devoid of the ability to live up to Aristotle’s perception of what constitutes a good story: ethos, pathos and logos. But it is the bold step of writing about his experiences in crime that creates a space for the writer to bare his soul and to entreat the reader to forgive him for his inequities.
My Life in Crime and My Life with a Criminal: Milly’s Story achieve ethos or credibility in that the personae are believable and they resonate with the reader. The same applies to the texts’ ability to connect with the reader’s emotions. The reader easily empathises with the persona in these texts and is at times angry that the police seem to be catching up with him because in the eyes of the reader the persona is a hero. Conversely, it is in the aspect of logos, the ability to reason logically and convince that the reader finds the texts wanting. Basing our argument on the fact that the texts explore crime and punishment, it would be assumed that the persona would demonstrate remorse and express his desire for penitence. In the end, both texts come across as subtle celebrations of the persona’s ability to evade police capture, to break into banks, to loot goods and thousands of cash, to indulge in reckless partying amongst other carefree activities. It is for this reason that the reader essentially distances him/herself from the persona’s lifestyle.
Kiriamiti’s My Life in Prison encapsulates the story of the capture, imprisonment and release from maximum prison of the protagonist. The seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind about the possibility of the persona being redeemed are quashed. In this narrative, we begin to see an aperture through which criminals can and indeed are transformed from hardcore bank robbers and murderers to humanised individuals that eventually integrate back into the society. Through this text, we are able to understand that it is not necessarily a physical journey but one that is largely spiritual and cemented in an inner person’s ability to desire for contrition. It is a process that the persona claims is pegged on a person’s desire for individual character change and not necessarily premised on the rules and tortures reminiscent of Kenyan prisons up to the late 20th century.
|Photo courtesy of Magaretta wa Gacheru|
The text is humorous. It is violent. It is graphic and scary. But it is also captivating and humanising in nature. There are pockets of comic relief here and there such as the persona’s attempt to appear insane so that he can be taken to Mathare Hospital where he imagines it would be easier to escape. He succeeds to flee only for greed to land him back into prison and this time round he serves his term until a presidential amnesty comes in handy to free him from the shackles of prison and hopefully the tag of crime.
In addition, we find it laughable, albeit tragically, that the warders also suffer the life ‘in prison’. The persona says “In remand prison we were very poorly fed, but I could see from the warder’s face that his life wasn’t a picnic either.” He mocks the profession of the warders by asserting that “I felt I would rather be employed as a grave digger than look for a job as a warder” (p1). As a prisoner, the persona’s perspective enables us to empathise with the denigrating work of the warders and the juxtaposition with the image of a grave digger makes the latter seem a better job.
The violence that rocks prison the world over is also best recreated in this text. The vivified images of the murder of a prison warder by a mentally ill prisoner are embellished on our minds long after we are through with our reading: “Kairu ..., proved worse than a common lunatic. He took a very sharp chisel, three-eighths of an inch wide, bent over his victim and struck into the brain using the hammer, blood started oozing out” (p87). The horrific actions of Kairu symbolise the repercussions of keeping mentally sick prisoners together with the rest instead of putting them away in mental institutions.
Above all, it is the power of the text to edify the reader that this narrative stands out amongst Kiriamiti’s trilogy. In this story, the persona confesses and admits that he has been in the wrong. He determinedly makes a deliberate move to change for the better and we identify with his suffering as he goes through the process of transformation when he is sentenced to jail and punished for his criminal activities. When he finally gets acquitted, we experience catharsis and desire to see him reintegrated to the mainstream society. The persona narrates thus: “As I said I gave up crime. I joined the society and fitted in beautifully” (224). The persona confesses that he is a changed man and we attest to this when he makes a public declaration of his perceived redemption through a national newspaper.
Therefore, it is the persona’s ability to appeal to the reader’s emotion (pathos) with a story that has a moralising effect (ethos) in a manner that is credibly and reasonably acceptable (logos) that we are convinced of his having turned a new leaf for the better. It is no fiction that the writer of these books was an armed gangster but it is no fiction either that he has long redeemed his character and engaged in the more lawful fruitful task of imparting moralising lessons to the society through writing about his life in and after crime. As a result, I consider this particular text an autobiographical memento of the writer’s journey from a convicted criminal to a redeemed individual. Find a study of his work here: http://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10539/5597/Musangi,%20J.%20B..pdf?sequence=1-accessdate=21