Wanini Kireri, the then Senior Superintendent of Prison at the Shimo La Tewa Maximum Security Prison in Mombasa had no fuss of who had visited the facility back in 2009. A man dressed in a flannel grey coat and a white T-shirt had stepped foot into the facility and was ushered in to meet her.
She took him around the prison that houses over 2,400 inmates and later bid him goodbye. The next day, she received numerous congratulatory messages and calls with people hailing her for hosting one of the biggest names in Hollywood.
“All I knew was he was Nicolas Cage, the UN Goodwill Ambassador on Drugs and Crime. He had come to see the transformation that was in the prison,” says Wanini, now a Senior Assistant Commissioner General of Prisons and the first female commandant of Prison Staff Training College in Kenya.
Hollywood movie star actor Nicholas Cage, left, who is also the United Nations Goodwill ambassador on Drugs and Crime laughs with Wanini Kireri , the officer in charge of the Shimo la Tewa GK Prison, Mombasa, Kenya, after visiting the prison November 18 2019.
The Dickson Press
Had she been a movie person she says she would have know who Nicolas Cage was in the industry. ” I was not into movies I didn’t know and it never crossed my mind that he was a movie star” she added.
How she spent over an hour with a Hollywood legend and never made a fuss about it sounds incredible. That’s the modesty that defines the most decorated Kenyan prison female officer.
It is this steel and tenacity that propelled a junior prisoner officer employed in the 1980s to become a reform champion in Kenya’s correctional facilities. In a strange coincidence, her second name is allegorical. Kireri implies ‘a big nurturer.’
Former Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga acknowledges the restorative work that she has done in the prison department in the foreward of her memoir ‘Disruptor’. Part of it reads
“To others, Wanini is the Florence Nightgale of Kenya’s prison system.”
Wanini Kireri has played a major role in mending the prison’s tattered image over the years. She has been a dreamer who believed she could impact positive change in the Prison service. She has demystified what Ngugi Wa Thiongo once talked about on prison life in ‘The Devil On The Cross.’
She narrates her initial role when she first got to the at Shimo la Tewa prison. All she was tasked to do was to enforce general cleanliness. Institutional and personal cleanliness according to her was the only lee-way to a healthy stay for inmates in prisons. This was met with a lot of backlash but she persevered.
“Sometimes the resistance was so much that I would feel like quitting but you can’t get to the mountain top if you do,” she says.
Wanini Kireri (centre) dances with female prisoners celebrating their imminent release on October 6 2014.
Kireri is the one who introduced beauty pageants, modeling, drama, music, open-days, prayer programs, computer classes and games at the facility in prisons. Her efforts were meant to bolster the self-esteem of women inmates and restore their pride.
Wanini Kirerei has bagged a number of awards at both at the national and international levels. In 2015 she was awarded the Public Servant of the Year Award which was followed by the coveted 2019 Outstanding Correctional Service Employee Award in Argentina.
She has learnt that humility takes people far. If Nicolas Cage could come to Kenya without all that hype, It is better to stay calm and work no matter who you are or who you have met.