Until a few years ago, Annrita Wanjiru avoided using her surname. The decision was as much about self-preservation and protecting her privacy as she was escaping the looming shadow of her father.
“I was ambivalent about it,” she says. “There’s a lot to it — both good and bad.”
Annrita is the daughter of author John Kiriamiti, whose life as a bank robber spawned several best-sellers in the late ’80s, notably the seminal tome, My Life in Crime — which he wrote while serving time at the Naivasha Maximum Security Prison.
His eventful life would go on to inspire several other successful books including My Life with a Criminal, Son of Fate among others.
Annrita’s ambivalence about her identity was not unfounded.
Carving one’s identity apart from that of a well-known family member, especially a parent, is something nearly all children grapple with as they come of age.
Annrita, 26, is the firstborn of Kiriamiti’s three daughters. She grew up in Murang’a Town, a place she says “everyone knows everyone else”.
Growing up she didn’t understand why everyone seemed to know her father.
“I am dad’s girl,” she told the Nation. “My father took me everywhere, from walks to shopping. People would stop us to talk to my father. It became so common that I began getting weary.”
Annrita really is her father’s daughter — she has her father’s inquiring eyes and slightly oval chin that gives her an exotic look.
She is also pin-up beautiful. And like her father, who, despite the fact that he never went past Form One and still became a prolific author, is a talented writer (she has ghost-written several online works and magazine and newspaper articles), a screen writer, actor and model.
She grew up in the company of books. “Sounds funny but when I was young, it appeared to me that we had more books than furniture!”
It was the ideal environment for her. Annrita would spend hours alone, poring over books, some way beyond her reading-age bracket, the outcome of which was an edge over her peers.
“My compositions always took top position in class,” she says. “Teachers from other schools would borrow them to read out to their students. It wasn’t a big fuss for me because writing came so naturally and effortlessly to me.”
When Annrita discovered her father’s My Life in Crime, she didn’t know what to make of it.
Her parents had covered the tracks well enough; they wanted her to know about her father’s PG-rated, seedy past at an appropriate age.
And now here she was, reading the story of a man she didn’t know. “It was an uncomfortable situation,” she says. “But we talked about it.”
The reality of her father’s life fell like a mallet on a nail head; the halo was no longer a perfect circle. “I was reading and thinking, This surely is a character and not my father,” she says.
“Other times I would recognise him in the book, the man I had known. But it was a bit jarring.”
Annrita attended Moi Girls-Eldoret for her secondary education. But in the wake of the violence that broke out after the 2007 General Election, she transferred to State House Girls High School.
Soon after enrolling she got a glimpse of her father’s renown.
“Many of the students in the upper classes were familiar with my father’s works, and soon I was thrown into the limelight,” Annrita says, laughing. “They wanted to hang out with me.”
But the notoriety came with a price. Every now and then she would discover her uniform missing from the clothesline; the thievery was the equivalent of an autograph or a collector’s item.
“I said, ‘Could I be paying for my father’s sins?” she jokes. After high school, she enrolled at Jomo Kenyatta University for a course in Information Technology.
She had reservations about the course from the beginning but chose to grind it out; all the while her mind duelling with her heart. Two years into the course, the heart won.
“I arrived at the conclusion that I was studying for the wrong course,” she explains. “I wanted to be in media and the creative arts.”
And so after two years of college, she picked her bag and left. It was a decision that might have caused friction with her family, but luckily didn’t.
Her parents, while initially disappointed with her decision encouraged her to go for what she loved.
Annrita began looking for opportunities in acting and theatre.
At first she included her surname while auditioning for a role, but soon realised that anytime she mentioned Kiriamiti, the panel would do a double take; she was no longer Annrita but Kiriamiti’s daughter.
The name was twinkly a blessing and a burden. “I didn’t want to slip in on the back of my father; I wanted to be taken in on merit.”
Annrita won a role in the Web series, Because Love and the film, Sumu la Penzi. The roles have galvanised her resolve to reach the plateau in the movie/TV world.
She has also featured in corporate ads. Until last year she was working as a marketing executive at 254, the events company owned by musician and self-styled Hypeman DNG.
Currently, she’s developing a blog that will tackle various issues affecting society, especially girls.
“I am deliberate about being a role model for young women and girls,” she says.
“The media, especially the social networks, are awash with negative images of what greatness is. We need people to say that one doesn’t have to chase stardom or be a ‘slay queen’; that you can work your way up and still be decent.”
She already has a platform. “My father travels to schools to talk to students about the consequences of choice, and how to avoid being entrapped,” Annrita says.
“This year I want to accompany him. I have a message. You know I am the firstborn in my family; I want to be a big sister to girls as they come of age.”
Annrita is finally at peace with her identity as a Kiriamiti. There is no shadow to duck out from; no embarrassment in accepting the bad that happened. She is free.