She wanted to be an air hostess, and you can tell: Imposing, vivacious, soft-spoken, hair cropped close to her scalp.
She wields a motherly mien but can chill at a glance, especially when dispensing her duties as the Assistant Commissioner of Prisons.
Wanini Kireri is a role model for women. “Leadership entails improving everyday and learning every chance you get,” she told TV47 Digital in an interview.
And leading, improving, and learning she has in a career that spans nearly 40 years. Interestingly, working in the corrections facilities was least of her dreams while growing up in Othaya, Nyeri county.
Her father occasionally took her and her siblings to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, to admire planes taking off and landing. These visits mused in little Wanini a desire to become an air hostess.
The dream was steeled at Kenya High School, where she underwent her ‘O’ and ‘A’- levels. But her father pulled the air-hostess rug from under her feet, and steered Wanini towards a career in Prisons. In December, 1982, she joined the Kenya Prisons Staff Training College (PSTC) as a cadet trainee. It marked the beginning of a very rewarding career.
After training, she was attached to Langata Women’s Prison where she sprinted through the ranks to become the officer-in-charge at the tender age of 25.
The public got to see the “humane” side of prison through the much-publicised Lang’ata Women’s Prison beauty pageants. That was Wanini’s idea.
“When I came up with the beauty pageants, I used to tell the inmates that you’re still a woman and you shouldn’t allow your confidence to erode because you are in prison,” she says.
Wainini has served in many prisons across the country. After Lang’ata, she was transferred to Embu prisons. Initially, the transfer didn’t sit well with her.
“As someone who’d stayed in Nairobi for all those years I couldn’t imagine they were taking me upcountry. It’s funny how the places where you don’t want to go are the ones you stay the longest. I stayed there for nine years,” she says.
She describes her biggest challenge in her term of service as when she was posted to Shimo La Tewa Prison to be in charge of men. “It was so shocking, the prison was crowded, and it had a staunch smell. The smell stuck in my head for a long time,” she recalls. The inmates and even officers resisted her leadership.
She nearly gave up the first six months. “But, do you want to go down in history as someone who gave up?” she poses.
She kept pushing and taking a day at a time until eventually the male colleagues started embracing her leadership style. She says it took her acting motherly, for them to be convinced that she meant well.
Wanini eventually became the first ever woman commandant of prisons in 2018. When Covid-19 struck in 2020, she found herself between a rock and a hard place. She made one of the toughest choices she’s ever been required to make: declaring a total lock-down in PSTC in Ruiru, Kiambu county. This meant that staff, their spouses and children could not leave the compound. It didn’t sit well with some people but eventually she says, they saw the importance of the lockdown.
Besides the beauty pageants, Wanini was the first prison officer to open up prisons to the media and stakeholders.
The strides she’s making towards gender equality in her tenure as the PSTC commandant are notable. In the last prison recruitment, they recruited the largest number of female prison constables in history.
She has won more than 10 awards in the course of her career, one of those awards being the Public Servant of the Year Award in 2015 which was a huge win for her. Last year, she also won the Prison’s department State commendation for her excellent service.
She told TV47 Digital that her main focus right now is on her retirement plans and the legacy she’ll leave as she inspires the young generation. She talked about her son proudly, saying that she was almost becoming a grandmother.