MY STORY: From corner office to behind bars

Saturday February 16 2019

Teresa Njoroge fights for prison reforms through her organisation. PHOTO| FRANCIS NDERITU

Teresa Njoroge fights for prison reforms through her organisation. PHOTO| FRANCIS NDERITU 

LILYS NJERU
By LILYS NJERU
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As a 29-year-old bank manager, Teresa Njoroge had it all. Little did she know that a client would alter the course of her life.

She was jailed over the loss of Sh9.9 million but she was eventually vindicated. She now runs a social enterprise that seeks to restore the dignity of ex-convicts.

She shares her story with Lilys Njeru.

“It was an ordinary day in the banking hall. I was serving customers and preparing reports when police officers walked in and asked to see me.

My first subconscious thought was that, finally, I was coming close to closure, but little did I know that it was the beginning of a treacherous road I had never imagined of,” says Teresa Njoroge, a mother of two.

About seven months prior to that day while working for a different bank, Teresa had handled a fraudulent transaction unknowingly, but got cleared of the same.

She thought the officers were there to inform her that they had got to the bottom of the case, and the culprits had been found.

CAREER BANKER

“I was a career banker. I had worked with several international banks in Nairobi and within a decade, I had risen to a senior management position.

When I handled the transaction that would flip my life, I was 29, a section manager.

“One day, a customer who had an account with the bank walked in and purported to have an ongoing construction site near our branch.

“He required to withdraw Sh9.9 million from his account, which was effected on two particular Saturdays and paid partly in cash, cheque and RTGS transfer.

It wasn’t odd to receive such requests from high-end clientele and we followed the regular procedure before making the payments, which include confirming with his main bank and having him sign the necessary documents.

A few weeks after the transactions were done, another person claiming to be the account holder went to his branch and requested for his balance upon which he enquired about the withdrawn money. According to him, he hadn’t made or authorised any withdrawals.

“The investigations started and my department produced all that was required to show that there was no anomaly from our end about how we carried out the transactions.

Then, strange things started happening; the CCTV footage couldn’t be accessed and some of the employees were laid off.

“At that point, I knew I would either get fired or remain stagnated in my department so when an opportunity to work with another bank came up, I took up the chance.

I, however, engaged my superiors on the way forward in light of what had happened and the fact that the investigation report hadn’t been shared with us.

They gave me certificates of service and clearance. I also explained everything to my new employer about the matter, and got cleared as well.

THE CHARGES

“The police said I had committed fraud and needed to promptly accompany them to the Banking Fraud Investigations Unit.

Later in the evening, I was taken to Kileleshwa police station and to court the following morning.

As the charges in the indictment were being read, I was a total zombie.

It was hard to believe that I was being accused of three counts of theft and one of conspiring to defraud the bank. My parents were also in disbelief.

I didn’t have the Sh1 million required as cash bail and was thus remanded at Lang’ata Women Maximum Prison as my family looked for the money.

They got me a lawyer, who was able to haggle for the reduction of my bail to Sh500,000. Within a couple of days, I was released.

The toughest thing was reading myself in newspapers. I keep revisiting the articles because 10 years later, I sometimes find it dreamlike. I got hundreds of calls from acquaintances, customers and lost tens of friends in the process. I lost my job too.

Thinking back, I don’t know if I could have made it without my family’s support. My savings plummeted as I had to pay for the lawyer’s fees and meet my living expenses.

RAY OF LIGHT

While all this was happening, a ray of light struck and I met my husband, who remained unfazed by what was being said and written about me.

After two and half years of going to court for hearings, we honestly thought that I would be cleared because there was no evidence that could link me to the counts of crime.

By then, I had become a mother to a girl, whom I named Uma, which means truth in my dialect. She was three months old when I appeared in court for judgement in 2011.

A few days to the judgement day, I was asked to pay Sh5 million, which I didn’t have. Furthermore, I knew I would be exonerated.

We remained still as the judgement was being read and I still recall how things changed in an instant.

The moment I was sentenced to a year in jail for conspiring to defraud the bank, I was quickly shoved while still holding my daughter and taken to a waiting cell, and later to a bus - Lang’ata Women Prison was the journey’s end.

“It was traumatising wearing the prison uniform, Kunguru as we called them and seeing the place my daughter would call home for one year shattered me.

DIGNITY

“In the first few weeks, I hated the food and the fact that there was no privacy. But within three months, I was enjoying the food and dressing in the eyes of all.

At the prison, your dignity and esteem go, it tears you apart.

As I engaged my prison mates, it was shocking to know that most were in for petty crimes or failing to raise bail of as little as Sh10,000.

Some women didn’t have people visiting them or even have a glimpse idea on the whereabouts of their children.

To those women, legal representation was a luxury, too expensive to afford.

“As a result of my good behaviour, I got remission and only served for eight months.

Two and a half years later, I got cleared and vindicated.

“However, being an ex-convict, I couldn’t find a job. The stigmatisation was real. By the time you are coming out, people have written you off. It is worse than the prison itself.

The desperate plight of women and girls I met at Lang’ata and the revolving cycle of imprisonment and poverty fostered me to start Clean Start in 2015, a social enterprise that seeks to restore the dignity of women, girls and children who get caught in the revolving cycle of poverty, survival crimes and imprisonment.

Together with my partner Joss Carruthers and a team of 16 staff, we equip women with life skills, training on employment and Spear, an attitude and behavioural programme.

We also train the officers and teachers who run these institutions and work with schools, corporates, families and society as a whole.

Often, we take them basic needs such as sanitary towels.

We wish to bring systematic change and we know that the journey to integration cannot be walked alone.

If you ask me, there’s much to detest about the prison life, but there’s also much to learn.

For instance, we take matters to do with leadership and corruption very lightly. In addition, we underestimate our strengths and have false fears, but we can actually handle tough situations, Lang’ata taught me.

 

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