Banker helps ex-prisoners get back on their feet
By Lilian Kaivilu
When Teresa Njoroge put her signature on a bank transaction at a Kenyan bank where she had worked for some years, it never occurred to her that it would land her in jail months later.
Teresa, then a bank manager, handled a fraudulent transaction unknowingly. “While serving one of the customers in January 2009, I handled a fraudulent transaction. Impostors came into the bank and instructed the bank to process a withdrawal transaction of Sh9.9m,” she says.
Although Teresa was not the one who carried out the transaction at the counter, she was among the nine signatories. The mother of one remembers: “We were all alerted about a fraudulent transaction that had taken place and informed that investigations had started.” The investigations started 14 days after the transaction.”
On January 9, 2009, Teresa was arrested at her workplace by the banking fraud investigators. “When I asked why I was being held, I was told that I would carry the cross for the other eight signatories. I was booked at the Kileleshwa police station and charged with here counts of theft and one count of conspiracy to defraud the bank,” she narrates.
Teresa immediately lost her job at the bank, after only seven years into the profession. For two years and three months, she says, she was in and out of court until March 4, 2011. “This is the day I was convicted to serve a year in prison or pay a fine of Sh2m in cash,” says Teresa.
At the time, Teresa was only two years into marriage and her child was three months. “The day I walked into Langata Women Prison with my baby, is when it occurred to me that my life would not be the same again. I could not believe that I had come from the corporate world to such a belittling situation.”
But because of good behaviour, Teresa explains that she obtained a remission and was released eight months into the sentence. “I left prison in November 4, 2011. I appealed and was cleared in February 25, 2013,” says Teresa.
Being judged and rejection, Teresa says, were common as she looked for employment immediately after her release. “While in prison, my family lost all our wealth and had to be hosted after I was released.”
But Teresa’s experience with joblessness and rejection led her to invent a new way to ensure that former convicts easily adapted to the community. Through her initiative that started as ‘Support Me in My Shoes’ in 2012, Teresa hoped to help ex-convicts by empowering them with business skills as well as linking them up with potential employers and mentors. “After serving my term in prison, I came to a gruelling experience whereby no one wanted to employ me. I became so desperate to a point that I even asked for a job in the same banking sector that I worked before. But I never succeeded,” says Teresa. All this time, she was still running the Support Me in My Shoes Initiative. “But in January 2015, I registered Clean Start as a social enterprise.
In the beginning, through Clean Start , Teresa was doing awareness on the plight of ex-convicts. This was through talks with churches and other organizations. “My main message to the people I interacted with was the need for them to accept former convicts and treat them as equal members of the society. I was trying to change the perception that the society held towards former convicts. From my own experience, it was clear that getting a job as an ex-prisoner was a challenge. People perceived me as a criminal, even after being cleared by the courts,” she said.
But her father supported her financially at the early stages of Clean Start . She worked closely with churches within Nairobi. “Whenever I shared my story in churches, people expressed interest to work with me. I also would go back to Langata Women’s Prison to encourage the inmates to be optimistic that they will be accepted in the society once they come out. But the first big group that accompanied me to the prison was a section of the Nairobi Pentecostal Church, Valley Road in 2013. For me, this was like the assurance that my mission was headed somewhere,” Teresa explains.
To date, this church, and others, has supported her organization by offering mentorship to the inmates as well as opening businesses for them. ”Through our lobbying, most of these churches have actually put our programmes as part of their outreach activities.
Currently, Teresa says, Clean Start targets mainly women although there are a few men benefitting. She says her choice to work with women was because being one, it was easier for her to identify with the issues affecting female ex-convicts. Today, Clean Start has five full-time male volunteers and four permanent female staff members. The organization also has part-time volunteers who show up during some of the major events.
According to Teresa, Clean Start acts like a bridge between the ex-convicts and potential employers. “Through partners, we are able to give capital for the former inmates to start a business or offer mentorship to enable them re-integrate back to the society. We, however, do not have permanent or long term partners at the moment.”