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Flashy banker now living among Buddhist monks

BUSINESS
By Wainaina Wambu | Jan 16th 2022 | 9 min read
By Wainaina Wambu | January 16th 2022
BUSINESS

From billions to zero: Trade Bank founder Alnoor Kassam founder.

He was a shrewd businessman gifted in the art of the deal and accustomed to the finer things in life.

However, life in the fast lane for Alnoor Kassam changed three-and-a-half years ago when he arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, broke, with only a travel bag to pursue a spiritual life among Buddhist monks.

It’s hard to picture that his net worth once surpassed Sh7 billion. Now, bereft of material possessions and making do with only the basic needs, he’s no longer the flashy billionaire Kenyans knew.
Kassam acknowledges that he’s the poorest that he’s ever been in his 65 years on earth.

But he’s quick to point out that he has no regrets and that his new life has also made him the happiest man on the planet.

“I came with this one black bag from Canada. Now, I have a few more bags. These are my books. I have a nice bamboo bed,” he tilts his phone’s camera to show this writer what is now his modest abode.

“I have a very simple home; I live right near the monastery.”

Kassam was the brains behind Trade Bank, one of Kenya’s most innovative banks that collapsed in the early 90s, and also ran about 30 businesses including high-class hotels in Canada, his adopted home after fleeing Kenya 28 years ago. 

He now spends his days meditating, learning Tibetan and Sanskrit – one of the world’s oldest and most sacred languages – and seeking Buddha.

In the early 90s, he lost his multi-billion business empire in Kenya in controversial circumstances. He fled to Canada where his business genius thrived again, and he dabbled in prime real estate and other deals. He even spent $2 million to unsuccessfully run for mayor of his adopted city of Calgary.

Once able to ferret out multi-billion deals in multiple continents, Kassam has since adjusted to a quiet life free from the vagaries of moneymaking – betrayal, greed and backstabbing – that marked his deal-making days

Even with his cup running over with millions of dollars, he recalls feeling empty and dissatisfied with the jet-setting and luxurious lifestyle that many envy.

“It did not leave me empty while I was trying to get it. Once, I got it after some time I felt empty. Trade Bank Centre, a Rolex watch, a wife, children, travelling on Concorde, staying at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, meeting famous people,” he says.

But death weighs heavily on Kassam’s mind. And it is a topic that recurs often in conversations with this writer. 

“I am in Nepal and ended up here because I spent a lot of my time thinking and contemplating about death and how I want to die and what happens to us when we die.

“Name, fame, fortune, family, relationships are all very temporary and deceiving.”

In the mid-2000s, Kassam was facing financial problems. He had made $18 million Canadian dollars (Sh1.6 billion in current exchange rates) after the sale of his hotel in Calgary, Canada and lost a lot of it in litigation and business, he says in his unreleased book that is part memoir and self-help book to business leaders facing a crisis.

This was also a period when he deeply questioned the meaning of life and his purpose on earth.

“I had no business, I lost all my money, I’d given all my money to somebody for safekeeping and it got stolen somehow … it’s a long story,” he said in response to a question on his current financial position. 

Kassam’s journey to Nepal and gravitation towards Buddhism was a philosophical quest and spiritual journey anchored by a belief that there’s more to life than business, family, relationships and making money.

“There are other people who’ve managed to answer this question. So I was looking for a teacher. So I said that if Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha were alive, I would travel far and wide to sit at their feet.”

He talks about doing many “silent retreats” known as Vipassana.

Raised in the Ismaili Muslim faith, Kassam attended secular schools in Nairobi and says he’s studied Christianity. And he still studies Christian doctrines as part of his spiritual nourishment.

What was so appealing about Buddhism? 

One of the world’s major religions, Buddhists believe that human life is one of suffering and that meditation, spiritual and physical work and living right are the ways to achieve Nirvana – enlightenment. 

Buddhism is primarily based on the teachings and philosophy of one man – the Buddha.

Siddhartha Gautama, a wealthy and sheltered prince, was greatly affected by discovering harsher realities such as sickness, old age and death.

He left home at 29 years and after lengthy meditation and was the first to reach this state of enlightenment and is known as the Buddha.

The Buddha was also captivated by seeking life’s big questions.

Kassam says that Buddhism has helped answer the many life-long questions he’s battled with, that in this life, he’ll be judged by his words and actions.

“It (Buddhism) makes sense to me because the Christian and Muslim concept of heaven and hell and having a bookkeeper out there keeping the score is difficult to understand.”

“So this is a closer thing to my rational mind and I’ve met many people here who live their life with values that are different from what I grew up with so I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life,” he said.

But has he abandoned Ismaili, the faith he was born in? He says no and “appreciates the Aga Khan even more now.”

He insists he’s not a monk.

“Buddhism is not a religion actually; it’s more about how the mind works. I think I’m still an Ismaili, and I appreciate the Aga Khan even more now than I did before. I appreciate the community more than before.”

The Ismaili Muslims, a community living in almost 30 countries, are renowned for their business acumen and their spiritual leader is His Highness the Aga Khan.

A significant population of the community lives in Kenya controlling key sectors of the economy including media, health, education, insurance and the financial services sector.

Kassam lives near the Himalayas in a “small apartment” along with others who’ve travelled from other countries to imbibe on the ancient wisdom of the monks.

Typically, the life of a monk is marked by detachment from excesses and materialism. Time is mostly devoted to living in the Himalayan monasteries. The monks dress modestly in red robes and are sustained by a simple diet of bread, vegetables and water.

Kassam’s unpublished memoirs are quite revealing on his journey to Buddhist Monasticism.

It was a time when he’d hit rock bottom and was battling suicidal thoughts.

“I had taken personal growth courses for years. I had visited numerous therapists, attended meditation courses, tried to connect with a supposed god, and had life coaches. I tried antidepressants, but they made me feel worse. I was feeling suicidal.”

It was at this point that he’d decided to return to Kenya to face the ghosts he’d run away from.

“After a week there, I was still alive, and I was still feeling the same way. I went to a therapist and told him that I was ready to kill myself and wanted him to help me through the emotional journey of doing so.

“After two weeks, I decided to postpone my decision to end it all and, instead, perhaps become a monk and see if I could levitate and reach another state so that I wouldn’t have to kill myself after all.”

Again, he tells The Sunday Standard that in his new life, he’s the happiest he’s ever been and has found peace.

The unpublished book targets those undergoing life’s turmoils including divorce, adultery or even sexual molestation.

At first, he was assisting the university with strategy and coaching. It was at this time that he embarked on studying the 37 practices of Bodhisattvas, one of the principle Buddhist texts that even the Dalai Lama recommends. This began the transformation on how to live his life.

He accompanied his teacher on travels to New York, Mexico City and San Francisco and also went to India for pilgrimages.

Kassam was a pioneer in the financial services sector and even ran the local franchise of Diners Club International.

He says he can’t remember much or perhaps doesn’t want to as he is repelled when asked to list his proudest moments.

“I don’t know. It happened so long ago ... so much has happened.”

Trade Bank had established itself as one of the most innovative and visionary local financial institutions.

It fashioned itself to attract small depositors and required only an identity card and a passport-size photo to open an account.

Kassam is swift to castigate himself.

“I’m not proud of myself; I’m ashamed of myself and should have never left. I still feel very sad about it.”

“It’s easy to blame everybody else; I have to take responsibility for myself .... I can only talk about myself. I had no values, I was not centred,” he reflected on his past.

Back then, he was different, rotten and largely morally deficient. 

“I realised I carry my own cross and I have to accept what I did was wrong and confess to it and if I feel remorse that’s my cross to bear,” he added.

And it’s a cross that he bears. When the bank fell, depositors lost billions. Account-holders would make a beeline for their deposits resulting in bitter exchanges with bank tellers.

He recalls that once in Toronto, Canada while visiting one of his former business associates, a woman identified him.

“So you are the Alnoor Kassam, the guy behind Trade Bank?” the lady asked.

She was very upset over the bank’s saga.

“My maid had money deposited at Trade Bank when it went down,” the woman said.

His ex-partners thought that the encounter would irk Kassam or he’d make excuses about it, but they were wrong.

“I told her you are absolutely right. It’s entirely my fault and I take full responsibility and I am very sorry and she was also shocked.”

He had long stopped blaming others.

“Many bad things happened but I didn’t have to follow the ship and jump over the cliff,” said Kassam.

But is there anything that he’s proud of?

“I’m proud that I take responsibility of all the s**t that I’ve done in my life. I’m proud that I’m trying to do the right things now.”

He’s also not proud of the bribes he paid to top government officials to protect his business empire.

He says that he’s now “centred” and remorseful of the things he’s done. “I am hopeful about my future that I will live the next 20 years and live with the values that I’m generating now.”

What next for you? I asked.

This is an alarming question for him. A deep sigh, then an answer.

“I could be dead by tomorrow morning, why worry about what’s next?  

Will he use his money-making gift again? He brushes this off.

“I have a little bit of money in my account like $30,000 but somehow I survive.”

He reckons that he can collect a pension from Canada but hasn’t. However, Nepal is quite a cheap country to live in.

He’s adamant that the articles shouldn’t be about him.

“If you can make the story about Kenya and how things operated and what has changed and what hasn’t changed–how you’d like to see Kenya and humanity learn from my mistakes and the institutions and individuals who failed because we were selfish, greedy, ignorant etc ... I would be happy to participate.”

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