It was in April 2008 and a beautiful well dressed woman was at her office desk working. She swept a steady glance over the floor. Everything seemed fine. Work was progressing well, everything and everyone was in place. And so she might have relaxed a bit, kicked off her pair of high heels, sat back on the swivel chair, and possibly sipped her tea. Life was good. She was living her dream. Teresa Njoroge was a bank manager and she loved her job. Every bit of it; from the long hours to the long meetings.
However, If she had known what would transpire a few hours later, maybe she would have started her morning differently. And the free fall began with a single transaction. Just one of the millions of similar ones the bank had processed over the years. This one didn’t seem any different. A seemingly self-assured man walked into the bank branch and asked for a 3-step cash withdrawal service. He was a premier customer, and wanted his money transferred to another bank branch.
Things go awry
“Besides my authorisation of the transaction, my branch manager had to authorise it too. Plus the other branch’s manager. We all did approve, and everything was in place and in order.”
Or so they thought. Turns out the man who had initiated the transaction was not the actual owner of the account. Two weeks later, the real account holder noticed missing money from his bank account and alerted the bank. And that is when heads started rolling. The loss was approximately Sh10 million.
“It was a big puzzle because more than six bank employees had authorised the withdrawal at each stage until payment. The bank could have proven that the client withdrew the money through CCTV footage but it turned out that security did not have footage.”
An investigation commenced, where everyone who had dealt with the transfer was interrogated. People were fired, but Njoroge continued working.
“I was waiting to be fired or demoted too. But it didn’t seem to be happening,” she says.
While waiting for the other shoe to drop, she got an opportunity to work with another bank.
“I was upfront about the investigation, but they gave me the job anyway. It was a great opportunity and it felt like I had gotten a second chance in the career I loved,” she says.
In January 2009, investigators showed up and arrested her at her new work place. She was taken to court and remanded.
“It was all over the media – on newspapers and TV. With charges of theft and conspiracy to defraud a bank, my employer had to let me go,” she explains.
She got out on a Sh500,000 cash bail raised by her family and spent the next two and half years defending herself in court. The three charges of theft were dropped, but she was jailed on conspiracy charges.
The other shoe eventually dropped…
“It was the most traumatising and toughest moment of my life. I had just given birth to my daughter Umma and Lang’ata Women’s Prison was going to be our home for one year,” she says.
Not about to buckle under the pressure of it all, she slowly came to embrace the cards life had dealt her.
“While in prison, initially I was in a limbo, wondering what had happened. How could I have been brought to prison after going through a justice system? How could a so-called system of justice be so unjust? That injustice sat in my heart because I knew who I was and what had happened,” she says.
She eventually got out of the funk after about three months and decided to focus on what went on in prison.
“I noticed several things. First, that 70 per cent of the women there were not actual criminals. Secondly, I was an oddity in prison. They were poor and illiterate. Victims of a broken system. Thirdly, that society had profiled prisoners. That the people who should be in prison are the poor. We had criminalised poverty.”
Njoroge served eight months in prison, released early for good conduct. But her perspective on life had totally changed.
“After my imprisonment, the cry of women and girls yearning for an opportunity to live decently could not leave my heart,” she says.
And so she founded Clean Start, an organisation that looks for ways to empower women while they are in prison, and acts as a bridge to society. They also coach them, look for employment and business opportunities for them once they are out.
“So that when they leave, they transition either back to school or to jobs and business and make sure they do not end up back in prison because they now have a decent and sustainable livelihood,” she says.
In 2016, five years after she was jailed, the Court of Appeal vindicated her and declared that she had been wrongfully convicted. “I will never forget those words coming from Judge Fred Ochieng’. To hear him say that I had been wrongfully imprisoned, that the conviction had been unsound and that he was quashing it – it will be forever memorable,” she says. She was also compensated by the state.
She marvels at the irony of life, from not having a voice to being a speaker at TED and many other worldwide conventions. “These are things that I would never have thought of or imagined. Clearly, time changes things.”