The clank of the shutting gates behind me reminded me where I was. I was now one of them; the women in tattered clothing who dotted the compound.
How did I end up here surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire? The three-month-old squirming bundle in my arms looked up at me, completely oblivious of our surroundings, or the inner storm that raged within her mother.
My daughter was spending her early days on earth with me in prison; and that, more than anything, broke my heart. Women in tattered uniform dotted the compound. And besides an awful stench, the air stunk of desperation. Beyond those gates, I had been a prolific career banker, a respectable woman.
Now, I was a disgraced woman, accused of a heinous crime. They said I had stolen Sh10 million. And I was afraid; very afraid that their accusations would stick. Well, they actually had. The judge had found me guilty.
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I worried that I wouldn’t find my way out. That this was my forever home. I had battled my accusers in court for two and half years, but that had gotten me a one-year jail term. Would I be the same woman when the year crawled to an end? Would I survive it? Those were the thoughts that kept me awake that first night behind bars.
My name is Teresa Njoroge, and I will tell you how we got here.
I was maliciously prosecuted. I say this because the arresting officer, on the day of my arrest, told me that he knew that I was innocent. He knew that I had not committed the crimes he was charging me with. I had been handpicked to take the fall on behalf of the bank for which I worked. There were six of us who had to sign off on the transfer of the money.
My boss at my bank had to sign off, and there were people on the other side who had to sign off too. But I was the only one who was arrested. This was in 2009. The arresting officer asked for a bribe to make the case go away. But I always say that when you know your values, it’s easy to make a decision. I wasn’t going to bribe anyone. And that is how I ended up at Langata Women’s Prison.
I grieved more for my little girl. Prison is not a conducive environment for children to grow in – the language used in there is vulgar for young minds. There is no colour in prison. There is no love. Prisoners wear uniforms, so when the child comes out into the normal world, they want to go back because they have grown up knowing only the colours worn in prison.
But my beautiful baby is 10 now. She may not have memories of her prison stay, but often she will be reminded by her classmates that her first year was spent there. The children have heard stories about her mother. Her younger brother will sometimes innocently ask her what prison-life was like. But I counsel her, and we talk about it. I will not let that define her. A child doesn’t need to carry crosses that don’t belong to her.
I came out of prison a different woman. I lost friends. They didn’t want to be associated with someone thought to be a criminal. They didn’t understand that I had been wrongfully accused. My parents and siblings weren’t spared either. Their daughter and sister was an ex-convict. It was fodder for juicy gossip. A fellow inmate serving a five-year prison sentence committed suicide once she left prison. I can see how the stigma got to her. Because I also became suicidal. After prison, I was jobless. But I had a duty to provide for my daughter, yet I couldn’t find a job. No one wanted to hire me. This is despite the fact that in 2013, I was cleared of all wrongdoing in the bank fraud case.
I started losing hope. But even in moments of darkness, I have learnt to watch out for the sliver of light. And one such moment was the realisation that I needed to do better for men and women like me. Because no one else would. No one was giving people like me a second chance. But I had to provide that. No one was going to do it for me or them. And that is how Clean Start was born.
It was an uphill task. No one was ready to invest in the ideas of an ex-convict. But we had to put in relentless work to get opportunities just to speak about Clean Start. I did a lot of storytelling; telling my story to make would-be Clean Start partners understand that, just like them, I used to work but because of the injustice within our criminal justice system, I ended up in prison. I wanted to make them understand that anyone could end up in prison. I succeeded.
Today we are a team of 17 women. We work with women in different counties, not just in Nairobi. We aim to create circles of healing; safe spaces that bring the women together. They prepare ex-convicts to achieve self-reconciliation and accept the curve balls that life has thrown at them. We build their self-drive, determination, resilience, confidence, and self-esteem.
Once they graduate from the circle of healing, they move to the table of support where they get life skills, entrepreneurship training at trade or craft training. Then they are linked to business opportunities that will enable them to access economic opportunities. We then offer graduates Sh15,000 to start a business. This year alone, 42 women have set up businesses.
I know that we are remembered for what we stand for. I stand for diversity and equality, especially when it comes to matters women, girls and children. What do you stand for?