Everyone deserves a second chance to try get their life in order and make things right. Teresa Wanjiku Njoroge knows too well the value of freedom and getting a second chance. She was wrongfully convicted of a crime she did not commit but was later acquitted after serving her full sentence. She was able to shake off the bitterness and is now helping ex-convicts to walk the thin line between rehabilitation and recidivism. She narrates her ordeal to WANGARI MWANGI.

Teresa Wanjiku Njoroge’s face beams up with excitement when she talks about her initiative – Support Me In My Shoes (SMIMS). She has been running this outfit since 2014. She says SMIMS inspires, empowers, and equips ex-inmates, as well as youth and women from very poor backgrounds by providing them with necessities to meet their legitimate basic needs.

The initiative also offers entrepreneurship training programmes in basic business management skills and will soon offer start-up capital to enable ex-inmates run sustainable businesses.

“One of my main focus has been to create awareness of the status of our prisons, the effects of imprisonment and the re-integration of ex-inmates into society,” she says.

The first born in a family of five, Teresa was born 36 years ago. Growing up, she greatly admired her father who was a banker. She made a resolve while in standard four to follow in her father’s career path. She stuck to her banking ambition through high school and found a great mentor in her class teacher at Ngara Girls High School, Mrs. Naomi Kimani.

“She was a great resource who helped me secure a full scholarship at Pune University in India to study for a Bachelor of Commerce degree. I graduated top of my class with a major in banking and commerce at the end of my three-year stay in India,” says Teresa.

Upon her return to Kenya in 2000, she secured a sales representative job in the tourism and hospitality industry where she worked for one-and -a -half years and then moved to the banking industry. “I was employed as a customer service representative at a local bank, a position I held for slightly over three years before being promoted to a supervisor in the bank’s service centre. My work entailed delivery of integrated banking services to customers,” recalls Teresa.

From bloom to gloom

Teresa’s job was well paying and this allowed her to educate her siblings and support her parents. She later moved to an international bank with a branch in Nairobi in a similar position but with better terms. Her new role was more exciting as it exposed her to a new set of high-end clients. She was still learning the ropes in her new job when, in 2008, a transaction handled by her and several other of her colleagues went sour.

“An imposter claiming to be the real account holder from a different branch came to our bank and made a transaction. Two weeks later, the genuine account holder showed up at his branch and noticed that some money was missing from his account,” says Teresa.

Although it was not directly under her list of customers, being caught in the web of those who handled the transaction meant that she had to defend her innocence. “We handled the transaction in a normal manner because there was nothing suspicious. The only difference was that the imposter showed up in a different branch from that of the actual client. This necessitated our branch to ask and receive instructions from his branch to authorise the withdrawal,” she says.

Due to the colossal amount of money involved, internal investigations by the bank commenced to identify the suspect behind the fraud. Teresa and her colleagues spent many hours recording statements or answering questions to the team of investigators. It was in the midst of this storm that another international bank offered her a job with even better terms. Teresa says that despite informing them of the investigations that were going on at her current job, they still hired her.

“The findings of the month long internal investigations were not released and the issue seemed to have died. My employer even cleared me upon my resignation me and gave me blessings to move on,” she says adding that she was convinced that the matter had been resolved.

The events of January 7, 2009 are still fresh in Teresa’s mind. Her newfound peace at her new bank was disrupted. “It was mid-morning. A man and a woman approached my desk. One of them was a Chief Inspector from the criminal investigation department while the other was from the banking fraud unit. They told me they were arresting me for conspiring to defraud my previous employer and I spent  the whole day being quizzed at their offices and later they escorted me to Kilimani Police Station where I spent the night in custody. I was arraigned in court the following morning to take a plea,” she narrates the ordeal.

Teresa’s family was not able to immediately raise the Kshs. 500,000 cash bail granted by the court to secure her release from remand. “The media had turned all its attention on me, instantly tarnishing my image. Everything had caught us flat footed. One of my uncles was able to bail me out albeit with assistance from other relatives,” recalls Teresa.

Challanges

Her first major challenge was getting a lawyer to defend her as the court proceedings were supposed to commence immediately. The next big challenge for her and her family was sourcing for funds to finance the court process. “As the case went on, it dawned on me that I was the only one charged with the fraud and the other 11 former colleagues were going to testify against me in court,” she says.

Her employer relieved her of her duties in 2009 with a promise of taking her back once she cleared her name. In the midst of her stormy life, she found a friend in Benjamin Njoroge who not only remained by her side, but also went ahead to marry her despite her ruined reputation. “We met in 2009 before my trial began. A relationship was the last thing on my mind. Benjamin supported me throughout my trial, showing up in court for all the hearings without fail. He also believed in me, which was very important. So when he proposed marriage, I readily accepted,” says Teresa.

The ruling of her case was made on March 4, 2011 and by then, Teresa was mother to a two-month-old daughter. She believed the court would find her innocent, but this was not to be. The judge found her guilty of conspiring to defraud and sentenced her to one year in prison or a fine of two million shillings.

“I felt my dignity ripped off right in front of my eyes. I was so shocked and remained numb as the news sunk in. My family had spent all their financial resources on the case leaving me with no choice but to head to prison for one year,” she says.

Her sentence began the same day at Lang’ata Women’s Prison. She was locked up with her daughter, as she was still very young to be left under the care of her family. From the onset, the unwelcoming and lonely life of confinement helped her appreciate the value of freedom.

“I had limited time of interaction with my family whom I only came into contact with during visiting hours. I lost touch with the outside world. The food was also not very good for a nursing mother but at least the facility went out of its way to take care of women with children,” says Teresa.

Her legal team successfully appealed the ruling and she was acquitted of any wrong doing in 2013 after she had already served her full sentence. Teresa says being declared innocent by the court was enough consolation for her and her family, though it didn’t take away the pain of spending part of her life incarcerated for a crime she didn’t commit.

Supporting others in their shoes

The idea to set up SMIMS was born after observing the desperation of some of her fellow inmates who had been abandoned by their families. She considers herself lucky to have a supportive family who never abandoned her.

“Some inmates did not have anyone to bring them basic necessities like soap, tissue, toothpaste, sanitary towels, body lotions, or even a Bible and other inspirational literature,” says Teresa.

After her release from prison in 2012, Teresa went back home to begin the healing process from the psychological trauma she underwent in prison. From her experience of suffering stigma as an ex-convict, Teresa now seeks to challenge society to accept reformed prisoners. Her network currently has 15 ex-inmates. They have made their impact felt in Lang’ata, Thika and Machakos women’s prisons and she is hoping to spread her message of hope to other prisons in Kenya.

“Everybody deserves a second chance in life. Some of the people in prison are wrongfully imprisoned while others become reformed and wish to start life afresh. Accepting them back in society is the least one can do,” notes Teresa.

Published in January 2015