How filing for bankruptcy gave me the peace I needed

Meshack Owira Ogalo [ Photo: Elvis Ogina]
  • Meshack Ogalo had to declare bankruptcy after banks went for his neck over debts
  • I was tired of the cat and mouse games with debt collectors, says Ogalo
  • His downward spin starts after he lent out a hefty sum to a friend
  • The friend never repaid him, debts soared before he was arrested then released

In 2009, Meshack Owira Ogalo went to court seeking a bankruptcy order and he was granted.  He had reached the end of the road.

“I had to declare bankruptcy or the banks I owed money would never stop chasing me,” he says.

The former banker has hawked bread along Nairobi’s Tom Mboya Street to survive, loaded and unloaded boxes onto trucks in Nairobi’s industrial area and bought sleeping space in watchmen dens with a packet of fries.  

“I was tired of the cat and mouse games with debt collectors. I was hiding at friends’ houses, and those ones run out too eventually. I owed three banks millions of shillings. Filing for bankruptcy was my only salvation.”

Life was not supposed to have turned out this way. He should have been successful. It was in the cards for him, or so he thought.

His career as a banker began on a bright note in 1980. After school, he was immediately snapped up by the Ministry of Water for a clerical job.

“I then got a job with a leading bank – also doing clerical work,” he says.

He quickly rose the ranks.

It is while serving in the bank’s Kisumu branch that life took a turn.

The costly blunder

Against the bank’s policy, he had become a signatory to an account with a different bank. He in turn signed as a guarantor for a colleague who sought to open a similar account.

“We used to convert loans to cash for clients for a commission,” he says. “This was unethical but not entirely illegal. We called it ‘flying the checks’.

Unbeknownst to him, the man he guaranteed – who worked as a cashier – was planning to swindle the bank out of some money.

“And he was caught!” Owira says.

An investigation connected the dots and his colleague, perhaps in an effort to salvage his job, laid the blame entirely on him.

Long story short, he was fired. And thus began his free fall.

Being a married man with five children, he had to think fast.

Fortunately for him, his sister, who ran a small printing business in Nairobi asked him to join the firm.  

Not long after, his sister left for USA and he took over running the business.

“I worked so hard  and soon enough, we started printing and selling exercise books. I would also source for tenders and make quite a tidy sum.”

It wasn’t all smooth though.

“I also made loses. One time, I lost a truck full of books. Another time, the schools stopped buying books after the Government started funding them.”

But somehow the business survived and was even making good profits.

Lending a friend some money

Owira got an idea to expand. He approached a bank for a loan. A former colleague and his friend was now a bank manager there.

“I got the money and bought a state-of-the-art printing machine covering 400 square feet,” he says.

The same friendship he rode on to get the loan would cost him his business barely a year later.

“The manager visited me at my offices in Kisumu with a friend in tow. He said he had given his friend a loan but now his friend couldn’t payback. His job was on the line as a result. He needed me to write him a check of Sh650, 000, on top of giving him Sh100,000 to clear his car at the port of Mombasa.”

The bank manager and his friend had promised to pay back within two days and so Owira wrote the checks.

Two days turned into a week then a month then a year. It has been 12 years now and he is yet to see a sign of his money back.

The money he gave his friend robbed his company of the ability to actualise tenders. He lost business to competition. Eventually he couldn’t print even a single exercise book.

“The bank however, still needed me to continue paying the loan,” Owira recalls with nostalgia.

The debt collectors

Auctioneers were sent. Other people he owed money also began swarming in. He was arrested, and then released. All the while his staff team of about 40 needed salary arrears cleared.

It all proved to be too much for Owira who decided to head to Turkana to visit a nephew. He wanted time to think up a strategy.

“What else could I do?” Owira asks. “It was either that or suicide: and I was not ready for suicide. And that is when bankruptcy idea came up.”

His wife, who was then running small businesses, took up the mantle to feed the family while he picked up the pieces of his life.

“My bankruptcy status is still in force and I will need to change it through the courts to ever run a business again in my name.  But I know one day I will go back to being Kisumu’s number one printer,” he says.

 For a start he is currently helping his son set up a printing business.  Owira is already visiting schools for book printing tenders.

“My children are all adults now and are learned. I thank my brother for his great help. The future definitely looks brighter,” he says.

And has he gotten his money back from his friend?

“Not long ago, I met the man I wrote the Sh750, 000 cheque and asked him if he was still planning to pay me back. ‘What loan have you ever given me? Where is the agreement I signed?’ he retorted.  But I have learnt that forgiveness is a cure. It lightens the mind and calms the heart,” he says.