Sandra Ochola: the editor of the president’s speech


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Sandra Ochola: the editor of the president’s speech


Sandra Ochola, Deputy Director, Speech Research and Writing, Presidential Strategic Communication Unit (PSCU). PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

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Summary

  • A lawyer at the High Court of Kenya with a bachelor’s and post-graduate degree in law, she also holds a master’s degree in international studies.
  • She is one of the leaders of the Obama Foundation in 2018 and was voted by her peers as one of the 100 Most Influential Young Africans in 2018.

Like most people now, Sandra Ochola works from home. She lives in a family of four girls and a boy. There’s his daughter, Shalom, 12, then there’s Iris, Biscuit, Poppy and finally Oreo, the only boy in this mansion. Apart from Shalom, the others are well groomed and spoiled cats.

However, Sandra is not just a cat lover; She is Deputy Director of Research and Speechwriting at the Presidential Strategic Communication Unit (PSCU) within the President’s Executive Office.

A lawyer at the High Court of Kenya with a bachelor’s and post-graduate degree in law, she also holds a master’s degree in international studies.

She is one of the leaders of the Obama Foundation in 2018 and was voted by her peers as one of the 100 Most Influential Young Africans in 2018.

The purpose of her life, she says, is “to promote a world with more knowledge, more truth and more clarity.”

She is passionate about mentoring and believes that with timely intervention “young people have the potential to improve the quality of their social, cultural, economic and political activities.” It is partly for this reason that she is the author of the book “Teens Guide to the Constitution of Kenya”.

And here she is, slender, stilted and guarded, taking her place in the terraced gardens of Aksum bar, Serena Nairobi, to chat with JACKSON BIKO.

***

How’s Oreo in a house full of girls, is he outdated?

Happy, but let me call home and ask her. I let it bask in the sun, sandwiched between the girls. [Grins] They are all so different in their personalities. Oreo and Iris are more cuddly and playful.

Poppy loves you at her pace and Biscuit doesn’t like to be worn. Cats are born near our flower beds. So we welcomed them all and it’s been a pleasure ever since. They celebrate their birthday on April 15th.

What’s the most common question people ask you when they find out you work for the president?

They ask me if I see him often. Some people want me to send him urgent messages. I must then explain that it is a public service job like any other.

So, are you going to see it?

When we’re out for work and I understand the protocols around it. So unless there’s something that brings me closer to him, I can’t say I have that access to him.

So if he saw you sitting here, would he go like, hey Sandra, how are you?

[Laughs] No, I do not think so. He wouldn’t. I didn’t have the privilege of sitting down with him one-on-one.

What notions did you have before you started working at State House that have been completely dispelled or questioned?

One is the first question you asked. [Chuckles] Then it is assumed that as a speechwriter you will have unlimited access to him, as happens in the United States, for example.

I spoke to Barack Obama’s former speechwriter and how he got to sit down with him and review the speech project bit by bit. It’s different on our side and for good reason. Bureaucracy is good in its own way. The speech I can write goes through a number of hands before it gets to the president.

I think at the end of the day it’s pride in knowing that you worked for him and that he got to read what you helped put together.

So what is the speech writing process? Do you get a brief, then sit back and bring it to life?

Well, let me say that the point of this speech is to make sure that the president’s message gets out to the public. And by that, you have to reflect his ideals and ideas as a communicator. And of course, he must be inspiring and visionary. You can also capture his aspirations, while reading the mood of the country. It is ideally a team effort.

Sometimes as a journalist you can write something, but when you see it in the journal you think, “wait a minute, what happened? They deleted my favorite sentence! ‘ Does this happen to you?

Occasionally. [Laughs] And that’s why I mentioned that the speech has to go through several hands. And it’s also the realization that you don’t have a monopoly on ideas and writing. There are some things that you forget when writing that the inner circle finds very important to be included. Therefore, they do a little editing, but not so much. I would say the little that I wrote, so I could say verbatim that they were used.

Is it very difficult to do interviews like this when your card says “The President’s Executive Office” because, well, you represent the office and the man, and what you say might reflect the office and the man. ‘man ?

It’s very hard. I used to make a lot of media appearances during political season, which of course I can’t do now because you assume you’re speaking on behalf of the president’s office. So I can’t make any media appearances. Actually, please don’t give me any problem. [Smiles]

Of course not. We will only talk about Oreo and Biscuit. What part of your life do you think needs to be developed?

My social life. [Chuckles]. Oh yes, [Sighs] I realized quite late that I was very work-oriented and looking back I got a lot of my satisfaction from what I did, where I worked. But I think over time you realize that it is important for you to be a healthy person. So I’m leaning on that. I network more, meet new friends, make more friends. I explore more, I go to new places, I meet new people, I reach out to people more. And just trying new things that used to take too much of my time.

So what are you currently struggling with as a woman?

[Pause] Confidence in mothering. I have a daughter, she is 13 years old. I got it when I was 24 and soon realized that there is no parenting manual. Coming from a strict background, I feel like I wanted to be less strict, to be her friend but as she grows up I realize that you can’t be your child’s friend all the time. You have to find a balance between being a mother and being a friend.

She tries to find her own identity and every now and then we clash and I have to take a step back. I realized that she is her own person, making her way. My child’s father passed away in 2019 and I had to fill this gap as best I could. Of course, there is no substitute for a male figure in a girl’s life and I’m glad the men in my family stepped in to provide it.

What do you fear now for yourself?

Death. [Chuckles] I am only 37 years old, there is so much that I still want to accomplish; family success, personal success, the success of my little girl, that I would not want anything that prevents me from experiencing this or contributing to that.

If you had to do something that didn’t attract any repercussions or questioning, something that you got away with, what would it be?

I was printing a lot of money. [Laughter]. And I kept it in my room and kept it on things like jewelry. I try to be a luxurious girl. [Laughs]. I would also travel a lot. I generally like beautiful things, I like comfort if that counts for luxury.

If you were to become president for 24 hours, what would you do?

[Pause) Apart from enjoying the chase cars, which I think would be very cool [laughs], I would demand 24 hours of kindness and volunteering. On this day we will be asked to do something good or noble towards someone else without expecting anything in return. I think as a society we’ve become too withdrawn that we often fail to connect when it matters.

About Cody E. Vaughn

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