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Former Duke student Julie Wangombe writes speeches for Kenyan president-elect

President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory speech represented not only the beginning of a new era for the nation, but also for former Duke student Julie Wangombe, the appointed speechwriter.

At 22 years old, Wangombe has made her entrance into Kenya’s political scene after being discovered as a spoken word artist. The former Duke student took a leave of absence in 2010 at the end of her sophomore year due to an illness and returned to her home in Nairobi, Kenya to spend time with her family. While in Kenya, she was recruited to work on Kenyatta’s campaign and never returned to Duke. Wangombe wrote the victory speech Kenyatta delivered March 9, following the March 4 election.

“I was just pre-occupied for the most part—mouthing words along with him and thinking about the teleprompter,” Wangombe wrote in an email Tuesday. “Every so often, though, I would get really happy and just start grinning. I’d think ‘Wow—this is history being made, and he’s the president.’ I thank God I was there.”

Despite her lack of experience in speechwriting, she is not new to the world of public speaking. Wangombe began to take interest in spoken word as an art form when she was 17 and participated in a number of workshops led by Imani Woomera, a singer, songwriter and spoken word poet.

Several of Wangombe’s friends noted her penchant for singing and poetry—Wangombe showcased her talents on campus by participating in Duke Africa’s Spring Jabulani event and being part of Duke Sapphire, a Christian women’s a cappella group.

Senior Annette Kiplagat, a close friend of Wangombe, said Wangombe performed spoken word poetry at open-mic nights during her time at Duke, adding that she was an extremely talented individual.

“What’s funny about her role as a speechwriter for Uhuru Kenyatta is I remember her mentioning that she was trying her hand at this—and I quote—‘speech writing thing,’” recalled Chantae Campbell, Trinity ’12 and close friend to Wangombe. “However, true to her humble nature, Julie failed to mention for whom she was writing.”

Apart from her involvement at Duke, Wangombe’s spoken word performance “A Poetic Reintroduction to Africa” was featured in a Kenyan talent search sponsored by TED Talks, a popular series of web lectures.

Wangombe noted that her experiences doing spoken word performances helped her in the speechwriting process.

“Some of the greatest and most memorable speeches in the world are very poetic, very lyrical,” Wangombe said. “Of course, it also helped me because I’ve gotten in the habit of writing for the purpose of speaking and performing, rather than writing stuff to be read.”

Although she worked in a team, Wangombe was the primary speechwriter and began writing the speech two weeks before the election results were due to come out.

This year’s election was highly controversial, with Kenyatta facing charges for crimes against humanity from the International Criminal Court due to violence surrounding the 2007 presidential election. Despite the controversial nature of the election, Wangombe was able to connect with Kenyatta and work with him one-on-one.

Phyllis Pomerantz, professor of the practice of public policy studies, was struck by the Western style of the speech, saying it resembled victory speeches given in the United States.

“It seems to me quite apparent that she really had been paying attention to the U.S. political scene while she was here,” Pomerantz said. “There was not much substance, but Julie married things that people care about, emphasizing the theme of togetherness.”

Pomerantz added that the speech also focused on the theme of inclusion, a concept Duke students are encouraged to embrace.

Wangombe noted that the theme of togetherness was an important aspect of Kenyatta’s campaign since the post-election violence in 2007 divided tribes and created international tension throughout the country. In order to be more inclusive, Kenyatta primarily put people younger than 35 on his campaign since younger generations have not been a main focus in previous presidential campaigns, she said.

“He chose to bring in the energy of the youth,” Wangombe said. “Young people make up the majority of Kenya, so I think for him it made sense to have their input as he was campaigning.”

This “new way of doing politics” was meant to transform the way young people were being “misused” in campaigns in the past, she said, adding that she is committed to bringing change to Kenya and Africa as a whole.

“I’ve always known that my future lies in Kenya, Africa,” she said. “I’m committed to bringing change to Africa. In what capacity will I be doing that? I don’t know. But that’s ok—I’m young.”


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