Celebrating Women: Sarah Serem -Public Service Figure

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As the inaugural and immediate former Salaries and Remuneration Commission chair, 59-year-old Sarah Serem will definitely be a tough act to follow. With the help of other commissioners, she set the pace, managing to turn, albeit slowly, the tide of the ballooning public wage bill in the Kenyan government. She speaks to ESTHER AKELLO about the call to public service, dealing with sexism and why all women should own their spaces.

Sarah Serem had absolutely no desire of joining, let alone leading Kenya’s Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) when it was being established in 2011. Just two years before, in a surprising move to her colleagues, she opted for an early retirement as the human resource director at Post Bank. She wasn’t interested in going back to the public service.

“A friend of mine from church saw the advert in the paper and insisted I apply. To humour her, I filled in the application form, sent it to her, told her to figure out what else was needed from my profile document and send it,” she says with a wry smile.

A week later, Serem received a call from the Office of the President. So unoptimistic was she about the SRC job that she immediately thought it was a conman’s ploy. “I was driving down from Eldoret and had forgotten all about the application. I realised how serious the call was when the caller mentioned SRC. I parked my car by the roadside to attend to the call,” she says laughing.

The caller invited her to an interview in three days. “I was grossly unprepared. A day before the interview, I found out I hadn’t filled a crucial form. I wasn’t even aware it existed. I was supposed to deliver it that same day but couldn’t and ended up taking it on the day of the interview. During the interview, I simply decided to present who I was and the skills I had accrued over the years. Even then, I wasn’t too optimistic. In Kenya, it is believed one has to have a godfather to get a public appointment. I didn’t have any,” she explains.

The staunch Adventist will go down in history as the woman who went head to head with Kenyan parliamentarians in a bid to tame what had seemingly started to look like an insatiable hunger for salary increments with every new election term, resulting in a bloated and un-harmonised public wage bill. It was during Serem’s term that for the first time, in an unprecedented move, their perks such as mileage, vehicle and mortgage allowances among others were slashed.

They were not too happy. “Parliament even infamously had an entire debate to discuss how incompetent this woman was. I was disappointed by the outcome. I thought they’d be happy that with a sustainable wage bill, they’d have more resources to meet their campaign promises with regard to specific development projects for the people,” she says.

Throughout the debate, however, the question of sexism as opposed to her ‘incompetency’ became glaring. “They tried to use my gender to discredit me. Who was this woman who had the guts to interfere with our pay? The sad bit was that the sexist statements did not elicit protests from women parliamentarians. Since my actions affected them too, they didn’t stand up for me. I realised that when one is standing for something that is unpopular though right, there comes a time when you simply have to hold yourself and stand alone,” she says resolutely.

Serem admits that at some point she contemplated quitting. However when she looked at her mandate to the people of Kenya, she resolved to go on, “ I had tremendous support from the executive. The president was very categorical in reminding me that I was backed by the Constitution, the Executive, the people of Kenya and more importantly, being a prayerful woman, God. Thereafter, I resolved to give the job my all,” reveals Serem. She also thanks Kenyans and her children saying they were very supportive, “Public service is about giving back to the people. It doesn’t matter if a decision is unpopular, provided it is the right one. I couldn’t bring myself to let Kenyans down and more importantly, betray my Christian
values.”

Even as she looks back, Serem says she is proud of the work the commission did. “Through SRC, Kenyans got to understand the impact of a high wage bill and that when Kenyans give tax, the
return should be service and we have to seek accountability for it. The high wage bill compromises the government’s ability to deliver its development agenda to the people,” she says.

Now that her term is over, Serem is more than happy to recline at her farm in Eldoret. While she is not opposed to another public appointment, the only thing she says she will not venture in is politics, at least at the moment. Serem, a widow, also considers raising her four daughters and adopted son among her greatest achievements.

“I have brought up women who I consider useful resource to this country to which I owe my God. I have tried to instill in them the values I consider to be paramount, that is honesty, simplicity and hard work to which,” she asserts. Her first-born, Juliet Serem Kiboma, is a practicing architect in the USA while her second-born, Karen Serem Waithaka, is a finance and investment consultant.

Her third-born, Daisy Serem, is a communications officer with UNICEF and her last-born, Chemtai Serem, is a medical doctor. Her adopted son is Dennis Serem, an automative technician. She is also a grandmother of six.

As for women and positions of power, Serem has only this simple advise: “Just go for it. Don’t look back. Don’t listen to the noise. Sell your character and personality as well. It’s not only what you hang on your wall that people will identify with, but your inner strength as well. I never looked at myself as a woman but as a qualified individual. It is crucial to have women representation at the decision and policy-making levels. Women tend to have an all-inclusive, policy-framework mind.”

Serem is also passionate about young people and has been instrumental in setting up numerous causes to help the youth learn crucial skills. “So many young people are unemployed. I prefer that if we are building any capacity as a country, then let it be at this base level because this is the future work force. The executive level is well established,” she emphasises.

Serem describes herself as a people person in need of constant interaction. When she is not at her farm, she is hanging out with her ‘girlfriends’ whom she says have helped to ‘colour’ her life. She also engages in numerous social, community and church engagements. Serem is a board member of Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA).

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