Raila Odinga

ODM party leader Raila Odinga speaks during a church service at Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) St. John Mwimuto on January 9, 2022.

| Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Raila’s 77th birthday: Parallels with Biden, lessons in losses and grit

What you need to know:

  • Both Biden and Raila joined politics raring to go and ready to conquer at relatively early ages and soon found pitfalls and pratfalls. 

  • The two men have both lost their sons: Beau Biden died aged 46 and Fidel Odinga died at the age of 42.

“‘But Dad, look at me. Look at me. I’m going to be okay no matter what happens. I’m going to be okay, Dad. I promise you.’ I was jolted by the realisation that my son was beginning to make peace with his own death. Then he leaned across the table and put his hand on my arm. ‘But you’ve got to promise me, Dad, that no matter what happens, you’re going to be all right. Give me your word, Dad, that you’re going to be all right. Promise me, Dad.’ ‘I’m going to be okay, Beau,’ I said, but that wasn’t enough for him. ‘No, Dad,’ he said. ‘Give me your word as a Biden. Give me your word, Dad. Promise me, Dad.’ I promised”.

This is perhaps the most tear-jerking section in Joe Biden's memoir, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose. This was a conversation between President Biden and his late son Beau Biden. At the time when he said these words, Beau was dying of cancer. 

I thought of President Biden’s life journey on Friday, January 7 when former Prime Minister Raila Odinga was celebrating his 77th birthday. It then struck me that the two leaders have many things in common: they joined politics — the land of the quick and the mean — raring to go and ready to conquer at relatively early ages and soon found pitfalls and pratfalls; numerous and perilous with alliances shifting like the winds. 

They have also both experienced heart-rending losses. The two men have both lost their sons: Beau Biden died aged 46 and Fidel Odinga died at the age of 42. The two veteran politicians have faced existential angst, heart-stopping griefs and blistering losses. Why didn’t they give up?

Grappling with chaos thrown at them

Writers and thinkers like Freud, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Eliade, Neumann, Piaget, Frye and Frankl have all grappled with understanding how humans deal with the situations they face daily, ranging from order to chaos. For the two men, their lives are like ancient narratives punctuated by alternating order and chaos.

Jordan Peterson delves deep into this by comparing the order and chaos in our lives with ancient narratives: “Great myths and religious stories of the past, particularly those derived from an earlier, oral tradition, were moral in their intent, rather than descriptive… our ancestors portrayed the world as a stage — a drama… the constituent elements of the world as drama were order and chaos… Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms and remain predictable … Chaos is what emerges more catastrophically when you suddenly find yourself without employment, or are betrayed by a lover”. 

The two men mastered the art of grappling with the chaos thrown at them; and this revealed that they are made of sterner stuff. They have lost loved ones. They have lost elections. In fact, President Biden won the presidential election at 78, becoming the oldest person in US history to assume the presidency. The median age of American presidents who have taken office since 1960 has been reported to be about 56 years, old except President Trump who was 70 when he took office in 2017. Raila Odinga will be 77 in August (and if he wins the election, will be the oldest first-term president).

Biden ran for president three times — 1988, 2008 and 2020 (when he won). Odinga has run for president four times (1997, 2007, 2013 and 2017) and will be running the fifth time in 2022.

Never give up on our dreams

President Biden was particularly “unlucky” to run against former President Trump — the brash billionaire from New York — swashbuckling, exuberant and incorrigibly loud. Trump ran as a disruptor; a loquacious virtuoso commandeering social media — riotous, unstoppable and almost inescapable.

During the campaigns, Biden painted a picture of calm; like the inner, gentle flame of a candle. That stealth demeanor of the septuagenarian masked a-tough-as-nails politico who went into political combat against one of the biggest political bullies and dispatched him; consigning President Trump to a one-term presidency.

Odinga is also “unlucky” to be running against Deputy President Dr William Ruto; younger, unchaperoned, restless and fierce like a charging rhino. To his supporters, Odinga is an enigma; a lion, a legend and almost a near-mythical figure. Dr Ruto is determined to shatter this legend and establish his own. Whether he wins or not, as the former Prime Minister turned 77, we cannot begrudge a man of his achievements. Even his harshest critics agree that he paid a heavy price (along with a few others) for some of the freedoms we enjoy today.

There are several lessons from both President Biden and Odinga. One is that we should never give up on our dreams (no matter how old we are!). Both President Biden and Odinga were not discouraged by not winning the first time they ran for president. That’s grit, and we’ll do well to emulate that when we face setbacks. Life won’t always give us what we want when we want it, but we should never quit. Whether we eventually win in the end or not; we would be satisfied that we did all we could with all we had.

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