Twists and turns for Kenya: Why Ruto should read Homer’s ‘Odyssey’

President William Ruto signing of the County Allocation of Revenue Bill and Equalization Fund Appropriation Bill 2023, at State House, Nairobi on June 30, 2023.

Photo credit: PCS

What you need to know:

Like Odysseus, he is a man on the move. Whereas for Odysseus the journey was physical, for President Ruto, it is metaphorical but no less daunting.

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turnsdriven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, many pains he suffered…” so wrote Homer in the ‘Odyssey’, an epic on flickering ghosts from a vanished world about a character named Odysseus—the king of Ithaca who had emerged victorious in the Trojan War. A stranger. A voyage. A return. That’s the summary. Odysseus embarks on an audacious goal of returning home to Ithaca but faces many obstacles.

In many ways, President William Ruto is a picture of Odysseus. Odysseus is described as a “man of twists and turns” (polytropos in Greek).

That can apply to President Ruto. He is a complicated man. Like many leaders, it is hard to figure him out.

He is a man of singular personal magnetism and ruthless political instincts. But his relationship with the opposition can be a paradox—in the manner of an interesting plot that keeps us transfixed as sometimes, he doesn’t deal with those who have opposed him the way many would expect him to.

And like Odysseus, he is a man on the move. Whereas for Odysseus the journey was physical, for President Ruto, it is metaphorical but no less daunting.

It has been said that there is improbability in the making of any president, some more than others, however, few are comparable to President Ruto—the improbable upstart who unexpectedly won the biggest prize. And like others who rose to high office, President Ruto is what David Maraniss described as, “the creation of restlessness, searching, odd connections”.

Like Odysseus, President Ruto is on an impossible quest—a journey into the unknown—wading into uncharted territory of late.

A dramatic orator, President Ruto seems keen to break free from presidential miniature, shrunken dreams, small spaces, petty ephemera—he wants to go big.

One of the most talked-about statements was when he threatened cartels in the sugar industry on Sunday, August 27, 2023, during his tour of the Western region. He then famously said that, for cartels mambo ni matatu (they had three options): leave the country, go to jail or go to heaven.

This was a subject of social media memes and was met with consternation by opposition politicians and human rights activists who lambasted the president for it.

The way he said it had a certain menacing sheen, almost dangerous. And some people said it was dangerous. But he stood his ground, reiterating it. Maybe, the choice of words could have been better. That’s debatable.

However, Kenya is a country milked dry, like a city lost, smashed and looted by a conquering army—a dry and ruined place looted by cartels of all kinds—and it’s dry enough to absorb decades of weeping by Kenyans.

Like ‘Odysseus’, President Ruto doesn’t seem shy to take the voyage through stormy waters. On Monday, September 4, 2023, to Wednesday, September 6, 2023, he hosted the Africa Climate Summit that attracted several African leaders and some of the world’s passionate climate change campaigners.

The event focused on addressing Africa’s increasing exposure to climate change. Earlier, President Ruto had reaffirmed his bid to lead Kenyans to plant 15 billion trees in a decade. These are bold moves of a man on a mission.

The goal for Odysseus is to return home to Ithaka—a quest that catapulted him into the fiery-contoured darkness that has no name, no limit.

For President Ruto to take Kenyans “home” to the elusive Promised Land of plenty, it won’t be easy. Like Odysseus and every leader, President Ruto will face challenges like darts thrown screaming from an unseen hand.

In Greek literature and in the Odyssey, there was always the arkhê kakôn (the beginning of the bad things), which was like the foreshadowing of a collapse—a grim forecast that is proof that things fall apart.

The biggest challenge Odysseus faces is the suitors who want to loot his house and marry his wife while he is away. He goes back in disguise and eliminates them all.

As for President Ruto, Kenya’s arkhê kakôn is the cartels and corruption they perpetuate. He should use the law to ensure that the culture of corruption is rooted out.

In the meantime, as President Ruto promises to tackle corruption and chart a new path, Kenyans wait with bated breath like the spellbound interlude in the cinema, waiting for life as we’ve always craved to live it, as André Aciman once wrote, “like life finally transposed in the right key, retold in the right tense and language”.

Then and only then, can Kenyans reach the shore, like Odysseus, to the land of promise—a land flowing with milk and honey.

- The writer is a book publisher based in Nairobi. [email protected]