She could have passed as any worker or visitor at the parking lot of the imposing official residence of the Deputy President in Karen this week.
We were debating in low tones amongst ourselves whether the woman approaching us was indeed Ms Rachel Ruto when she quipped: “Are you the visitors from Nation? You are welcome.”
For Ms Ruto, simplicity comes naturally, despite being the spouse to the second most powerful man in Kenya.
Walking behind her husband, she appears dwarfed by his political and physical stature. The weight that fate and fame have thrown at her seems too heavy for her shoulders. Yet the former teacher has taken her responsibilities and challenges in her stride.
On this day she was walking with one bodyguard towards the main house—part of the palatial home that comprises an office block, guesthouse, gazebo/gym, garage/generator house, swimming pool and the comptroller’s unit.
The home that sits on 10 acres in the ambient and serene neighbourhood of Ngong Forest, was built and refurbished at a cost of Sh500 million to house the office of the second most powerful man in Kenya.
“You will only have 20 minutes [for the interview]. You know I was going out to pray and I wasn’t working today, but I interrupted it because of you,” she says good-naturedly. And with that, we proceeded to chat about her activities with women and girls, all the while bodyguards and other aides close by.
“We are big in agribusiness because nearly every woman in this country is involved in one type of farming or the other,” she says of her women empowerment projects.
On the fight against female circumcision, she is targeting men “because while some women are married without being cut, they find a new threat in their houses from their husbands who insist they undergo the time-warped practice.”
But she is quick to clarify that her role does not overlap with what First Lady Margaret Kenyatta is doing.
“When the new government came in, I met Margaret and we literally divided work. I work very well with her and even yesterday [Wednesday] I was at State House to see Her Excellency. We support her Beyond Zero Campaign and in fact whenever I get maternal health care cases I refer them to her office.”
Ms Ruto runs most of her activities under the auspices of JoyWo (from Joyful Women), an umbrella NGO she founded back in 2009.
While she acknowledges the odds were still against the Kenyan woman, for her, effort should not be about bringing women at par with men, as advocated by women activists emerging out of the Beijing Conference in the 90s.
“The African woman has really been kept down all these years by culture, but it should not be a battle of the sexes. We were created differently,” says the staunch adherent of the Africa Inland Church.
So how has the transition from her traditional position of supporting her husband from behind-the-scenes to living in these hallowed grounds as the spouse of the man a breath away from the presidency been?
I can’t go to Gikomba
“I must confess a lot has changed. You know I like freedom. I like to meet people and go to the market to buy groceries for my family. But now there are a little bit of restrictions. I can’t go to Gikomba, for instance, unless it is planned,” says the Kenyatta University graduate.
The vice-presidency was once memorably described by the founding US Vice-President John Adams as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived” and the only one in the world in which “patience and firmness were useless”.
But the number two office has been elevated by the Constitution, which gave the Deputy President powers to act in the absence of the President and shielded him from the whims of the president and his men who in the past made past holders pitiful figures.
In Mr Ruto’s case, the constitutional safeguards have been further firmed up by the chemistry between President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto as well as a pre-election power-sharing arrangement that made them, more or less, equal partners in government.
But Ms Ruto says power has not changed her husband’s predisposition to acts of humility in public, as evidenced by the Deputy President breaking down during a church service the day after the election results were announced, and again two days to the inauguration..
“It was a really humbling experience (to have won the elections). What we have gone through is God who did it; no man could have done it. We were in church and there is no greater way of showing gratitude than to break down for Him,” says Ms Ruto.
The picture of the country’s second most powerful man breaking down on national TV is still etched in the minds of many, especially those who have been inured to the notion of the occupants of high office as larger-than-life personages “who never fell ill”, let alone show any sign of emotion in public.
“My husband is like that by the way. He is very sincere. I had been seeing him do small things for people while at the University of Nairobi and later as an MP for 15 years and I knew he was very passionate for this country.”
But she was reluctant to discuss the odds initially stuck against her husband. The mercurial former MP for Eldoret North had, virtually throughout the life of the 10th Parliament, fought off political and legal wars on all fronts.
From being sacked from a government he believed he had given his all, to being hauled to courts both within and without the country, the 47-year-old politician saw it all.
“But of all this, the International Criminal Court has really been the most devastating, especially when you really know the truth. It has been my lowest moment,” Ms Ruto says, her light, bright face darkening.
So where and when did she first meet her husband? “Well I may not pinpoint a specific time and place, but I used to see him sing in the university choir…I just saw him… But you know he has always said he saw me before I saw him,” she says, blushing.
But the former teacher maintains time and tide have not changed a thing between them and she still sees Mr Ruto as the man she married 23 years ago.
Alumnus of Butere Girls
“I still cook for my husband and open the door for him when he comes home. My husband went into politics at 30 and I was 28, so, it is like really much part of our life. But I can tell you this job has even kept him closer to me. He has more time for me now.”
“I make tea and mboga kienyeji which William loves so much. But I believe I am the best cook of chapati in the world. I also like making a type of chicken and onion soup which my children love a lot,” says the alumnus of Butere Girls.
And she speaks fondly of her alma mater whose students she met on a recent tour of Siaya with MP Christine Ombaka. “Those girls are my babies. We had to turn after passing them. They have not lately been appearing up there in the papers in the academic category, but I am working on it.”
A daughter of peasant parents who attended Likuyani Primary in Lugari, Ms Ruto decries an education system that subjects students to the same exams despite their circumstances, but encourages more youths to go into business.
She quit teaching to run the family business Venture Africa Safaris & Travel Ltd besides pursuing a Master’s degree in development studies.
The voracious consumer of inspirational literature reads late into the night, but wakes up “rather late at 6.” “I am a night person,” she chuckles.
“I am currently reading Beverly Angel’s Intimacy – but it is about intimacy with God -not the other type of intimacy with my husband.”
She says she harbours no resentment against Ida Odinga, whose husband bitterly differed with the Deputy President during their long-drawn acrimonious political divorce. “I am in good terms with Ida and Pauline Musyoka. I have nothing against them or even their husbands.”
Kenyans should confess positive things about their country and leaders. We have a very able leadership.”