In the rolling red hills outside the western Kenyan city of Eldoret, residents remember William Root as a barefoot schoolboy who sold chickens from a roadside stall.
Even then he possessed a strong intellect, they recalled, as they greeted his ascension to the presidency of their country on Monday with a mixture of pride and disbelief.
“I couldn’t imagine that someone who didn’t have shoes all his life in elementary school could become president,” said Esther Cherabon, who attended Ruth’s school, with a smile.
“We assume that all the leaders are from rich families.”
He was always the boy with the highest grades at school in Sambut village, she said, where part of the institution he attended – a one-room mud building with a rusted iron roof – still stands.
Ruto comes into office as Kenya faces a host of challenges. Billions of dollars in loans borrowed by outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta to fund an infrastructure splurge are coming due.
The worst drought in 40 years has devastated the north of the country, forcing 4 million people to rely on food aid.
Ruta, now 55, has made Kenya’s class divisions a centerpiece of his campaign to become Kenya’s fifth president, promising to reward low-income “shulkers” and expressing disdain for Kenya’s political dynasties.
It was a thinly veiled jab at his opponent Raila Odinga, whom Ruto defeated in a vote that took almost a week for Kenya’s electoral commission to announce, and Kenyatta, the son of the country’s first vice president and president respectively.
But Kenyan politics is often a dance with convenient partners rather than based on political differences, and the circumstances of Ruto’s rise were no exception.
He rose to prominence as a youth organizer for former strongman President Daniel Arap Moi, becoming one of Kenya’s youngest legislators and ministers.
He supported Odinga during the hotly contested 2007 election, when 1,200 people were killed in political violence that sparked ethnic cleansing.
Both he and Kenyatta faced charges of violence at the International Criminal Court in a case that later collapsed. A Kenyan lawyer is now on trial accused of tampering with witnesses in the Ruto case – a charge he denies.
Ruta then switched sides and became President Kenyatta’s deputy in 2013. But they parted ways after the 2017 election, when Kenyatta reconciled with Odinga and distanced himself from Ruto.
Ruto insiders describe him as a gifted orator with a fierce work ethic.
During that campaign, he chose a wheelbarrow to represent Kenya’s casual workers, although he himself – now a wealthy business tycoon – drove a sprawling sports car emblazoned with party colors and nicknamed the Beast.
Odinga sought to undermine Ruto’s popularity by questioning the integrity of his vast business empire.
In July, a court ordered Ruto’s vice-presidential candidate Rigati Gachagua to return 202 million shillings ($2 million), which it determined was the proceeds of corruption. Gachagua and Ruto dismissed the sentence as politically motivated. Gachagu said he would appeal the ruling.
As president, Ruto promised to reign in borrowing, publicize opaque contracts with China, fight corruption and provide loans to small businesses.
Poor Kenyans, already suffering from COVID-19, are also struggling with rising global food and fuel prices. Many are outraged by Kenyatta’s inability to govern amid rampant corruption.