Jack Ma, the Executive Chairman of Alibaba, an e-commerce empire, came to Kenya when all else had stopped because of elections.
One only hopes that his coming will compel us to re-examine our ways as we pursue individual and national development.
To many, he embodies the idea of success.
Throughout his many public lectures that are available online, Jack Ma has emphasised a philosophy of personal change and humility, empowerment of women in public lives, and investing more in youth.
These are also things that we in Kenya have sung about for long, but which remain largely as mere talking points. This is commonly known.
What may be unknown to many, perhaps, is that a hint about how Ma himself came to embrace these values is in the name of his flagship business empire – Ali Baba.
The name of Jack Ma’s empire is also the title of one of the most popular short stories of all time, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, widely circulated in The Arabian Nights.
“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” is an allegory of (mis)fortune, showing the possibility of an individual rising from grinding poverty to immeasurable fortune, if they are lucky to be at the right place at the right time.
The fact that the story begins with the poor Ali Baba with his rich brother Cassim shows that material wealth and poverty are flipsides of each other.
The story also shows that our pursuit for material prosperity need not be at the expense of our humanity; that indeed we should be more humane as we scale the ladder of prosperity.
In the story, this lesson is seen in way women, represented by Morgiana, subvert the gender stereotypes as they collaboratively work with men to achieve higher ideals.
“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, which Jack Ma’s company nods at, in this way emphasises lessons of social justice, unity, patience, and wisdom.
The story not only influenced Jack Ma the entrepreneur, but also Nuruddin Farah the Somali novelist.
Farah’ novel, Close Sesame, borrows the title from the phrase “open sesame”, and the theme from struggles of Ali Baba against the ruthless forty thieves.
In Farah’s novel, the old protagonist, quite like Ali Baba, has to struggle against a shadowy and cold enemy in a moral climate where public and private justice have hazy dividing lines.
Hence, the troubling question at the end of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” relates to the way the thieves are condemned while Ali Baba is admired for doing the very same thing.
Maybe a key redemption is that in the story, there are no heroes or villains among the key characters, unless we look at Morgiana, the former slave girl, as the hero.
The Writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.
Mr Ma challenged the youth to ensure their innovations are user-friendly.