29 January 2013

Rwanda: Every Rwandan Is a Hero

Photo: New Times
Remembering a fallen hero (file photo).


FRIDAY this week, we mark Heroes Day. We honour those Rwandans who, through acts of courage, selflessness, sacrifice, vision, and patriotism, did so much for this country that today we are proud to be its worthy citizens. It is therefore right and fitting that we do so. It makes us a normal society.

Every society needs heroes from within itself for a variety of reasons. Heroes symbolise and embody all the good qualities of nobility and greatness, the best values in a people's culture that we admire and would like to have ourselves, but sometimes can't.

In our admiration of heroes, we project and appropriate other people's achievements to ourselves. It is a sort of theft that does no one harm but everyone a lot of good.

Heroes also derive, and sometimes even owe, their greatness to the societies which they are part of. In other words, people become heroes because of their innate qualities, but also because of the particular social, cultural and historical circumstances of their time. Occasionally also, society creates individuals into heroes.

In that sense they are not simply models of conduct and symbols of values we would like to emulate, but also a source of collective pride. Somehow the special qualities of heroes validate our own worth as individuals and as a nation.

That is why every society throughout history has had its heroes who have been symbols of its special features and given it a distinct character. Look into the mythology and folklore of every society. They are replete with heroes performing extraordinary, often superhuman, feats. The whole society revels in the particular exploits and in that way claims them as their own.

Hero worship is not restricted to civil societies. Religion has an even bigger role in hero worship. In the older Christian churches, saints are revered and the faithful are enjoined to follow their example. They have special feast days devoted to their memory. To immortalise them and entrench their exceptional deeds, Christians name their children after them. At least they used to.

The determination of who is a hero or a saint goes through a similar rigorous process of investigation of their deeds that merit the special status. The only exception is that for national heroes you do not need evidence of a miracle that has occurred on the intervention of a candidate as would be required for a saint.

Human societies crave heroes that I am sure where real ones do not exist, they would be invented. People need some ideals to which they aspire. And heroes provide that. That perhaps explains all those larger than life characters in mythology and folklore.

Indeed a society with no heroes has no claim to any distinction. It almost has no history, culture or civilisation. It has made no mark on the world and risks disappearing into oblivion without trace.

At some point in Rwanda's history, that threat was real. For the first thirty years of independence, there was an attempt to deny the country's history, including its historical and mythical heroes. That denial necessarily entailed the rejection of Rwandans' common heritage that had held the people together for centuries, resulting in division, hatred and weakness.

This Thursday's celebration of National Heroes is therefore significant. It is part of the rebirth of the country, re-establishing the ideals and values that should be the inspiration for achievement, common purpose and national pride. It is putting a stamp on our distinct nationhood.

But today, the notion of heroes should not be restricted to the exceptional acts of some individuals. Rwanda is where it is today because of the collective heroism of its people.

The farmer who ensures that there is food security despite using largely the same tools that have been used for centuries makes a remarkable contribution to the country. The trader who dutifully pays taxes so that we can maintain our basic infrastructure is not only fulfilling an obligation, but also adding to that which makes the country move forward. So does the school teacher in whose hands the intellect of those who will perform such heroic deeds as are never forgotten is sharpened.

The testimonies of ordinary people about how they have risen from hopelessness and can point to definite progress add to the list of simple but significant heroic acts. That they can say that this is 'where I was and look how far I have come' by dint of hard work is worth celebrating because it is that which adds to individual confidence and collective pride.

These are all heroes we should be honouring. It is their little but cumulatively significant deeds that have made Rwanda and given it a voice (some would say, disproportionate to its size).That itself is an act of heroism for which we should celebrate as we also pay tribute to the representative national heroes who have done truly remarkable things.

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