Tag of national heroism is at risk of becoming a commonplace accolade
By Barrack Muluka
They say in Kiswahili, “Hujafa hujaumbika”. This is to say that we can only make our definitive statement about you after you are dead and buried. But it is not just the Swahili people who say this, for this is universal wisdom. That was why 19th century English novelist, Thomas Hardy, gave us the story of Michael Henchard in the tour de force that is The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Hardy wrote this story so that humankind may learn to appreciate its own fickleness and be scant of laudatory pronouncements of any ultimate definition. Hardy was the one writer who brought to the English novel a sense of tragic pessimism, expressed with stoical restraint. And although this attribute is pervasive in as diverse works as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure, nowhere does he teach us about the inner conflicts of character and our hidden foibles as he does in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Even among those we would deify on account of the advantage of the present moment, the idealism they embody and the will to do good, is often compromised. Random combinations of circumstances they cannot tame frustrate it. Ultimately, Hardy would have us consider that a man’s destiny is determined by the fall of the dice and the dice are invariably loaded against him. You cannot therefore know about tomorrow and it may be precipitate to make final rulings about someone before you have buried them. Such a good man, even as Michael Henchard, rapidly deteriorates into the most uncouth and detestable scoundrel that ever lived.
Such are the concerns that we must wrap our minds around at this season when we are celebrating our national heroes and heroines. The question may be asked, where is the wisdom of pinning the label of goodness and greatness on the lapel of a living man or woman? Do contemporary generations have the proclivity, leave alone the ability, to recognise and acknowledge greatness and heroism in its lifetime? The question is even a rhetorical reductio ad absurdum. In Christendom, it is not until after Christ has given up the ghost that a Roman centurion declares amid apocalyptic turbulence, “Yes, this man was the son of God.”
Human eyes have no capacity for discerning greatness while it abides before them. That is why we have read in the first chapter of the gospel as recorded by John: “The light shines in darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” And we read further, “He was in the world, and although the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him.”
Christly figures are unpopular and endangered in their times, although they are the true heroes and heroines. In her time, the Catholic Church burnt Joan of Arc alive as a witch and a heretic. Centuries later, the same church canonised her as a saint, regretting the gross error it made. In the play Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw causes a meeting of the living and the dead to take place in the Hereafter, where Joan receives the good news of her canonisation.
Suddenly everyone is full of praise for her, including those who killed her. Unimpressed, Joan quips, “Woe unto me when everyone praises me. I bid you remember that I am now a saint and saints are known to perform miracles. Shall I now change and return to you a living woman?”
Everyone suddenly abandons her. One character reminds her that human eyes cannot tell the difference between a witch and a saint.
“If you come back, they will burn you again.” But human eyes can recognise a departed saint and hero. That is why now that the shareholding in Kenya’s national heroism has been expanded to consider others, beyond the late Jomo Kenyatta; it would seem vainglorious to begin looking in our midst for heroes to celebrate as we did on Wednesday. First we do not have the capacity to recognise them and second we do not know what the heroes of this hour will do tomorrow, to cause us to want to reconsider the tag of glory that we gave them.
I recognise that from time to time the Head of State may wish to decorate some outstanding personalities, especially those in his innermost sanctum and others. But they cannot be heroes, no matter who they may be, until after the priests have said of them, “Let the dust in you return to dust and the earth to earth.”
Moreover, in societies and times such as we live in, the tag of national heroism is at risk of degenerating into a commonplace accolade that any moneyed gangster can buy at the right price. Dictators like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Ferdinand Marcos, Marcias Ngwema and Mobutu Sese Seko had in their courtyards loyal zealots whom they decorated as heroes. Even in the Church, the Pope once sold indulgences and heroism for a tidy sum, if you could afford.
We have set off on a wrong footing. No. For national heroism to have significance, a college of men and women of unquestionable rectitude would have to be constituted to determine from time to time who qualified to be a national hero or heroine. The determinants would be made public and the process of searching and naming scrupulous. The names would be published, complete with the reasons, for the public to state why such persons should not be declared heroes. Anything short of this is children’s play and claptrap.
—The writer is a publishing editor and media consultant.
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