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Tribute to heroes who emerged from tragic mall attack

By Charles Kanjama | September 29th 2013

By Charles Kanjama

Tragedy often brings heroes with it. The greater the crisis, the greater its heroes. And because we yearn for heroes in moments of crisis, some are made heroes while undeserving of the accolade. Jean Genet cynically commented, “The fame of heroes owes little to the extent of their conquest, and all to the success of the tributes paid to them.” In contrast, the true hero is often a tragic hero.

To quote Norman Mailer, “Ultimately a hero is a man who would argue with the gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision.” Still, there is a hero in the heart of every boy, just as there is a romantic in the heart of every girl. Maybe it’s in the genes. Maybe we are socialised that way. But there it is. No boy story, no adventure story, is ever complete without a hero. The more unattainable the hero, the more loved the story. And if the hero is a superhero, the boy derives twice the pleasure of an ordinary adventure story.

Deep down, every boy wants to become the hero in his favourite adventure story, and this yearning does not leave him even when he becomes a man. And yet, isn’t it true that actual expressions of admiration leave the typical man totally out-of-sorts; that never is a man more embarrassed than when he becomes the object of hero-worship?

Partly because men know, deep down, that while they may perform heroic acts from time to time, they are never worthy to be true heroes in the full sense. Indeed part of growing up is the coming to terms with one’s own fallibility.

Likewise, no girl story is ever complete without a romance. It need not be a romantic relationship, understood in the boy-girl sense, but it must be a relationship of some kind. And the more troubled the relationship, the more unexpected the denouement, the more loved the romance. And if the romance is the fairy-tale sort, the girl derives twice the pleasure of an ordinary romance.

Deep down, every girl wants to become the romantic in her favourite romance, and this yearning does not leave her when she becomes a woman. And yet, isn’t it true that the actual attainment of such romance leaves the typical woman distressed; that never is a woman more unsettled than when she attains the plenitude of romantic fulfilment.

Partly because she knows, deep down, that in this world “happily ever after” is often a mirage. Indeed part of growing up is the coming to terms with the evanescence of romantic fulfilment. These of course are generalisations, and thus have both large truths and particular errors. Mainly because we do find boyish girls and girlish boys. Still, the most successful tales are romantic adventures, which offer both boys and girls something to chew on and delight upon.

And because, generally, there is a boy in the heart of every man, and a girl in the heart of every woman, romantic adventures have great potential. Maybe that’s why, among the many heroes who emerged from the tragic crisis of Kenya’s Westgate terrorist incident, my favourite was Abdul Haji. Because he rushed to Westgate to save his brother, and while there did admirable acts of courage.

I love it that he is a Kenyan Muslim, of Somali origin, whose childhood involved herding cattle in the bushes of Garissa. There is a certain poetic justice here — that one of the rivals of the Al Shabaab militants who had hoped to split Kenya on religious and ethnic lines, was someone from the very identity they were pretending to champion.

And what Haji proved is that Al Shabaab does not champion anyone, save their own deranged selves. Haji’s heroism exposed Al Shabaab’s anti-heroism. Umberto Eco, the fascinating Italian writer, noted, “The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everyone else.” This hints at the true ordinary heroism we are all called to strive for. As Eleanor Roosevelt explained, “We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up... discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

Last week, Kenya faced terrorism and tragedy that taxed our last reserves of strength and hope. Yet what we ultimately learnt from Westgate is simple: we all have what it takes to be heroes, ordinary heroes, even momentary heroes of greater calibre, when we act to secure and sustain our relationships.

As American explorer George Kennan remarked, “Heroism is endurance for one moment more.”

So as we console the affected, let us also pay tribute to the heroic helpers who helped ease our pain.


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