Sunday, September 5, 2010

Who will sit at table where list of national heroes will be drawn up?

Posted Saturday, September 4 2010 at 18:22

In Summary
Honours: The new law recognises only three national days

The next national day is Mashujaa (Heroes’) Day, formerly Kenyatta Day, on October 20. It is going to be the first national day celebrated under our new Constitution, which recognises only two other national days on the calendar – Jamhuri Day and Madaraka Day.

It was indeed a great thing to establish a Heroes’ Day. But there are pregnant questions that remain unanswered. Who should be designated a national hero? What exactly are the criteria? And who establish these criteria? There will be plenty of fireworks if this issue is not sorted out well.

Some weeks ago, precisely the same problem arose in Zimbabwe when President Robert Mugabe refused to have a trade unionist-turned opposition politician buried at the national shrine in Harare called Heroes’ Acre.

It would be too glib to say that the man – Gibson Sibanda – was denied the honour merely because he was an opposition figure. I have problems myself with the supposition that just because you shout a lot against a particular regime in power, and you have been jailed for it, therefore you deserve the same consideration as a Nelson Mandela.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s most compelling novel, A Grain of Wheat, which was published in 1967, paints a vivid picture of the frantic preparations and the nervous anticipation on the eve of the 1963 Uhuru Day celebrations. Ngugi’s warning about the follies of mistaken heroism was prophetic.

Within a few years of independence, Kenya quickly drifted into the habit of rewarding sly but undeserving lackeys and sidelining individuals who bore the real sacrifice.

Sure, I often feel Ngugi over-romanticises the Mau Mau heroes, but I am entirely in agreement that the Elder of the Golden Heart honour that is routinely awarded to the ever-changing roster of Cabinet ministers does not in any way define national heroism.

Why, to start with, should national heroes always be politicians? Shouldn’t we broaden the definition? Who, for instance, is Jamaica best known for across the entire world other than reggae icon Bob Marley? Isn’t it the same for Pele and Brazil?

The search for a new constitutional order and for comprehensive change has been a long process, longer than the 20 years we often cite. Yet the struggle towards Kenya’s self-actualisation as a country has been much longer still.

Who should the triumph belong to? The short-termers and self-publicists who imagine any change of government is a “liberation” or those who know the true markers are when something truly historic occurs?

And can we distinguish minor heroes who fought localised proto-nationalist struggles from those who had truly national agendas? Should every Mekatilili, Waiyaki Hinga or Koitalel get a statue in the capital city? If we were to examine their philosophies, what would they be about?

Most crucially, who will sit at the table where the list of the heroes is drawn up? A committee of self-important commissioners or a diverse company of thinkers and ordinary Wanjikus? How will we ensure the list is not a product of temporary political fads or the self-serving agendas of those holding power?

Let me go back again to Zimbabwe and the controversy there over Heroes’ Acre. I don’t think the brouhaha was because this Sibanda fellow was qualified to be buried at the shrine.
The fracas was really about the fact that the dominant Zanu-PF party has not openly defined its criteria for designating a person a national icon for reasons other than having participated in the liberation struggle.

Speaking of Mugabe, there is contemporary tendency to imagine the nasty things people say about him these days to mean his past liberation record is zero. A lot of African independence pioneers find themselves suffering the same fate today. But, if we start on this path, we will be demeaning Mashujaa Day.

It was Mugabe, after all, who agreed without any hesitation that his biggest political antagonist (and fellow liberation hero), the late Joshua Nkomo, belonged at Heroes’ Acre.

1 comment:

  1. A people without heroes are a people without a conscience.