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Kenya’s true heroes are mostly invisible

And so we celebrated our first Mashujaa Day. A nice idea by the constitutional review team – de-personalize the Kenyatta and Moi days, combine them into one holiday, use it to celebrate all heroes, not just politicians whose ‘heroism’ is debatable in any case.

A nice idea, but we have some way to go before we take it to proper fruition. What is a “hero” in the first place? My laptop dictionary tells me it is a person who “is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”

And this is where we get our celebration of national heroes wrong. We imagine that heroism is only present in those whose achievements are ALREADY known, celebrated, extolled, recorded. And so we can look no further than presidents, freedom fighters, athletes, or internationally applauded Kenyans. Some of those people may indeed deserve their acclaim, but fixating on them takes our eyes off the other heroes in our midst: those rather ordinary, more muted, uncelebrated Kenyans who do a great deal to keep things right in this country – but no one ever notices.

Let me share my appreciation of some of those heroes with you. Consider first the businessperson who does things the right way. This person does not offer bribes, does not cut corners, does not shortchange customers, does not evade duties, does not exploit employees. Does such a person even exist, you ask? Certainly does – but in diminishing numbers.

Being honest just isn’t the way to get ahead in Kenyan business, I’m afraid; it is far better to be connected, to be crafty, to be crooked, to be corrupt, and to be corruptible. Those things might take you far; running a business on the straight and narrow is more likely to leave you watching in despair as your more unscrupulous competitors race ahead.

And yet they exist, those honest businesspeople. They never make a lot of money, they never get the plaudits, but I do meet many of them. They are heroic in every sense, for they prefer the harder, longer less-travelled path to success. What they have, they buy with their own money, money they have neither stolen nor inherited.

Consider another unlikely arena for heroism: the average Kenyan road. You are more likely to observe reprobates rather than heroes here; those who have no respect for the rules of ordinary decent behaviour abound. They overtake recklessly; they overlap ridiculously; they bully crudely. But that is not the only archetype on the road.

There is also another: the quiet Kenyan who knows right from wrong and observes the rules. Who refuses to engage in idiocy, no matter how frequently done by others. This person has not forgotten the ancient virtues: giving way to others; showing courtesy and consideration; and waiting one’s turn. This people is also heroic, for he sticks to an absolute morality which is not contextual or situational. It is what it is.

There are many other examples: the civil servant who does not take kickbacks; the headmaster who does not buy and sell exam papers; the policewoman who does not extract road rents; the doctor who does not provide fake certificates; the journalist who does not act as a PR mouthpiece.

We will not celebrate these people in stadiums with flypasts. Their heroism is a quiet habit, not an ostentatious shindig. They are not doing what they do for appreciation or applause; they just think it’s the right thing to do. We will never get the government to celebrate them for us; governments care little for the ordinary person.

No, the true celebration of heroism is something we must all do individually. Look out for quietly heroic Kenyans, appreciate them, reward them, clap them on the back, give them the fortitude to carry on. Do it every day of the year, and you may even become a hero yourself.

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