The New Times – Rwanda
By Joseph Rwagatare
Today is Heroes Day in this country. We honour and celebrate our national heroes for their vision and patriotism, their acts of courage, selflessness, and sacrifice.
There will be the usual ceremony where President Paul Kagame, and representatives of diplomats and families of those we honour will lay a wreath on the tombs of Major General Fred Gisa Rwigema, Umwami Mutara III Rudahigwa, Agatha Uwilingiyimana, Michel Rwagasana, the students of Nyange, the Unknown Soldier, and others.
Some of these, like Fred Rwigema and Umwami Rudahigwa, were already legends in their lifetime. Others were ordinary people, and some, like the Nyange students, were still in their formative years, but their extra-ordinary deeds have earned them legendary status. All have them have had a legacy that is timeless.
This is part of the reason they were selected among so many Rwandans who have done great things: their notion of a nation and its destiny; their contribution to its advancement and improvement of the quality of life of its people.
In the case of the heroes we celebrate today, there is something else they share: they all paid the ultimate sacrifice for the unity and integrity of the nation. And for this we should always be grateful.
Today's ceremony is performed every year. But it is more than an annual ritual. It is an occasion heavy with meaning. The heroes are each an embodiment of what we value as human beings, but also all that that gives us our distinctive character as a nation. So in a sense we are celebrating our own nationhood.
As you read this, you are probably watching the ceremony on TV or following it on radio. If you are like me, you will likely be awed by the solemnity of the occasion and the stature of those we honour.
What happens when the ceremony ends, the gravity of the moment has faded, the holiday ended and we return to the normal rhythm of life? Do we forget those great men and women, and only remember them when it is Heroes Day again?
That shouldn't be the case. We should not stop simply at admiring heroes or wishing that we could be like them. This day should be an opportunity for reflection on the meaning of heroism. It should inspire us to desire to perform as close as possible to the ideal they represent.
More importantly, how do our young people regard our national heroes? Do they look up to them as the standard of conduct they should emulate or merely as a historical curiosity?
They should be to the young people role models and inspiration, but that will only happen if the concepts of nation and heroism become part of their daily education - at home, school, church and community.
This is crucial given the competing concepts of heroism (often defined as celebrity) they are exposed to, promoted by the entertainment industry and spread by modern media.
It may be pertinent to ask: do we need heroes? The short answer is yes, we do. It has always been the case in human history. Societies and individuals need heroes for a variety of reasons.
As individuals we want people to look up to for guidance and support; people with the ability to help us grow and protect us. We need people who can help us rise above the small and petty, selfish individual concerns, and instead focus on greater ideals and a broader societal outlook; people we would like to emulate.
This is the same for a nation. We need people who help us transcend selfishness, give purpose to our lives beyond individual needs and instil in us a concept of collective greatness.
They show us the extent of human possibility; that we are actually capable of things we consider unattainable.
These are the things that contribute to the history and culture of a people.
And so, heroism is not only the stuff of myths and legends. It is not only about those larger-than-life individuals we find in folklore, or doers of incredible deeds, feats beyond human capability.
We forget that they are just like us in everything but the things that set us apart. It is also about ordinary people whose deeds show a spirit of selflessness and concern for the greater public good.
The young man in Karongi who worked on a road alone or the schoolboy who helps stop a leaking water pipe are undoubtedly heroes.
The small farmer who keeps the nation fed or the soldier who spends days on guard in the forests, on our frontiers so that we can sleep soundly and go about our daily lives unhindered are heroes.
Heroes live among and come from us. They express our collective values, only that they live them better than most. In that sense they represent all that we cherish and aspire to, and for that reason we must celebrate them- the great and the small..