Next week we shall pause and bow as a nation and communities in commemoration of the men and women who devoted their lives to the betterment and well-being of all of us in our nation’s history. We are grateful that our post-independence political leadership has dedicated this calendar time for us to celebrate reflectively on this important aspect of history, ‘herstory’ and ‘theirstory’. Of course we shall hear many lies about who is and who is not to be included in this ‘hall of fame’ or ‘quarantine of infamy’, as we continue to engage effortlessly and shamelessly in the enterprise of self-congratulation and falsification. It is such a pity that a good idea of holding high the names of those who lifted us up when they were amongst us has turned into a mindless show of upmanship and pageantry of bheka mina ngedwa, (look at me only) as the Zulus would put it.
We are so unclear, confused and incoherent, yet excited about where we fit in our history, that we take chances to kwassa-kwassa in and out of this history with more confusion. All the while we try to replace the people who truly made it possible for us to be here today to enjoy the fruits of democracy, peace and stability that we so often take for granted. This uncertainty leaves many of us to lie about or own heroism, knowing very well in our hearts that we did not do what we claim to have done. In fact, most of us were on the outside, fearing change. Many were resisting and fighting change. The rest of us were just following others, as we are doing today. In my language most of us would fit the description of Tu ka wa tate –accompaniments, back riders agterryers.
During this heroes week we will hear a good number of politicians, commentators and position seekers telling unverified stories about who the nation’s heroes were, and as usual women are excluded from the list, save for those who behaved like men and caused terrible inconvenience on other Namibians. The choice of heroes and sheroes cannot be a simple one as one person’s hero is another’s villain.
Yesterday’s terrorists are today’s heroes. Yesterday’s role models are today’s laughing stock, and such is history. What goes around, comes around, and goes again. Ignorance, ala Confucius, is the night of the mind, and ignorance keeps us safe sometimes. We should not remain ignorant. We need to gain more clarity about who we ought to celebrate as heroes and get buried at Heroes Acre. The point is that if we carry on at the rate we are going with dishing out hero status, soon there will not be enough space for all of us at Heroes Acre. The next generation will have its own yardsticks of heroes and develop their own brand of heroes. They will need the space for their own heroes and sheroes. The next generation will have to ask us to leave the Heroes Acre and relocate elsewhere.
As we anticipate a week of falsehoods, limited truths, more song and dance and gender-based violence, let us consider the historical meaning of a hero so that we are more discerning about what we shall say and hear next week. Definitions, understanding and proper use of words and concepts can be helpful towards a common appreciation of what is at hand. And because we use a foreign language to transport our thoughts and feelings, it might not hurt to go back to the meaning of what we are talking about. It might also assist us in our efforts to find proper descriptions and terms of reference for individuals to earn the accolade as a heroes in our annals. We cannot all be heroes, just as there cannot be as many war veterans as we have now. The abuse of the state’s efforts to recognize those who fought and sacrificed for freedom is another sad story in our nation. In Namibia today, many people, including those who are able-bodied and still working, have claimed and receive war veterans’ monies because they remember having guests for one night who turned out to be PLAN fighters, or they remember having attended a few Nanso meetings in the 1980s. One would not be surprised if next week the list of heroes is longer and will include those who were not born yet when our Founding Fathers and Mothers were sweating it out to craft and agree on the contents and spirit of the Constitution of the Republic, that Testament of Hope that nobody is entitled to tamper with, no matter how high the frustration. President Geingob is to be commended for his leadership to defend the Constitution that he has taken a sacred oath to defend and protect.
A hero (masculine) or heroine (feminine) is a person who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through impressive feats of ingenuity, bravery and personal strength, often sacrificing his or her own personal safety for some greater good or to save another person or persons in danger. The concept of hero first appeared in classical works of fictional literature, such as ancient legendary individuals who often strove for conquest in battles to save the lives of their people, including the weak and the vulnerable. With time this definition changed to accommodate those individuals who are admired for acts of bravery or fine individual leadership qualities.
The word hero has its origin in the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), “hero, warrior”, particularly, and referred specifically to individuals with some divine ancestral lineage, or those who by virtue of their life accomplishments were given divine recognition and honour. They would be known as “protectors” or “defenders” of something bigger than themselves. The Indo-European root of hero is “to protect”, or in line with the Latin ‘seruāre’, meaning to safeguard. Etymologically, therefore, the foundation of the word hero is that of ‘protector’.
A classical hero is considered to be a ‘warrior who lives and dies in the pursuit of honour’ and asserts his or her greatness by ‘the brilliancy and efficiency with which they kill’. Each classical hero’s life focuses on fighting, which occurs in war or during an epic quest. Classical heroes are commonly semi-divine and extraordinarily gifted, like David who faced the Philistine giant Goliath, evolving into heroic characters under perilous circumstances. As the biblical story of little David illustrates, heroes in those days were incredibly resourceful and skilled; but they were often foolhardy and courted disaster as they risked their followers’ lives when they dared to take on the task of protecting the rest for trivial matters, and behaved arrogantly and in a childlike manner. During classical times, people regarded heroes with the highest esteem and utmost importance, explaining their prominence within epic literature. The appearance of these mortal figures marks a revolution of audiences and writers turning away from immortal gods to mortal mankind, whose heroic moments of glory survive in the memory of their descendants, extending their legacy.
In the time when Jesus of Nazareth taught a new moral heroic code, the definition changed from killing for what you believed in to dying for what you believed in. In this trajectory followed Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and the latter Nelson Mandela. The narrative of the Good Samaritan illustrates how a person who was in danger saw another person in greater danger and was willing to sacrifice his own security to help the other person facing death, for that matter someone he did not even know. The question the Good Samaritan asked himself was an extraordinarily different question from what most of us would ask ourselves. Instead of asking himself: What will happen to me if I stop to help this man, he asked himself the question: what will happen to this man if I do not stop to help? Furthermore the Good Samaritan did not chase after the robbers who wounded his patient to exact revenge on them but was only concerned about the recovery and safety of the wounded man who needed immediate help. This means that most of the people we celebrate today as heroes would not pass this test because they exacted revenge on the enemy or somebody and waged a war during which people died while they themselves were heavily guarded.
Stories of heroism often serve as moral examples, even though not all historical heroes embody the Christian notion of an upstanding, perfectly moral individual. For example, one of our heroes, Mandume yaNdemufayo’s was of hateful rage and overwhelming pride that led to merciless slaughter of many of his subjects who rubbed him up the wrong way. The philosopher Friedrich Hegel gave a central role to the ‘hero’, personalized by Napoleon, as the incarnation of a particular culture’s Volksgeist, and thus of the general Zeitgeist.
Thomas Carlyle’s biographies of a few central individuals such as Oliver Cromwell or Frederick the Great, were descriptions of political and military figures – those who founded and/or toppled states. Interestingly, his depictions of great men included geniuses, good men and, perhaps for the first time in historical study, evil.
In our days, we conflate heroism with altruism and even generosity. Altruism is when we act to promote the welfare of other people in society because it is intrinsically nice to do something in the interest of the greater good. Though some believe that humans are fundamentally self-interested, much of our life experience shows that people’s first impulse is to cooperate rather than compete, such that little children tend to spontaneously help people in need out of a genuine concern. Evolutionary scientists such as Charles Darwin called this instinct ‘sympathy’ or ‘benevolence’ as they speculated that altruism has deep roots in human nature because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species. For instance, wealthy people who through benevolence give to the more vulnerable are considered heroes when they are not. Sports people – Supermen and Wonder Women – are considered today as heroes, when they compete not to save lives, but for fame and money. There is nothing wrong with that, and they should be celebrated for that, but they are not heroes. In the sports enterprise, sportsmen and women would rather wish their opponents to fall sick during the competition so that they can win! That is not heroism.
As we prepare for next week, we ought to bear in mind what heroes and sheroes ARE NOT – in the Namibian House. To be in a position of power with the capacity to hurt or excite the highest number of people and get away with it does not make one a hero. Not all soldiers in any war are heroes. Not all who die in a war are heroes either. Political party membership is not a badge of heroism. To have a distinguished career is not a licence to heroism. To die in a car accident or while holding a government official position is not a passage to heroism. To be appointed a minister or governor or ambassador is not a registration into the book of heroes. Children do not inherit heroism from their parents. Heroism is not bought with gifts or sponsorships to the government. Heroism is not transferred through marriage.
Let us as a nation identify and celebrate our heroes – those men and women, even children for that matter, who deliberately choose to get in harm’s way to defend or protect another person who is in danger. The hallmark of heroism is courage. My first nominee for heroism this year is the four-year-old son of the late Tiffany Lewin, the young lady who was murdered in Khomasdal, Windhoek, by her enraged lover in March 2014. To defend his dying mother, the boy took a kitchen implement and stabbed it in the leg of the murderer. Later when he was told that his mother was no more, he only asked: ‘Is my mom in heaven?’