It’s that time of the year when this country betrays its heroes by travestying them in its choices of whom to celebrate. Mashujaa Day, celebrated on October 20, and Jamhuri Day celebrated in December 12, often provide the perfect stage for this “theatre of the absurd”.
In 2017, Kenyans were served with the very definition of a spectacle when the githeri-wielding Martin Kamotho aka Githeri Man became one of the recipients of the Head of State Commendation on Jamhuri Day. He was not alone.
The commendations were dished out to a few other questionable characters in a clear case of cronyism.
But Githeri Man became the face of this travesty, perhaps because of his incredible grass-to-grace story. The weight of his achievements solely lay in his polythene bag of githeri bought on credit on voting day and a meme-worthy picture taken of him that circulated on social media.
It’s a widely accepted fact that a hero is someone who does something deserving, outstanding, courageous and noble.
Apart from Mau Mau fighters, there are a number of Kenyans whose accomplishments warrant the title of hero. People like the “superman” Eliud Kipchoge, who was the first human to run a marathon in under two hours; Brigid Kosgei, who is the current world women’s marathon record holder and who broke the 16-year-old record set by Britain’s Paula Radcliffe; or Peter Tabichi, who won $1 million (Sh100 million) in the 2019 Global Teacher Prize.
But because reason and common sense often shrivel when the country’s heroes are discussed by the upper echelons of power, it would be a near-miracle to see some of these names on this year’s list of commendations.
In any case, as someone on Twitter suggested, perhaps the stinky criteria sometimes used to hand them out would make one question if the awards truly deserved the awardees.
One of the realities we need to face up to as media is that we help create these questionable heroes with the grass-to-grace stories and coverage of people like Githeri Man. By shining a spotlight on him, we made him famous.
And probably drove him to his destruction as he battled alcoholism. So, Githeri Man, we say pole.
This brings to mind the other heroes who will probably never be celebrated because they might never have a chance at the limelight.
Let’s call one of these heroes Mary. Mary doesn’t own a social media account, but is the most social of human beings: She attends every funeral and every wedding even if she has to walk there. Mary wakes up every morning to pick tea, because that is the only way she can put food on the table.
She knows the school her children go to needs to repair its classrooms, so she saves every shilling she can and contributes generously to the school's repair kitty.
Mary lives in Kawangware with her husband Joseph. They trudge to work in an office complex in Hurlingham every morning where Mary works as a tea girl and Joseph as a messenger. They walk back home in the evening.
Mary and Joseph don’t seek attention. They have no blog, vlog or any other social media account on which to shout about their tribulations. They just get by and that’s okay.
They buy kerosene at the price of diesel; unga at price of petrol; and the only child they have, the one that was going to become a doctor, died alongside others after their classroom collapsed.
Mary and Joseph must be the kind of hero Christopher Reeves, an American actor who played Superman and later became paralysed from the neck down after a horse-riding accident, must have had in mind when he said that a hero is an ordinary person who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.
The resilience of ordinary Kenyans amid a surplus of hedonistic political leadership, high taxation, corruption and all the attendant problems is in itself heroic. Mariah Carey was right: There’s a hero if we look inside our hearts.
The writer is the editor, ‘Living Magazine’; [email protected]