Heroes’ Day: Time for the youth to rise to the occasion - Nkusi

Rwanda Defence Force jazz band pay homage to Rwandan heroes at the National Heroes’ Mausoleum in Remera last year. Village Urugwiro.

Rwandans will on February 1 mark the 25th Heroes’ Day celebrations. The day, which will be celebrated at the village level, has been preceded by a series of activities aimed at inculcating patriotism among Rwandans of different backgrounds.

Last week, The New Times’ James Karuhanga interviewed the Executive Secretary of the Chancellery for Heroes, National Orders and Decorations of Honour (CHENO), Deo Nkusi, who shed light on the concept of heroism and the role the country’s youth can play in national development.


First, let’s have conceptual clarity; who is a hero and, what is heroism?

Heroism largely implies great acts of bravery that involve putting others first, even at one’s own peril. In Rwanda we define heroes as being people with proven integrity, patriotism, vision or a sense of purpose and direction, self-sacrifice by giving up personal interests to defend the public’s interests, and are loyal to the country in many ways.

This person is known for daring acts, courage or bravery. He or she must demonstrate self-dignity and is also known as not being selfish or materialistic but cares for other Rwandans. In the Rwandan context, a hero is no coward, does things for public interest and with integrity, is courageous and much more.

Heroism is a global term but Rwanda has, certainly, its own history, context and all. There cannot be so much difference and we tried to harmonise with what goes on around the world. But we very much consider our unique culture and values too.

As we celebrate our heroes for the 25th time, what’s the new direction?

What I can say is that every year we have different themes but they are usually related. Last year, we focused on building the Rwanda we want. This is a mission that will keep on but after 25 years, there is a direction the country has taken and decisions made.

The path we are in now aims at consolidating or protecting the gains made and upholding development so that the future generation will have a better life.

At the same time, we want to strengthen the culture of heroism in the current and future generations.

Over the years, have you noted any particular challenges as regards sustaining the culture of national heroism?

Challenges can never be avoided as long as one lives. In our past, being a hero was a very important cultural value taught to children in the family and the national civic education training programme, itorero.

So much value attachment was put to it to the extent that people were willing to die for the nation.

The first challenge therefore, is that even though a culture has a certain direction, there usually come external forces that cause problems. Things change; people’s way of life changes and this kind of change also impacts on the way people behave.

As the world evolves there is a harmful impact on heroism.

What such specific things disrupt our cultural norms and heroism with the passing of time?

One is foreign cultures which tend to erode our culture. You find some of our very important values being diminished and this started long ago, with colonialism. Colonialism stopped people from being who they are and valuing their own cultures and values.

This caused a gradual shrink in heroism. The strong love for the nation ebbed. The strong attachment to family ties lessened. Patriotism has implication to strong family bonds and the lessening of heroism negatively affects our bigger family.

All these ills started with colonialism. And, clearly, we are not yet out of the woods. But we must do something so that our culture and values, and heroism, do not totally end.

This present dilemma of people telling us that our things are not good or are of a lesser value is very destructive. When people start turning their back on the family and embrace an individualistic way of life this erodes our culture of heroism.

Do we then put all blame on foreigners for spoiling or eroding our cultural values, and ties?

The foreigners started it; they sowed the bad seed. But it is us now doing the weeding and adding manure.

We need to ask ourselves whether their things and values are of any importance to us but that does not imply we should not move with the changing times.

The Executive Secretary of the Chancellery for Heroes, National Orders and Decorations of Honour, Deo Nkusi. Courtesy.

What other challenges can you talk of then?

Everything is built on and revolves around that one; it is hinged on a gradually changing culture and those external influences that largely came with colonialism.

Lately, attention is being put on the country’s youth. Unpack this for us; why the youth?

Focus has always been on heroism as part of Rwandan culture. No doubt about that. But now we thought about how we can best bequeath this much valued heroism to next generations.

How can we teach and instill heroism in our children and bearing in mind the way of life today, in this very fast world which has become a global village where there is climate change and efforts to fight poverty and so on.

We decided that it is important to focus on the youth as heroism is no longer a thing only for the old. The youth are the ones largely working and capable of developing and defending this nation. They have the energy to work.

If you don’t teach them while they are still young and impart culture, values and norms, a time will come when they won’t be heroic and then we shall be in a lot of trouble.

The liberators of this country were not entirely the youth as there were old people actively involved in the struggle but the youth who participated owe their patriotism to the upbringing they got from their parents.

Those who took up arms, however, were mainly the youth. The youth today need to take the baton from the liberators and other heroes past and take this nation to greater heights. And they have all it takes to do it.

Would today’s youth also take up arms? Or is that all there is to do, for the nation, or to be a hero?

It is not arms only that bring about development, or peace. And nor are arms the only makers of heroes. Right now the most important war we are fighting is that of building and developing the country.

We are looking at national wealth and good welfare. There is also, undoubtedly, good relations. This means there will also be heroes who have not fought gun battles.

There will be heroes of national development. Today, for example, if someone created a tool that solved most of our big development puzzles, don’t you think that person would be a national hero?

Wouldn’t someone who discovers a malaria vaccine be a hero? These things or efforts would never diminish the importance of a war to defend the nation and its sovereignty but they too are very important. Heroism is reflected in all actions that benefit the wider family or society.

Before February 1, how are national celebrations set?

In general, what we are doing is creating public awareness and especially targeting the youth on our culture and values of heroism.

There are talk shows on television and radio, news publications, sporting events, cultural shows, and others through which the message is conveyed.

And what happens on the main day, February 1?

On the main day, as usual, the day will be celebrated at the village level. Each and every village will have a programme to follow. There will be talks or discussions and exemplary people in our society will be appreciated for their efforts.

Thanking those who do good is very important. Thanking those who do good is part and parcel of Rwandan culture and this can be done at village level too. The country has this in its policy framework. Appreciating good works and deeds goes hand in hand with abhorring the bad and wrong doers, of course.

And then people will again use it as an opportunity to decide what they plan to do in their communities. Again, on thatday, at the Heroes Mausoleum in Remera, senior leaders will pay their respects to national heroes.

They will ray wreaths. It is a big high-level ceremony that lasts about 30 or 45 minutes. Afterwards, families or the next of kin of the departed heroes such as the Nyange school heroes also come to pay their respects.

Graves of slain former students of ES Nyange Valens Ndemeye and Marie Chantal  Mujawamahoro. Courtesy.

How many Nyange school heroes are still alive?

The survivors were 40 but eight have so far passed on. Immediately after 1997, six passed on. One died in 2001 after succumbing to internal wounds caused by grenade fragments.

And then another died just last year from normal illness.

That was Ananias, he was from Bugesera. We know where the remaining survivors reside and we often invite them in ceremonies. There are two who are currently abroad but we are in touch.

Any special message as a parting shot?

Our request is that Rwandans carry on with championing the culture of heroism; parents, the young, teachers, leaders at different levels, in all the good things they teach the population, the good values of heroism must be part of the discourse.

But teaching these values shouldn’t be just about talking. Shouldn’t leaders teach by doing or practicing what they preach?

I agree. There is the part of explaining these things and values but there is also one being exemplary. How can a corrupt leader speak about fighting corruption? Truly, leaders must be exemplary.

We must be heroes in our deeds wherever we are. We must love work and promote good work. We have national values. One is love of the nation and its people.

Second is unity; third is work ethics and striving to do good work. Fourth is integrity and this entails all the positives from a good culture and values of a Rwandan.

And then, of course, my other important appeal is for Rwandans to respect this day and turn up in large numbers to celebrate the day and perhaps let it be a starting point for building our good culture.