The opportunity for heroism exists in all the simple and benign things that we perceive as wrong and have a choice to do something about.
Last weekend my parents and I were driving into the city when we passed a burning tree.
Mindlessly staring out of the window, I noticed it immediately. I remember how it flashed by my eyes so unexpectedly, I took a second to question what I’d seen. Immediately I carelessly interrupted my parents’ conversation, “did you see that?! There was a tree that was on fire!”
We were driving along Limuru Road — a densely populated motorway into the city, in the middle of Karura forest (a forest that is as much a symbol of Nairobi as everything else we take pride in). As I elaborated on what I’d seen, my parents nonchalantly shrugged, as if we were going to dismiss the whole thing. I wouldn’t let them.
“We have to stop,” I said hesitantly.
Without turning uncomfortably to look at me, my mother replied; “what do you want us to do, turn and go back?”
I said yes, neither forcefully nor feebly, but with a lack of conviction that warranted them to pay me no mind. I wasn’t overly fretting about it.
A few minutes later arriving at our destination, something just didn’t sit well with me. The image of that burning tree just wouldn’t escape my mind, I said; “We have to go back, there is a tree on fire in Karura forest!”
Irritable and agitated, my parents agreed. We slowly drove back in the scanning the left side of the road searching for the burning tree. “There it is!” I shouted, affirming that I wasn’t crazy.
We stopped the car on the curb of the road and got out to get a closer look at the tree. It was only then I noticed the number of cars that were driving by — tens of them, no-one seemed to notice the tree. By then, the smoke was thick in the air and easily visible from the road, but it was like no one cared… They just drove past.
Immediately my dad began calling ‘999’ Kenya’s emergency number.
“It says “press one if this is an emergency”, then I press one and it goes off…” he said.
So much for the authorities. But then again, “This is Africa” as some will tell you.
Dad then proceeded to call every emergency number he had in his phone — Gigiri police, Runda Police… nothing.
Growing impatient, we decided to alarm a security guard at one of the houses nearby. He was standing outside a gate. “Have you seen the burning tree over there? Have you called anyone?”
He affirmed that he had noticed it, but he just idly glanced at it, looking just as careless and all the other people who were driving past it.
He then adamantly said; “My responsibility is this area here, not over there…”
We looked at him dumbfounded at first, followed by outrage.
This was a security man. He was looking at a burning tree and his first thought was “it’s not my responsibility”.
“Well, then who the hell’s is it then?!” I wanted to say.
Never mind the fact that we were in a forest and that fire could spread and burn the very home that was, in fact, his “responsibility”.
We later found that this security guard had actually seen the man who lit the tree on fire and did nothing. He stood by and watched a man commit arson but did nothing because it wasn’t his “responsibility”.
Looking back, I’m not so concerned about the what the security guard did, or didn’t do for that matter. What concerned me more was the hundreds of cars that drove past the smog of the burning tree without even stopping to take notice.
What does that say about us? Not just as Kenyans, or Africans, but as humans?
Several minutes later another security truck came by followed by the Kenya police. The story didn’t change. We all stood watching the tree burn deliberating on whether a fire truck was — in the words of the police — “really necessary”.
As we stood there staring at the tree, we noticed that trees tallest branch was now beginning to burn. This tall branch also happened to be hanging dangerously over some electricity lines and the nearby motorway where hundreds of cars were passing… but still, the police just watched the tree burn and every car continued to drive past carelessly.
It’s called the bystander effect; individuals are less likely to offer help when other people are present. Everyone assumes “someone else” will do something.
What I felt went deeper than that.
Humans are funny; we all hate to see the “wrong things” happen, yet at the same time, we hate to be held responsible for them. We would rather shift that responsibility to someone or something else.
That Saturday morning, as my family and I drove past that burning tree, we didn’t want to turn back. We almost wished we hadn’t noticed it because to notice something wrong is to also take on the responsibility of making it right; it is this responsibility that scares most people, so much so that everybody in their cars that morning, who drove past that tree, seemed to pretend that they hadn’t seen anything at all. “Someone else will take care of it, they will tell themselves. What is ironic is that everyone else is thinking the exact same thing, and no-one actually does anything about it.
We left soon after convincing the police to call the fire department. I do wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t stopped that day. If we were one of the hundred cars that drove past and did nothing… if that tree had fallen on the motorway before anyone thought to do anything about it… then this story would have been in the newspaper for all the wrong reasons.
I think we all have this perception of heroism as something grandiose and beyond ourselves; like starting a civil rights movement or saving someone in a burning building. But perhaps heroism is rarely that glamorous.Instead, the opportunity for heroism exists in all the simple and benign things that we perceive as wrong and have a choice to do something about. You may not be able to fly or walk through walls, but you can do ‘something’, and enough people doing ‘something’ is all we need to change our city, our country, and our world.