What is a hero? One definition says a hero is a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities. Another says a hero is a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.
When CNN informed me I had been chosen to be one of their 2012 CNN Heroes for my work with AIDS orphans at Nyaka School in Uganda I was excited, ecstatic, and humbled. I never think of myself as a hero. I am a normal man doing the best that I can to help others. I don't see myself as particularly courageous or as an achiever of brave deeds. Soldiers who go to war or firefighters who save people from burning buildings are those types of heroes.
In June, CNN accompanied me to my home village of Nyakagyezi to film me in action for two days straight. I taught class at the school, drank porridge and played soccer with the students, and visited grannies whose lives have been transformed by our holistic program that helps everyone in the village. After all the filming, I sat down with a producer for a two hour interview. Near the end, she asked me, what is a hero to you and are you a hero?
I am not a hero, I told her.
She asked me again and I thought of the dictionary's second definition of hero, a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal. If anything, I was a model to others, but I still couldn't see myself as a hero.
I gave her an answer from my heart. If people think I am a hero, then they will have to say it, not me. To me, heroes are people like my grandmother who walked miles every night to my hospital bed to read me stories from Psalms so I would not die of infection; my teacher who believed in me and inspired me to aim higher; my mother who gave me undying love and my mentors who led the way. Most of all, the orphaned children and their grannies who inspire me to work hard every day are heroes. That is why I wrote their stories in my memoir, A School for My Village. Without their courage, there would be no book, no TIME magazine article, no NPR story, and no CNN Hero recognition.
I can't help but smile, thinking of seven-year-old Emmy.
While we were filming, he was given a small box of juice to drink while waiting on me and the film crew. Emmy sipped until the box was half-full and stopped. Later, I asked him why he did not finish his juice, thinking he did not like it. He said he wanted to save some for his granny because she had never tasted juice from a box. In his own small way, he was a hero, sharing when he had so little to give.
I fondly remember Matrida, a Nyaka granny who was invited by the Stephen Lewis Foundation to their Toronto granny event. After dinner with Stephen Lewis, he embraced her and kissed her on the cheek. Matrida jumped back as if Stephen had bit her. She laughed and said that she had been kissed for the first time in her life. Matrida was 75-years-old and had raised nine children, yet she had received little affection. For the first time, she had been recognized for her sacrifice and undying love for her children and grandchildren with an embrace and a kiss!
What is a hero? I've been thinking long and hard about that since CNN contacted me. A hero can be a brave and noble person willing to sacrifice his or her life. But in my mind, a true hero is one who gives unselfishly to help others. I see heroes join our Nyaka team every day, donating their time, giving a few dollars, sponsoring a student's education for a year, or raising money to build an entire school. They have transformed not only the lives of our students and grannies; they have transformed their own lives.
Think of what life would be like if we were all heroes.