I Am Not Charlie

By Gerard Boyce · 10 Feb 2015

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Picture: Young man in South African township courtesy American University
Picture: Young man in South African township courtesy American University

I am not Charlie, though I’ve been mistaken for him often enough.

I am not offended by this. Not in the least.

I have that sort of face you see, a face that is an easily recognisable mosaic of indistinct features.

I’m told that I bear a strong resemblance to the frustrated young township dweller who is fearful that unemployment and poverty will condemn him to the life of limited prospects for advancement that was his forefathers’ lot during the dark days of apartheid.

It’s also been said that I can be seen in the terrified expression worn by every Somali shopkeeper in Soweto during their first acquaintance with the brutal contemporary interpretation of the fabled sentiment of Ubuntu.

According to some, my profile is in the defiant posture of tribes people in Gujarat who resist eviction from their ancestral lands in the name of progress and development.

While others maintain that I am the twin of the toddler from Waziristan for whom the whirr of a drone overhead is as familiar as the soothing tune his mother coos when trying to calm him in the aftermath of another deadly strike.

My reflection can be seen in the tears of a mother from Ferguson who is struggling to come to terms with the irony that her child’s life still seems to matter a little less than it ought to in a country that parades itself as a beacon of freedom and a refuge for the persecuted of the world.

My image hangs in the portrait of worried faces that adorns the wall of a Guatemalan shanty from which violence and material deprivation has forced another family member to make the perilous journey north in pursuit of economic opportunities.

I’ve heard too that my essence can be fathomed in the mournful eyes of the Palestinian farmer who has managed to cling to his dignity in spite of the myriad daily reminders of his people’s dispossession, humiliation and isolation.

Although folklore has it that I have been cloned from the DNA of the Papuan detainee who despairs that the media silence surrounding her people’s forgotten struggle for self-determination is final proof that political expediency trumps the universal and timeless desire for justice nowadays.

Others swear they’ve glimpsed me amongst the boatloads of Syrian refugees whose first and only experience of the celebrated humanitarian values of the ‘free world’ will be in a detention centre or at the bottom of the ocean.

Or that my features are clearly etched in the lines that furrow the brow of Nigerian parents in Borno state when uttering their nightly prayers for the protection and safe-keeping of their loved ones.

And some even claim that, if you squint really hard, you can detect the faintest of outlines, a hint of my outline really, in the shadow cast by those who would seek to exploit the fears and anxieties of ordinary citizens in the prosperous West by convincing them that the world is neatly divided between the virtuous ‘us’ and the evil ‘them’.

I am anyone and I am everywhere.

A close relative of those who constitute the underclass in a vastly unequal world and who seem destined to lead lives that are blighted by misery and suffering on the fringes of humanity’s collective consciousness.

Like them, I too am anonymous in this digital age where empathy appears to be reserved for a privileged few and solidarity is pledged via a status update and measured by the popularity of a #hashtag slogan.

Yet we’ve met before; more often before tapping a few computer keys in the comfort of one’s home became the only acceptable form of protest and activism, less so now.

You may remember me as Soraya or Pablo, maybe Shaniqua.

But just in case you’ve forgotten; Je suis Adam.

Boyce is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Accounting, Economics and Finance at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Westville campus). He writes in his personal capacity.

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Dennis Bailey
10 Feb

Feedback to Boyce

Challenging. Inspiring. Insightful and well written.
Congratulations. Well said and well done.
I hope we will hear/learn more from you.

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