Cecil. I wouldn’t mind betting that in a game of word association, ‘lion’ would follow. It feels like a nice irony, the beast being named after the founding father of one of the last bastions of British colonialism. I’m not the best at colonial history, but I do remember my mother attempting to explain UDI to me. Ian Smith’s last gasp. I was about eleven years old. I didn’t understand how he had the right. I still don’t get it now.
Back in those days, I used to gobble up historical fiction. Jean Plaidy was a particular favourite. I don’t doubt her accounts of the lives of Tudor royalty were as fictional as her name. Even so, I imbibed along with the stories a strong sense of the fallibility of those who considered themselves our natural rulers. Take Queen Mary. She’s far from the worst example of her ilk, but she’s the one I need right now. Unhappily married. Depressed. Faking pregnancy in a vain attempt to continue her own bloodline. Come to think of it, Cecil’s bloodline’s also likely to be wiped out by his rivals in the struggle for power. To cut a long story short, Mary was the monarch who finally ceded Calais, England’s last colonial outpost in France. “When I am dead, you will find … Calais engraved upon my heart” she said. Maybe it ought to be engraved upon a few more hearts right now.
I’m gobsmacked at the impact of Cecil. Don’t get me wrong. I have no truck with the idea of killing for entertainment. But the death of one lion with a highly inappropriate name seems to have swept aside all the rest of the suffering on the planet. I did a fair bit of reading before I started to write this. So far I’ve been completely unable to discover the name of the man who died in Calais yesterday. It seems he’s invisible. At least as a human being. Anonymous to all but those who were with him when he died. Assuming anyone was. I imagine he has friends and a family back in Sudan. I did at least manage to find out where he came from. I also imagine they have no idea he’s dead. After all he was only a ‘migrant’. An inconvenience rather than a person. A malfunctioning cog in the world order. A casualty of economic and political structures we hold more sacred than human life. Of war, greed and the lust for power. And yes, of colonialism. British colonialism.
“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know” William Wilberforce was spot on. We choose to look the other way. The label ‘migrant’ successfully obscures the humanity of the people we don’t want to see. They’ve been turned out of their homes. Robbed. Starved. Beaten. Raped. Dispossessed. We pull up the drawbridge of our island fortress. Stick our fingers in our ears. How dare those ‘migrants’ upset our holiday plans. The smooth running of our road freight system. David Cameron talks about ‘swarms’. Katie Hopkins compares them to cockroaches. Thus we dehumanise ‘them’. Make them ‘other’. For if we once allowed ourselves to believe that migrants are people just like us, who knows what chaos we might unleash? With fear as its firewall our government imprisons, abuses and humiliates migrants with impunity. People whose only crime is to have fled war, persecution or torture in their home countries are demonised. Separated from their families. Quietly deported without due process. Subjected by us to the very things they came here to escape.
It seems the man who died in Calais yesterday has become invisible amidst all the rhetoric around migration. Nonetheless, he was a flesh-and-blood human being. He had hopes, dreams and aspirations. He also had energy and motivation. He’d travelled half way around the world who-knows-how. He’d laid everything on the line in search of a future free from suffering. Instead, he’d found himself trapped in the ‘jungle’ of Calais. Yesterday he paid the ultimate price for having the audacity to believe his life was worth more than that. And we won’t even give him the dignity of a name.