Human Rights and Displacement in Literature: The Case of M. Mwangi's Kill Me Quick and K. Kombani's The Last Villains of Molo.

Author:Kula, Anna
Position:Critical essay


Commenting on the urgency of human rights discourse, Eleni Coundouriotis and Lauren Goodlad (2010) observe that 'human rights will remain central to many contemporary debates--from the global economy to the environment, gay marriage, human trafficking, and cultural and religious nationalism' (p. 121). Discourse on human rights in the recent past has tended to take on a multi-disciplinary approach. As such it is important to explore the nature of relationship between literature and human rights, the pertinent issue in this case being what literary studies can contribute to scholarship on human rights?

Existing scholarship has linked developments in human rights discourse to literature especially the narrative forms--the novel, memoir and testimony. (1) Henkin as cited by Chanda (1998, p. 71) defines human rights as those benefits deemed essential for individual well-being, dignity and fulfilment, and that reflect a common sense of justice, fairness and decency. Since literature strives to improve human well-being, it is thus seen as embodying human rights and as articulating violation or promotion of these rights. To this end, this work agrees with James Dawes (2009) that human rights work, especially advocacy, entails story-telling. If we take this to be the case then, we can naturally argue that the narrative genres play an important part in intervening in issues of human rights.

Kerry Bystrom (2008), points out the capability of imaginative literature to 'create bonds of empathy and connection, draw national and international attention to human rights abuses, and denounce the exclusion of certain individuals and groups from the protections afforded by international human rights law' (p. 388). In the same vein, Ben Davis (2015) suggests that literature is a means of encountering other people's stories, of fostering empathy, and inspiring imagination. For Davis, literature can open one's eyes to the reality of others and to a realisation that humanity shares one world. Both Bystrom and Davis imply the concept of literary humanitarianism, the idea that 'the reader may fulfil a humanitarian act by reading a story of suffering' (Rickel 2012, p. iv). That literature is a vehicle of humanitarianism is a key idea in this presentation.

Rickel (2012) further posits that human rights are a dominant framework through which we narrate and read political violence in contemporary literature concerning Africa, the Caribbean, and the Indian subcontinent (p. iii). But while the language of human rights as enshrined in the law and international human rights documents is a preserve of the elite, I agree with Javangwe and Tagwirei (2013) that literature does free human rights discourse off the legalese, making it accessible to the ordinary citizens. Therefore, the reader of a novel can interact with human rights without the burden that comes with legalistic terms.

It is against this background, of the relationship between literature and human rights, that I propose to analyse the theme of human rights in areas of displacement in the two novels. The contribution presupposes the knowledge that literature provides challenge to dominant ideologies, that literature can portray both violation and defence of human rights, and that literature communicates societal values. In all these three roles, there is no gainsaying the fact that literature is a direct participant in human rights discourse.


The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement defines internally displaced persons as persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border. While this definition gives prominence to violence and conflict as the major causes of internal displacement, there are other reasons that force people to move from the residential homes and even find it difficult to return to these homes. Lucy Kiama and Fredrick Koome (2014) list the causes of displacement in Kenya: the colonial thirst for land, the punishing effects of global warming, development-related displacement, clan clashes, cattle rustling and politically motivated violence. The history of displacement in Kenya thus goes back to 1915 when Kenyan masses were displaced from their land and forced to work in European-owned farms. Displacement has its own attendant risks; Michael Cernea (1997) outlines the major impoverishment risks in displacement as follows: landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalization, morbidity, food insecurity, loss of access to common property assets, social disarticulation and education loss. (2) Cernea's list reinforces a key argument here: that displacement avails an environment that favours violations of human rights.

Human rights and displacement in Kill Me Quick and The Last Villains of Molo

This paper relies on a reading of the two novels as social documents, which can contribute to our understanding of displacement as a human rights issue. Drawing on two novels--Meja Mwangi's Kill Me Quick (1973) and Kinyanjui Kombani's The Last Villains of Molo (2004)--I demonstrate that what would be popularly referred to as the theme of displacement in socio-political reading of these novels is indeed an exploration of issues of human rights within areas to which characters are displaced. In literary terms, these areas are the settings, the locations of the narratives. I use the two novels published three decades apart to show that in cases of displacement, despite the reason for it, the characters suffer relatively the same human rights abuses.

The two novels have Nairobi city as a setting and an area of displacement for characters. The writers take the characters from as a rural set up to an urban one where differentiation among people is pronounced; this is a strategy to aid the writers in their focus on injustices the characters face as such injustices are common where class differences are significant. As Joseph Slaughter (2004) observes, the city is a constant compulsion for the characters to move into it. In Kill Me Quick, the characters move into the city in search of paid employment after completing secondary school education.

The novel was written in the wake of urbanisation where rural-urban migration caused displacement of rural population into urban areas. Even though this movement appears voluntary, circumstances force the characters to move from their habitual homes in search of employment. The main characters, Maina and Meja, find it difficult to return to their rural homes. It is indisputable that these characters are displaced. In The Last Villains of Molo, the characters move because ethnic conflict displaces them from their rural homes in Molo to other areas, the city being one of these areas.

Violations of Human Rights in Displacement

The characters in the two novels hope that the movement to the city will ensure fulfilment of their rights: for Maina and Meja it is the fulfilment of their right to employment whereas for Kimani, Kiprop, Irungu, Lihanda and Kibet (3), the city is a haven of peace away from their antagonistic ethnic groups. Displaced from their familiar environments however, the characters become vulnerable to human rights abuses. The first of these is their inability to secure paid employment in the city. In Kill Me Quick the city confronts them with 'No Vacancy' signs. Maina is the first to look for employment and getting none; he accepts unemployment as a norm. Meja becomes so desperate and frustrated that he pleads with prospective employers for a job that can pay even as little as twenty shilling or anything the employer would be willing to pay him. Thus, in his desperation he gives a prospective employer power to oppress him by paying him anything. He pleads, 'I can... sweep and wash dishes and... chop wood... .Any job... thirty... twenty... anything you like' (Mwangi 1973, p. 8). Contrary to their expectation to get employment, Maina and Meja get to a cul-de-sac in their journey; their right to employment is unfulfilled and by implication, they lack the means of fulfilling their rights to decent food, shelter and clothing as they expected.

The characters in The Last Villains of Molo go through similar experiences. Their education is discontinued by the fact of their displacement. Kimani and Irungu hoped to complete their primary school education and get initiated but their hopes are dashed by the clashes. Without sufficient formal education the characters thus lack a prerequisite to paid employment. They try their hands on several skill-related jobs. Bone tries music; Kiprop tries football; Rock has a small shop; Bomu is...

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