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

By Kula, Anna | Journal of Pan African Studies, December 2018 | Go to article overview

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


Kula, Anna, Journal of Pan African Studies


Introduction

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.

Displacement

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. …

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