Social Cause, Consequence and Commitment in African Fiction: A Focus on Meja Mwangi’s ‘Kill Me Quick’

Abstract
The flow of argument in this paper augments the existing pre-requisites for measuring the degree of social commitment in African fiction. In achieving this objective, Meja Mwangi’s Kill Me Quick was examined with a view to establishing its social relevance and commitment. Though its social relevance was acknowledged, the work’s social commitment was suspect. Based on this finding, a discussion of what should have been was made. The views of a critic and a writer on the relationship between literature and the people were discussed as supporting influence of the focus of the paper.

Concluding, the paper believes that true commitment in African writing is achievable through:
– persistent and consistent exposition of all the shades of denigration in the social system;
– prescription of attenable solutions to the highlighted problems; and
– suggestion of means of maintaining and preserving the achievements.

Introduction:
Making a case for the social responsibility of the writer (Egudu 1978:2) quoting Kolawole Ogungbesan said that,

the writer is a member of society and his sensibility
is conditioned by the social and political happenings
around him; for these issues form a part of the substance
of life within which his instinct as a writer must struggle.

The concern of this quote is obviously that of the need for art to make human relevance one of its fortes and the necessity for the writer to reflect socio-political uncertainties in his works. In other words, a work of literary merit that relegates to obscurity, the unpalatable and perhaps the palatable socio-political experiences of its society will end up being inconsequential.

Still on the responsibility of the artist to society, (Ngugi 1988:38) believed that,

…literature should be used deliberately and consciously as
a weapon of struggle in two ways: first by trying as much as
possible to correctly reflect the world of struggle in all its stark
reality and secondly by weighting sympathies on the side of those
forces struggling against national and class oppression and
exploitation….

He further opined that,

…the more conscious a writer is about the social forces at work in
his society and in the world, the more effective he or she is likely to
be as a writer.

The need for the writer to be sensitive to his society’s predicaments, shortcomings and gains is not a later-day phenomenon. Glimpses of this onerous task are inherent in the pronouncements made by great thinkers of antiquity. For instance, while Socrates was defending himself on one of the charges leveled against him, he said that,

I am that gadfly which God has attached to the State; and all day long
and in all places, am always fastening upon you, arousing, persuading
and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and
therefore, I would advise you to spare me.

This declaration contains enormous, yet justifiable and attainable commandment for the writer because his relevance involves his ability to suppress his puny ego and mould his works to capture and reflect in a pulsating dimension issues that are of public concern and intimacy. In other consideration, ‘arousing, persuading and reproaching’ the populace should constitute the responsibility of any serious artist who is concerned with uplifting the social consciousness, broadening the social perceptive and intimating the masses with every facet of their socio-political denigrations.

It is with this consideration that supports the need for creative works to play a reflective role on the predicaments of the hoi-polloi that we should examine Meja Mwangi’s Kill Me Quick.

Kill Me Quick: An Examination.
In the novel, the author articulates the gradual degeneration of the hope, aspiration and the will to live of the educated but jobless person into despondency and desperation which culminates into the transformation of these enlightened jobless members of the social system into a social nuisance. It is the plight of these people, their quotidian subsistence and the possible attendant consequences of such social neglect that the author makes infer from the dramatics of being killed quick. In achieving this end, he uses the literary device of dialogue, description, authorial comment and action embellished with humour. This paper examines bits and pieces of the plight in an attempt at evaluating what makes fiction to be on the side of the oppressed.

The novel is prefaced with a one-stanza poem which captures the essence of life as experienced by the protagonists: here are two adolescents conscious of what their society has taught them to regard as a feasible appendage to their indigenous upbringing– western education. They had it, at least to the level which their parents’ purse could afford. And, in answering a traditional demand of the African society—the offspring being responsible to his extended family once he attains certain social status—the protagonists aimed to repatriate part of what they hoped to earn as wages to help subsidize feeding, clothing and other miscellaneous expenses of their parents and siblings.

However, and in spite of their overt determination, the prevailing situations prevented them from realizing this dream. The failure of the protagonists to correctly decipher the dynamism of the system is the tone of despondency in the poem. The helplessness and passive tolerance with which the protagonists treated the emerging psychological destruction awaiting them is in the initial lines of the poem:

Days run out for me,
Life goes from bad to worse,
Very soon, very much soon,
Times will lead to the end.

The stoical fortitude with which the protagonists fought destitution, the sheer will to survive, the unrepentant tenacity to living according to the dictate of the backstreets were differentiated from the snuffing socio-economic and exploitative environment they found themselves in. The dichotomy informed the conditional ambivalence towards the end of the poem,

If the sun must set for me
If all must come to an end
If you must be rid of me.

Having exploited all available options at surviving to no avail, the protagonists were conscripted into the world of crime and we realized that they have human trail blazers,
As you have done with all my friends.

Overwhelmed by the wind of crime, the protagonists conditionally let themselves be swept away by the tide of criminality thereby giving us the first hint of the systematic cynical living which forms part of the substance of the novel:

If you must kill me
Do so fast,
KILL ME QUICK.

That the protagonists should not be held responsible for their unwholesome experience is defensible on the premise that they are not academic failures. Each of them excels in his examination and if anything, one expects the system that dictates their expending a part of their active lives schooling to provide them a means of sustenance. But, what do we have? A situation where after journeying into the city in search of jobs, their main food items consists of,

…various kinds of fruit in various stages of decay…slices
of stale, smelly bread and a few pieces of dusty chocolate.

Coupled with the quality of their food, the deplorable condition of the places of abode of the likes of the protagonists is shown when it was night and when,

there was no policeman in sight they sprinted across the road
and hopped into the largest of the supermarket dustbins. They
snuggled close to each other for warmth and immediately
fell asleep intoxicated by the foul smell of rotten vegetables.

And when they finally secure a menial job as farm labourers and one quarters is allocated to each of them, they find it incongruous to with their usual style to sleep separately. It is in the course of determining which of the quarters is the most suitable to accommodate them that the author takes us into the world of their bedroom. And we discover that the place,

…was flea-land, and the whole circular wall practically
plastered with bed bugs. The floor lay as when it was first
created with the rest of the world, rough corrugated and at
least a foot deep in fine dust. Evil black soot hung from
the roof like giant stalactites, so heavy that the thatching
was caving in.

The protagonists’ eventual choice,

…was a little better in a few respects. It was relatively
round less sooty and mysteriously, absolutely flea-free.
Mice and bed bugs there were, but these were less
famished and consequently less hostile…

From this insightful revelation, it is obvious that it is the need to satisfy one of man’s basic needs, acting in its supreme indispensability, that forces the protagonists to choose the better of the quarters and not the because any of them befits human habitation.

Furthermore, the author revisits the age-long, almost legendary disparity in the employment opportunities available to an African and a European recipient of western education. This disparity is shown to us in the scene where one of the protagonists, Maina, encounters the son of his white master. In the discussion that ensues between them, we find out that Maina and Meja (the protagonists) and the white man’s son are products of the same system of education. In fact, both of them pass the same examination. But while the white boy is employed in the city, the protagonists are mere labourers in the farm of the white man. To intensify the oddity, the whole farce is transpiring in the backyard of the protagonists. The import of this scene is almost lost to the touch of humour and the dramatic irony which the author employs to enliven it. However, it is implicitly decipherable that the African environment still discriminates against her own products.

Government’s lukewarm attitude towards the living conditions of the people and its insensitivity to the plight of the masses are other areas which the author covers. This is revealed when Shanty Land, the abode of the severely down trodden, is gutted by fire. It takes the fire incident for government, through its fire department, to intervene with the hope of stopping the inferno and restoring Shanty Land to its former glory, and not to prevent future recurrence or improving the condition of the abode. It was also at this stage (when the fire is on) that government representatives—policemen deem it necessary to move

among the people, urging anyone with any information
that might lead to the discovery of the cause of the fire
to step forward.

Obviously, the author uses the Shanty Land episode to emphasise the debased state of living of the jobless educated and uneducated like Maina, and his friend, Meja, including Razor and his gang. And it raises a few pertinent questions. At what stage is government expected to concern itself with the housing dilemma of its citizens? Is it at the stage of imminent destruction as exemplified by the raging fire at Shanty Land? Or is it at the stage where the structures of the likes of Shanty Land which consists of,

shacks built of paper, tin, mud and anything that could keep out
the rain, thrown together in no particular pattern

is being constructed? This reminds us of our Maroko and Ajegunle and their cousins in South Africa, Kenya and elsewhere. Similar series of questions are pertinent for other social amenities: health, education, sports, economy.

That is not all. The identification of oppressed oppressors does not evade the treatment of the author. The black agent of imperialistic subjugation and neo-colonialist errand boys; the Chums, the Kimerias, and the Jacobos of this world are re-enacted in the form of the scrap metal buyer, Boi, and the foreman. The metal buyer hoodwinks Maina and Meja into selling the bottles and scrap metal they scavenged from rubbish dumps to him for peanuts while he sells the same items at exorbitant price to the ‘big dealer’ in the city. And Boi after coaxing the boys into accepting employment from his boss by promising to assist them if they run into any problem sells cooking and eating utensils to them by way of fulfilling his promise! The foreman is not better, in conjunction with Boi, the cook; he exacts punishment, mostly in form of placing the culprits on half ration, ‘if any of the workers are found idling.’

Perhaps, one pathetic social aberration inferred from the novel is that our prisons are not institutions meant to remould the character of the inmate such that the first timer, on release, may live a straight life but, a place where a minor criminal, by the time he is released, becomes a hardened miscreant, susceptible to committing more and more heinous crimes. We have heard of bizarre reports of convicts preferring to return to the four walls of prisons because three meals are ensure; so they become perpetual criminals. It is through the protagonists’ incessant criminal activities and consequent incarceration that we acquaint this phenomenon with the Chief Warder wondering about,

what went wrong with the young men who came in first time
scared and sorry for their crimes. Then it seems they could not
stop coming back. Most of them he was sure would be buried in
the prison’s cemetery when they died of old age

The Nature of Social Commitment

While it would amount to ingratitude of the utmost not to acknowledge the prodigious creativity of the work, its worth as a socially committed effort encapsulating and imparting positive orientation aimed at solving the galaxy of problems it highlights is suspect. This thrust is based on the belief that apart from articulating societal ills and shortcomings, literature should also be concerned with the implicit prescription of attainable solutions to the to the pin pointed problems.

In my thinking, a teacher who, after identifying a learning disability in his pupils failed to employ any of the teaching methods or a combination of teaching methods to assist the pupils overcome the abnormality, is a failure.

This reasoning makes a case for literary works to conscientise the real recipients of their predicaments, the bashing and disparagement and implicitly informs them on how to go about overcoming such denigration. To assume otherwise is shoving literature from its subliminal level to the abyss of ridicule.

Egudu (1978:2) demonstrates this inclination when he said,

although literature may not and should not usurp the office
of a pulpit-sermon or political propaganda, it is difficult to see
how this art whose primary means of accomplishing it is
language (which itself has a duty to communicate), can fail
to evoke some response or reaction from the reader: for every
communication system operates on the basis of a stimulus-
recognition-response relationship.

He believes that what writers discuss in their works and how they do the discussion are products of ‘social reality.’ These in turn, he advocates ensure that readers show reaction to a piece of literary work. In conclusion, he said,

one’s reaction to literary works may not be a simple course of
physical action (and it does not have to be it may be only a
mental or emotional reaction, which can lead to action—
physical or intellectual.

Operating on similar wave length, Ewen (1984:192) quoting Nurudeen Farah said,

…the writer in Africa and third world countries is looked
upon as the contributor to and/or creator/shaper of the
nation’s enlightened option; he is the doctor and it is he
who must diagnose and then prescribe the right drug for
the nation’s illness; he is to a great number of people,
the light whose beams guide the ark to safety.

By implication, Egudu and Farah achieve a unity of observation in that what the latter sees as ‘the beams that guide the ark to safety’ is tantamount to the former’s ‘stimulus-recognition-response relationship.’ What is of immediate relevance to this discourse is that literary works in a developing society cannot afford not to evoke a response from the readers. The pertinent question is how does it go about inducing this response—physical or intellectual?

Achieving this ultimate end depends on how consistent our creative writers are in instilling in their audience a pattern of active consciousness that can recognize every colour and nature of social deprivation. By persistently harping on the various options and alternatives capable of alleviating his sufferings, the reader would have been armed with necessary vision to identify a disadvantage situation, and by making a synthesis of the implicitly analysed alternatives and options, with the necessary arms to right the wrongs.

Our writers should be bold enough to create new awareness through their works. They should establish new creative culture which has the capability of making their audience internalize the propensity of effective response: the type of response that prompts Karega and Co to initiate the journey to the city; not the type of awareness that makes Okonkwo commit suicide, makes Obi Okonkwo join the bandwagon of corruption, and definitely not the type of consciousness that makes the interpreters to assemble in order ‘to discuss a pantheon of gods on canvas.’ What is being emphasized here is that writers in this emerging society of ours should break away from the old order, and create works that are on the side of the oppressed majority; works that treat all the facets of the bastardization of the masses, not only social neglect and ridicule but also economic, political, educational and cultural.

Aligning with the kind of active passivity and tolerance, stinking with cowardly disposition Mwangi endows his characters in Kill Me Quick might do incalculable damage to the quality of the response obtainable from the reading public.

Is Mwangi telling his audience that faced with the situation Maina and Meja find themselves early in the novel: they had just lost a menial job got for them by an old man, Boi, and in the usual contemplatory mien following such catastrophe, Maina said to his contemporary…

maybe we shall find another Boi to get us a job.

A wish his partner, Meja, compliments,

you yourself told me we have to hang on to what we have
got, life. Things will improve. Let us wait and see.

Should indulge in such silly reasoning and insolent contemplation, almost parasitic inclination as the protagonists show above? Or is he admonishing them to, after a fruitless search for job, release their resourcefulness to transforming them from a man to a thief and a robber and into a jailbird and a wreck, thereby constituting themselves into social nuisance and compounding the problem of society?

And when the author brings the toiling masses, by implication, the farm hands, under the focus of his pen, it is to show us the level of their internalised imbecility: some items were declared missing by their white master, and in the process of the search that followed,

the articles were found. They were tied into a nice bundle
and tucked away under a cookery rack, where no one with
two eyes myopic or not would (not) have failed to see them.
Meja was struck speechless; Maina swore repeatedly. This is
a frame up, he cried. We did not steal them. I swear someone
placed them there.
The fat boss watched them, his face flushed with anger,
which of you did it, he roared. Meja started to say
something then stopped and swallowed loudly. Sweat
covered his face. Boi did it, Maina went on to say. We did
not. (Then) Boi vanished in the direction of the kitchen

Boi’s act of vanishing in the direction of the kitchen coming on the heel of Maina’s accusation is enough to have suggested to a more conscious and imaginative crowd that Boi’s act is more than a coincidence and a full investigation demanded. Instead, the crowd,
with hateful glance at the two youths who had angered
their master dispersed.

Conclusion

As time makes its eternal slow but significant progress, the African writer and the writer in Africa and other developing society must come out boldly in defence of the oppressed and exploited members of the society and assist them in ‘claiming their own.’ He should remember that these exploited and debased people are engaged in implicit struggle with the forces that are relentlessly accentuating their misery. The writer is inevitably needed to

‘dive into the sources,’ and give moral direction and
vision to a struggle which though suffering temporary
reaction, is continuous and is changing the face of a
movement.

So that when the plight of the masses is sufficiently redeemed, the artist will be counted as one of the forces that accentuated the redemption.

———————–
Bibliography
(1) Egudu, R. N. Modern African Poetry and the African Predicament. The Macmillan
Press Limited, London and Basingstoke, 1978
(2) Ngugi’s response to a question at a round-table discussion on ‘The Role of Culture in the African Revolution,’ Published in The African Communist, No 113, 2nd Quarter, 1988.
(3) Ewen, D.R, ‘Nurudeen Farah’ in The Writing of East and Central Africa, G. D. Killam (ed) Heinemann London,1984
(4) Ngugi, Satire in Nigeria, Published in Protest and Conflict in African Literature, Pieterse and Maro (ed), 1969, Heinemann, London.
(5) Mwangi, Meja. Kill Me Quick, Heinemann, London, 1973.

Written by
Segun Akinyode

Segun Akinyode studied at Lagos State University, Lagos. He used to sleep a lot. However, the need to continue writing has substituted sleeping with reading, writing, walking, and eating fruits. He is currently a teacher in the General Studies Department, Moshood Abiola Polytechnic.

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