‘Every departure a death, every return a rebirth’: A review of Helon Habila’s ‘Travelers’ – Olukorede S. Yishau

“Every departure is a death, every return a rebirth.”

This is one of the many thought-provoking lines in Travelers, a novel by Helon Habila. This deep line and several others in ‘Travelers’ bring to mind the concept of home.

Home, that four-letter word, means so much that the Yoruba have a proverb which translates to “home is the place of rest after a hard work at the farm”. So, what happens when you have a home that you cannot return to? Then you are forced to adopt a new home and find succour in “home away from home”. At the core of this novel is the concept of home in the context of people who have homes they cannot return to.

This novel set in Berlin, Germany and a bit in the U.S. is largely about people forced to go on the run by circumstances beyond their control. It trails the experiences of six African refugees in Europe. Habila drops the reader into a maze of lives in distress away from their homes and unable to find rest abroad. Painfully, they have homes they cannot return to.

The story is told by a nameless narrator, a Nigerian living in the United States with his American wife, Gina, a portrait artist. Their marriage is strained, but when Gina wins a fellowship that requires her to move to Berlin, the narrator joins her. It is seen as a last-ditch effort to rescue the marriage. But Europe turns him into a stranger and his marriage provides no succour as Gina becomes “more oblivious of what was happening around her, her gaze focused only on her painting.”

The situation looks irredeemable.

“We used to be so happy,” Gina says. This is when the narrator declares that he has decided to stay back in Berlin after the end of Gina’s fellowship. The beginning of the end of their union, which starts with Gina’s mis-carriage, refuses the healing hand Gina assumes Berlin will provide.

Mark, a transgender Malawian film student, who escaped to Berlin to pursue his dream, becomes the narrator’s saving grace until the unexpected happens. The narrator’s loneliness assumes a new meaning when his new friend is detained for being in Germany on an expired visa. This ugly side of migration rattles the narrator, who thereafter moves around Berlin, where he comes into contact with African migrants experiencing the ugly sides of being away from home. Mark, who the narrator shockingly finds out was a girl named Mary before bidding his old life bye, later meets a tragic end. His favourite line is ‘even in Berlin I miss Berlin’.

Another traveller we encounter is Manu, a Libyan who fled to Berlin with his daughter while they await his wife’s arrival. Manu, a medical doctor in Libya before the fall of Gaddafi, becomes a bouncer in a night club in Berlin, and every Sunday visits a tourist centre in Berlin, where he and his wife had agreed to meet in case they ever got separated. But she never shows up. And ne never recovers!

The narrator also introduces us to Portia, the daughter of a Zambian writer, who is chasing the ghosts of her father and brother in Switzerland and England. Using these characters, Habila provides readers a guide to the African Diaspora.

The author captures global political moments and the downside of living in exile. The politics of asylum, freedom and Diaspora are laid bare in this important work that can only be the product of one with the heart of an artist.

Habila’s fourth novel is a reminder that the developing world needs to develop fast. Reading Patsy (while away from home) reminds me so much of Lagos and Nigeria. ‘Travelers’ also evokes similar memories. Conflict is the reason why Manu’s life is shattered. In the work, we see our failed states, our deepest fears and lives torn apart by crises caused by men whose greed and ego are beyond description.

The author does not leave us in doubt of the horrors his characters have escaped. He shows that refugees’ lives are complex.

The novel brings back memories of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, which still rear its ugly head from time to time. Nigerians, Zimbabweans and other Africans in South Africa are the victims. Issues like this treated by the author makes us learn and re-learn. He has captured a very significant moment in time with this haunting and unambiguous rendering of a set of broken people. 

This powerful commentary on displacement should ideally provoke those who can change things. But, do they read?

Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘Vaults of Secrets’ and ‘In The Name of Our Father’.

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