The Harsh Demands of Helon Habila’s ‘Travelers.’ A Review by Osemome Ndebbio

Title:          Travelers
Author:      Helon Habila
Length:      295 pages
Genre:        Fiction
Publisher:  W.W. Norton & Company
Year:           2019
Reviewer:   Osemome Ndebbio


Legal immigrants might find it challenging to identify wholly with the experiences refugees and illegal immigrants face in ‘Travelers,’  Helon’s most recent work. Note the word ‘wholly,’ because, in truth, no immigrant is immune to the trepidation that comes with facing the unknown in a foreign country and the inherent culture shock.
Helon’s nameless narrator, a graduate student, lives with his US citizen wife, Gina in America. He agrees to accompany Gina to Berlin, where she has been offered Art Fellowship in a bid to salvage their strained relationship.

While in Berlin, he befriends Mark, an African whose student visa has expired and is facing deportation. Mark, a Malawian is like one of those Africans who never want to return to their country. The narrator’s friendship with Mark propels a series of events that see the narrator turning from a privileged immigrant to the narrator of African refugees’ stories and in an unfortunate twist of circumstances, a refugee himself!In this brave work, Helon exposes the plights, inhumane living conditions of the invisible men of Europe and their battle to become visible.

How easy is migration? To what extent is it all joy? Helon’s narrator, who even though it is his second time of living in a foreign country, faces the prospect with apprehension. In his words, probably the most profound words of the entire text, “Every departure is a death, every return a rebirth, most changes happen unplanned, and they always leave a scar.”The scar comes from learning to re-exist in a foreign land where there is absolutely no time to play catch-up. You hold your hand as you unlearn an old way of living and replace it with a new way. You play to a different set of rules. Nevertheless, some people face immigration with the blind, hopeful, ignorant optimism of indomitable youth until they meet the limitations that racism promotes.


The natives make assumptions regarding immigrants; as they should! Immigrants make assumptions too. There are times when our assumptions and the instincts they breed protect us and keep us from harm. There will also be times when we must cast aside our assumptions, our prejudices, and learned bias and override them with education, exposure, and discernment garnered from interpersonal relations and in the very absence of that, our shared humanity.


The question and answer to immigration isn’t an easy one.  Helon does not have a solution to the problems this book raises but he highlights issues we might not ordinarily ponder on; issues governments and institutions should take more seriously. With civil actions like hunger strikes, immigrants tribulate for what they consider to be their basic human rights. They advocate with demonstrations and may even lose their lives doing so and it begs the question, why do illegal immigrants presume they have the legal right to force themselves on another nation? Why do the natives in a country suppose they should fight for the right to remain void of integration?

Without protests or works such as Helon Habila’s Travelers, what else will awaken our conscience as humans? What else will bring to light the plights of others? What will break through our self-absorbed indifference and provoke change?
In the absence of war, what else would make someone run so far away from home, alienate himself from family and all that is familiar and hurtle toward a seemingly worse fate? There are refugees and illegal immigrants who chose death over life, refusing deportation or to willingly return to their origins. In Travelers, we see that for some refugees, remaining in their country is a fate worse than death but living in squalid detention centers with inhumane conditions, connotes hope!

Readers of Travelers will experience many epiphanies, as they read stories of how refugees acquiesce to certain rituals of hope because the alternative is to capitulate to hopelessness.
Helon is a masterful storyteller. He paints a mix of bleak despair and flagrant hope at the risk of sounding contrived. He dolls out in large doses, the toll that unmet expectation takes. He ensures that we can no longer regress from indignation to tolerance or feigning obliviousness in a way that is reminiscent of the way other people’s experiences can be alien to our experiences like when women see sexism for instance where men can’t.


Every immigrant, legal or illegal has a story. So do the authorities who attempt to curb migration. Whether or not immigration stems from merit, marriage, or hardship, society must address the scourge that causes illegal immigration and its attendant problems.In today’s world, as asylum seekers make harsh demands of their host countries and vice versa,  we must remember, in the words of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,  “History makes harsh demands of us all. But they were demands that had to be met if men were to be the masters and not the victims of their times.”

Osemome Ndebbio is The Village Square Journals Editor for Creative Nonfiction.