Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2020

Travellers, by Helon Habiba

As you’ve probably guessed, most of my reading over the last little while has been books for Indigenous Literature Week so my reviews have been scheduled to start tomorrow.  But Helon Habila’s Travellers, which I heard about via the Auckland Writers Festival came in at the library, and I’ve squeezed it in between one book and another…

Travellers is about privilege, and how sharing a skin colour doesn’t necessarily generate empathy.  That takes a willingness to listen, and the book records the physical and metaphysical journey of an unnamed Nigerian academic on a fellowship in Berlin, who learns that he has more in common with the refugees on the streets around him than he had thought.  His wife, who is African American, is an artist who does not see what is in front of her…

Stolperstein (Wikipedia)

The book is structured around a series of linked narratives, featuring a transgender film student of deliberately obscured national origin; a Libyan surgeon searching for his wife and son who were lost when their smuggler’s boat capsized in the Mediterranean; and a young Zambian who is seeking answers to the murder of her brother in Berlin.  Two catalysts trigger the academic’s journey: the first is when his wife turns away a refugee responding to her callout for subjects for her portraits because his face remains unmarked by suffering; the second is when, having followed this refugee and joined a protest against a café owner discriminating against black immigrants, the academic stumbles on a Stolpersteine embedded in the pavements of Berlin to commemorate people wrenched from their homes and transported to oblivion.  He realises that home and belonging is not something that anyone can take for granted.

One of the most powerful images in the book is the infamous symbol of the Berlin Wall, which divided a nation and families for generations. In this novel Checkpoint Charlie is a meeting place for the lost.  Manu, unwilling to abandon patients who needed him, had left it very late to flee from Libya, and his plans for escape were flimsy.

‘…I was the only doctor for miles around, when eventually even the sick stopped coming to the clinic for fear of the violence on the streets.  I told my wife to take the children and leave.  She refused, she wouldn’t go without me.  Then one day, I took the kids to school as usual and the gate was closed, not even the guard was there, that was when I knew it was time to go.  When we came home, my wife was ready, unknown to me she had packed weeks before, and just waiting for me to come to my senses.  And still I was reluctant to go.  “But if we go, who will take care of the sick and the wounded?” I asked.  “Let the politicians take care of them,” she said.
‘We decided to come to Berlin, that’s where everybody was going.  Also, I had an old school friend here, Abdul Gani.  We had no plan, nothing.  The most important plan was to get out of Tripoli alive.  Also, I told her, “If anything happens on the way and we are separated, continue on to Berlin.  Look for me at Checkpoint Charlie.  I’ll wait there, every Sunday.” ‘
‘Why Checkpoint Charlie?’ Angela asked.
He shrugged.  ‘I had read about it in books. It seemed as good a place as any.’  Then he added almost shyly, ‘In the movies lovers always meet at a prominent landmark, like the Empire State Building, or the Eiffel Tower.’
‘You must love your wife very much.’
‘Yes,’ he said.  (p.91)

Manu gets an opportunity to ‘move on’ but like Portia seeking answers to her brother’s murder, he is stranded by the fractures in his relationship.  The migrant experience, whether forced or not, means separation from people and place and heritage, and these things can not be restored, as Habila shows in the case of Portia’s father who became wedded to his identity as a professional exile, long after circumstances in Zambia changed and he could go home in safety.

There are many interesting aspects to this novel which would make a great choice for book groups.

Image credit: Stolpersteine

Author: Helon Habila
Title: Travellers
Cover design by Gray318
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House) 2019
ISBN: 9780241394502, hbk., 295 pages
Source: Bayside Library



  1. I heard about this book just recently but don’t remember where. It does sound like a great book club read. (If they ever start meeting again).


    • Yes, I’ve read a fair few memoirs from refugees, but this book offers an interesting new perspective.


  2. […] that brings me to the book I’ve just read: Travellers by Nigerian author Helon Habila.  (See my review). This powerful novel about the migrant experience has the ring of authenticity because it derives […]


  3. It seems like a great book.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds exactly my kind of book – plus I love a Berlin setting.


    • I enjoyed recognising some of the places in the novel even though I’ve only had three days in Berlin and most of that was in the museums. But I understood what he was doing with his reference to Checkpoint Charlie… it’s such a jolly place now, full of tourists getting their pictures taken with the soldiers who are really actors, and, by the look of things, hardly anybody really understanding what it used to represent.
      What did surprise me was that I did not see, or stumble over, any of those stumble-stones. Not one. Maybe it was just the area that we were in. Though we did go to the Jewish Museum and the Garden of Exile and the Void… I couldn’t go to Berlin and not pay my respects there.


      • Oh, I did see plenty of those Stolpersteine. Mind you, one of my oldest and dearest friends lives in a building in Berlin where a family hid a Jewish girl for several years during the war, so it was hard to avoid them!


        • I’ll certainly look out for them if I ever get to go back.
          Right now, travel is completely off the menu…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Of course! My post-covid resolution is to never postpone anything… because you never know what will come next.


            • We can’t even travel interstate, much less anywhere else…


  5. […] Travellers by Helon Habila […]


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