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Post Migration Displacement and Trauma among African Migrants in Helon Habila Travellers and Chika Unigwe Better Never Than Late

Post Migration Displacement and Trauma among African Migrants in Helon Habila Travellers and Chika Unigwe Better Never Than Late

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This study explores post-migration displacement and trauma among African migrants in Helon Habila’s Travellers and Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late. Literary writers at home and in the diaspora have been reacting to the rate at which Africans are leaving the continent for a living in Europe, America and Asian countries. Helon Habila and Chika Unigwe are literary writers who have responded to the migration of Africans from their continent with the publication of Travellers, and Better Never Than Late.

This article, therefore discusses the trials and ordeals of African migrants as portrayed in Habila’s Traveller and Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late. As the migrants try to make out meaning from their broken lives and psyches, they become traumatized and disoriented as a result of the environment they find themselves. Using Caruthian trauma theory as its theoretical bases for analysis, the two selected novels which revealed that the dehumanization of migrants has left them confused and in a state of dementia; revealing that migration has brought them more trauma than the better life they envisaged.

Each of the characters tells their narratives of vicissitudes they have been through. Through technique, Habila and Unigwe present a detailed view of the trials and ordeals of the migrants. The findings also revealed that despondency, forlornness, despair and trauma are the fulcrum of Habila’s and Unigwe’s novelistic experiences in this novel. The article concludes that, to curb this exodus, African countries must counter poverty with economic development, as none of the characters in Habila’s Travellers and Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late has either economic nor mental reprieve; all of them live a desultory life.



1.1 Background to the Study

The various world’s historical events and incidents such as wars (World War I &II), colonialism, natural disasters like flood, drought, and the postcolonial realities of the African states, have had series of socio-cultural, economic and political consequences on man, especially the African man. Therefore, the African man has been in perpetual search of better conditions of living, and the possible means of self actualisation which is the highest need of man as stipulated in Abraham Marlow’s hierarchy of needs. Ugwanyi Maxwell avers that “the human nature is dynamic and receptive to change…” (250). Hence, the contemporary African man, possessing this dynamic nature, has always changed his location in a bid to attain his basic goals.

The socio-political and economic realities of the post-colonial and post-independence African states, and the emerging trends in human movement around the globe, have equally influenced the literary production in the continents, thereby bringing about different critical areas which have attracted much attention in the field of Arts and humanities. One of the growing areas of interest to writers, researchers, and critics has been migration and its attendant effects on the migrants in terms of their cultural identity, psychological makeup, cultural and religious affinities, among others.

Migration is the movement of people or animals from their home to other places. It involves crossing some cultural, ethnic, and national boundaries to settle in a new religiopolitical and economic environment. This is in sync with Maxwell’s assertion that “migration in Latin migrare means to change residence”(250). Fatemeh Pourijafari and Abdolali Vahidpur comment on the meaning of migration, thus: “in its modern usage, it refers to the trend of displacement and movement made by individuals with the hope to find more personal convenience or better their material or social conditions” (680-681). This definition is apt enough for the description of the kind of mass movement made by some Africans, especially Nigerians, to the West.

It is equally worthy to add that such movement is accompanied by displacement— being uprooted from home, family, culture, and of course, personal identity. Salman Rushdies makes it crystal clear, of the nature of contemporary age, thus: “the distinguishing feature of our time is mass migration, mass displacement, globalized finances and industries” (425). Sam Robert writes in the New York Times of 2005 that based on the available immigration statistics, there have been an influx of Africans into the United States in the 21st century, than it was during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Such mass departure from the native land is accompanied by displacement and alienation from home, loss of self-identity and the continuous social negotiation for acceptance in the culturally hostile hostland. Therefore, migration, displacement, and trauma have been at the centre of contemporary critical discourse.

Augustine Nwanyanwu holds that the Nigeria post-independence era, especially the 1980s and 1990s, had a distinctive feature of massive migration by the academia and business tycoons to the West (387). Surprised by the significant mass movement of people from Africa in recent years, Sten Moslund describes such 21st century mobility reality, thus:

It seems we are witnessing a massive International and transnational defeat of gravity, an immense uprooting of origin and belonging, an immense displacement of borders, with all the clashes meetings … reshaping the cultural landscapes of the world’s countries and cities (2).

Moslund’s position is that migration has made blurry, international, and transnational cultural boundaries, thereby reshaping and re-fashioning the socio-cultural landscape of the world. Pourjafari and Vahidpour note that migration has played an important role in social foundations like politics, economy, and culture (679). It is worthy of note that this is not without the disadvantage of uprooting people of diverse origins from all parts of the globe, and thus subjecting them to cultural alienation and identity crises.

Ajibola Opeyemi notes that the concept of migrants, and of course migration, has been the central characteristic of the twentieth century (64). For him, “…this is because migrant writers and writings take the centre stage not only in the contemporary Nigerian literary space but also across the literary canvas of world literatures” (64). A critical examination of the art forms of contemporary African writers reveals the aesthetic and graphic representation of African migrants’ narratives in verses and chapters.

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This resonates with the fact that “…every generation recreates its defining experiences in its literature, and migration and its consequences constitute one of the defining realities in contemporary Africa…” (Opeyemi 65). This, therefore, hints that the socio-political reality of contemporary Africa is marked by perpetual mass movement of people from the continent to Europe. Solomon Olaniyan asserts that migration has been the recurrent thematic concern of contemporary African literature. From his own point of view, most migrant stories are reactionary, and responses to the menace of the socio-political quagmire in most African states (5).

Most issues that form the core of migrant literature are those closely observed or experienced by some of the writers themselves. Opeyemi is of the view that the earliest form of African migrant literature could be traced to the writings of African slaves in the diaspora, especially the Americas and Caribbeans, who wrote their slavery experiences in the hostile host and they were forced into. Such slaves worthy of mention are Olaudah Equiano who wrote The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, the African Slave Written by Himself (1789); Booker T. Washington who wrote Up from Slavery; Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, among others.

Post Migration Displacement and Trauma among African Migrants in Helon Habila Travellers and Chika Unigwe Better Never Than Late

Therefore, the African writers whose creative impulse is given impetus by the current diasporic realities tend to inculgate in their works, concepts such as transnationalism, unhomeliness, alienation, transculturalism, identity crises, hybridity, adaptation strategies, disillusionment, trauma, among others. The interracial and multicultural phenomenon, thus, produce human beings whose identity is is constructed by the “… new coordinates” (S.Frank 2). Commenting on this, Tanure Ojaide avers thus:

African writers have become part of the worldwide phenomena of migration and globalization with the attendant physical, socio-cultural, psychic, and other forms of dislocation which permeate their individual writings. Migration, globalization, and related phenomena of exile, transnationality, and multilocality have their bearing on the cultural reality, aesthetics, content and form of the literary production of Africans abroad. (43)

The above is a testament to the fact that contemporary African writers on migration present their narratives from the first hand or eye-witness point of view, thereby giving a clear view of the conditions of African migrants in their hostile host communities. It suffices to add, therefore, that all of these struggles are not without scar on the psyche of migrants.

Furthermore, migration is engendered by some factors which are not unconnected to poor governance, insecurity of lives and property, poor infrastructures, poor standard of education, abject poverty, inequality, injustice, among others. Nwanyanwu concludes that “Migration is the consequence of postcolonial malfunctions…” (387).This assertion blames the mass migration of Africans to the Western hemisphere on the poor leadership accessioned by the ineptitude of the elites at governance. Lending his voice on this, Maxwell opines that humans have various reasons for migration. Some of such reasons are:

… prolonged droughts, floods, environmental degradation and natural disasters. In Nigeria for instance, social reasons have prompted many more migration than natural phenomena. Examples are unemployment, civil unrest, inadequate food supply caused by population increase, bad governance, defeat in war, the desire for material gains, search for religious or political autonomy, poverty, criminal consents, high population pressure and education. (251)

The above point of view, without doubt, clearly reveals to African states the root causes of migration in African society. Olaniyan summarises thus: “Migration in African studies is a manifestation of different challenges in the African continent”(5). A critical examination of the Nigerian situation affirms that factors responsible for large scale migration from Nigeria are not unconnected to corrupt leadership, and desire for material gains.

Lending his voice on mass movement of Africans to Europe and America, Moslund traces migration in the 21st century to some historical events and incidents in the world, such as “the Second World War, the demise of the British Empire and the subsequent migration from the former colonies to the West” (1). It is not surprising that most of the former colonised people of Africa tend to see Europe and America as the centre of opportunities, and fulfillment of dreams, when their lives are threatened by inter and intra-ethnic wars, civil wars, and poor governance. The 1979 military coup in Liberia, the civil war, and the assassination of President Tolbert, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe’s taking over of power, and the consequent extra-judiciary killing of the Americo-Liberian government officials, had caused mass migration of Africans from Liberia to America.

According to Lukemann, “These events also generated the first wave of migrants— mostly of Americo-Liberians— back across the Atlantic to the United States” (82). Heidi Haugen hints that the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of Nigeria in 1979 had resulted in loss of industrial jobs, thereby resulting in mass unemployment. This, he notes, had forced many young Nigerians out of the country to seek industrial and factory works in some Asian countries like China (94).

The most recent political upheaval in the shores of Africa is the occupation of the Taliban group in Afghanist, causing many Afghanistan citizens to flee the country to America and other supposed safe havens. The activities of the Boko Haram insurgency in the North, and the mass killings by bandits and Fulani herdsmen in the North, Southwest, and Middle-Belt of Nigeria have equally necessitated the mass movement of people in the affected regions and communities, to America, Asian and European countries. Noviolet Bulawayo captures the conditions and plights of African migrants in his 2013 novel We Need New Names, thus:

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Look at children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the soil, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. (145-146)

However, the hope for security and safety of these people is usually truncated by the realities of the ‘new world’s they find themselves. Most often, the identity, dignity and economic power of these people are usually predicated by the diasporic realities.

Identity crisis, discrimination, humiliation, and trauma of displacement have been the unforgettable experience of most African migrants. Okpeyemi comments that “homelessness and … unhomeliness of home constitute a traumatising reality for migrants …” (67). Therefore, the African man who is on the ‘path of becoming’ is left to suffer the harsh realities of displacement, and punctuated and polluted socio-cultural identity which equally affect their thought patterns and relationships. Many of them do not suffer the spatio-temporal loss of home and relations alone; they equally suffer from disillusionment, and frustrated realities.

Maxwell states that migrants assume the West to be centre of possibilities, fulfilment of dreams, and where identity and destinies could be transformed (251). However, they are oblivious of the fact that the West is equally the centre of brutality and subjugation, disappointment and frustration. In Chimamanda Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck , Akunna expresses her fantasies of getting a better life as soon as she arrives at the United States. But her hope is upset by diasporic conditions that dawn on her in the hostland. Like other African migrants, she regrets ever leaving home, gets disillusioned, and feels alienated from her root. Maxwell avers that “a valid and active sense of self may have been eroded by dislocation resulting from migration, the experience of enslavement, transportation or voluntary removal for indentured labour” (252).

It is this lack of original self identity (which is caused by the voluntary and involuntary continuous movement) that actually brings a double identity or hybridity. The dynamics of defining ‘self’ and finding a space for ‘self’ by African migrants have open up chats on diasporic identity codes. Lubkemann opines that “diaspericity” should be understood in terms of identity discourse in which the socially determined ‘self’ of the migrants lives within the periphery of imagination and “publicly presented through particular types of claim about group origins” (78).

Post Migration Displacement and Trauma among African Migrants in Helon Habila Travellers and Chika Unigwe Better Never Than Late

Lubkemann seems to state that all diasporic identities are just ordinary claims for social reckoning. Invariably, hybrid identities are false identities, a cover-up of the extreme brutal experience of the African migrants. It is against the background of this modern nomadism and the unfortunate experiences that befall the African migrant in search of the proverbial greener pastures that this study is conducted.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

The continuous search for conducive environment, and “greener pastures” have necessitated the continuous movement of Africans to Europe and America. The trend has attracted the attention of many creative writers, and the subsequent production of literary works which represent the travails, anguish, failures and disillusionment of African migrants in the host land. Notable among the contemporary African writers on migration are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who published Americanah in 2013, Chika Unigwe, Helon Habila, Okey Ndibe, among others.

The availability of literary masterpieces on migration has equally engendered the critical concern of many critics. Although there are no much critical research on Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late since it is a relatively new text, there are scholarly interrogations of Helon Habila’s Travellers. For instance, in his “Leaving to Live but Not Without Scar:

Trauma of Departure in Helon Habila’s Travelers [sic], Solomon Olaniyan examines the traumatic impact of departure from homeland, where he notes that such trauma is occasioned by the feeling of disconnection from loved ones and loss of family members. Equally, Bankole Wright in Migration, Agency and Subjectivity in Helon Habila’s Travellers which form the socio-political and economic factors for mass movement across socio-cultural borders as a means of escape from a hostile and unproductive homeland.

All these critical investigations notwithstanding, there is a paucity of scholarship on the post-migration conditions of Africans in the diaspora, the traumatic effect of migration, displacement and adaptation strategies by migrants in the selected novels. It is against this backdrop that this research work is conducted to examine post-migration conditions, trauma, displacement, and acclimatization techniques among African migrants in Habila’s Travellers and Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late.

1.2 Aim &Objectives of the Study

The aim of this study is to examine post-migration displacement and trauma among African migrants. The specific objectives of the study are:

(i) To examine African migrants’ experiences and in their host lands and portrayed in Helon Habila’s Travellers and Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late

(ii) To interrogate the various survival strategies of African migrants in Helon Habila’s Travellers and Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late

(iii) To investigate the traumatic impact of migration on African migrants in the selected novels and,

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(iv) To draw conclusions on the general post-migration conditions of African migrants in Helon Habila’s Travellers and Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late

1.4 Significance of the Study

This research critically examines the ordeals of African migrants in the West, their struggle for survival and the traumatic scars of such struggles on their psyche as found in the selected works of Helon Habila and Chika Unigwe. The study will serve as reference material for future researchers on the related subject. Above all, the study hopes to contribute to the existing body of knowledge and scholarship on migration.

 1.5 Research Methodology

This research is qualitative research, and relies on textual analysis of the selected texts— Helon Habila’s Travellers and Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late, which serve as primary sources of data for the study while other relevant internet and library materials form the secondary sources of data. The texts are purposively selected based on their relevant contents.

1.6 Scope/Delimitation of the Study

This study is limited to migration and its traumatic impact on African emigrants in Helon Habila’s Travellers and Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late. This is to enable the researcher to complete the work within the stipulated time. Therefore, all conclusions are based on textual analysis of the selected texts.

1.7 Theoretical Framework

The theoretical model adopted as the theoretical framework for this study is the Caruthian trauma theory. This theory is applied in the analysis of the diasporic conditions of African migrants, as well as the effects of such experiences on their psyche and formation of ‘self’. Trauma theory emerged in the 1990s to address the effects of certain world phenomenon such as wars, drought, etc on man and examines the psychic condition of victims of overwhelmed incidents. Prominent proponents of the theory are Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, Geoffrey Hartman, etcetera. Studies on trauma began with Sigmund Freud’s studies on hysteria which is published in collaboration with Josef Breuer in Studies in Hysteria.

Freud later engaged in studies on the post-traumatic effects of the First World War and the Holocaust on the survivors as graphically captured in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). His complete discussion on trauma is lucidly captured in his later works and mostly in what would later be known as Moses and Monotheism. In line with this, Ann Kaplan opines that “Trauma studies originated in the context of research about the Holocaust” (1).

In recent years, physicians, psychiatrists and critics have become most concerned with effects of other natural catastrophic experiences as well as all forms of violence even as Kaplan adds that, “…trauma theory quickly extended beyond Holocaust studies in the humanities, especially in the wake of increasing revelations about child abuse in the 1990s” (33). This necessitates Caruth’s assertion that:

As a consequence of the increasing occurrence of such perplexing war experiences and other catastrophic responses during the last twenty years, physicians and psychiatrists have begin to reshape their thinking about physical and mental experience, including most recently the responses to a wide variety of other experiences, such as rape, child abuse, auto and industrial accidents …that are now understood in terms of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (11).

According to Michelle Balaev, “the evolution of trauma in literary criticism might best be understood in terms of the changing psychological definition of trauma…” (2). He argues that the history of trauma as a concept is filled with contradictory theories, thereby leaving psychologists and literary scholars at liberty to adopt different definitions of trauma and its effects (Michelle Balaev, 2 ).

The literary strand of the trauma theory was developed in the 19th century. Ann Kaplan traces the origin of trauma to research on the Holocaust (1). However, interest in trauma theory went beyond the Holocaust, especially given the increasing awareness of the sexual abuse of young women in the bourgeois family as was common in the nineteenth century (Kaplan 27-28, 33).

In the1990s, a number of scholars began examination of the concept of trauma and its significance in literature. As observed by Nasrullah Mambrol, prominent among them include Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman and Geoffrey Hartman, among others (n.p). This examination brought about the first wave of the critical model which has become a prominent discursive strategy. With its significant popularity, it has attracted the attention of both psychologists and literary critics with the publication of Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (1996) (Michelle Balaev, 1).

In this important book, Caruth takes a critical investigation into Freud’s discussions on trauma and memory, and gives a post-structuralist analysis of Freud’s studies on dreams, with a view to bringing to light, the concept of trauma as an unrepresentable event that reveals the inherent contradiction within language and experience. She draws attention to the severe suffering and, in a subtle way, points out the fact that traumatic experience inevitably damages the psyche (Mambrol, 3).

Central to this critical model is the fact that traumatic experience creates speechless fright, a latent period of dissociation where the meaning and linguistic immediacy are fractured. However, this view has been challenged by the pluralistic approach to literary trauma which states that the ‘inseparability’ of trauma which is central to the traditional Caruthian model, is actually one of the many responses to traumatic events and incidents. Nevertheless, the Caruthian approach is adopted for this study because it helps in the examination of traumas caused by external stressors to individual persons. The diasporic realities, therefore, shall constitute the external stressors that form part of the concerns of this study.

Mr. Harrison

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