Tale of two creatives, exiled but at home with their work

Thursday January 27 2022
Sudanese painter Eltayeb Dawelbait .

Sudanese painter Eltayeb Dawelbait has found a new place to call home in Nairobi, Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY


Although the exiled Sudanese artist Eltayeb Dawelbait and his Eritrean counterpart Dessale Berekhet lived in different countries, they were both forced out of their homes by repressive regimes.

In Eritrea, Berekhet worked as a journalist until the crackdown of private media in September 2001. He then started working for State-owned media as a freelancer. He has published two books on culture and five for children, in the local languages Tigre and Tigrinya.

“I believe that my earnest dream and call in life are to be a good and honest writer. Unfortunately, Eritrea became the country where one is forced to say that black is white. I was a columnist in one of the Tigrinya language newspapers and acting-vice-editor, and a columnist in another Tigre newspaper, when the first media crackdown occurred. Almost all the well-known writers and journalists of the private newspapers were kidnapped and disappeared on September 18, 2001, never to be seen or heard from again. I survived that time,” Berekhet told The EastAfrican.

Dessale Berekhet, author of “MeQberet Kibt Wezen”.

Dessale Berekhet, author of “MeQberet Kibt Wezen” meaning “The Grave on the Hill.” PHOTO | COURTESY

“After almost eight years, in February 2009, there was another wave of imprisonment of almost all the flourishing journalists and writers. There was no friend of my mine who wasn’t taken. This was the second time I was spared. Eventually, even people started to suspect that I was working for the regime. As I was also working for the regime’s Research and Documentation Center, it was easy to spot me. Then I was left with two choices — either to stay in the country and get kidnapped or leave. So, on September 1, 2010, I left the country for good,” Berekhet said.

He first fled to Khartoum, but the proximity to Eritrea pushed him farther to Uganda, a country and society that "opened both my eyes and mind”.


“Writers and journalists formed a vibrant team to fight back online. The Eritrean regime and its supporters abroad eventually hacked our website and I was evacuated to Norway with the help of an organisation known as Icorn.”

Berekhet lived as a guest writer in Bø City of Refuge in Norway from 2012 to 2014. In 2014, he co-founded PEN Eritrea together with Eritrean colleagues.

Berekhet has written a trilogy in the Tigre language. The first book is titled MeQberet Kibt Wezen (The Grave on the Hill), and was recently published in Sweden. He hopes the other two will be published this year. They are stories based on life in Eritrea.

Dessale Berekhet’s book written in the Tigre language titled “MeQberet Kibt Wezen”.

Dessale Berekhet’s book written in the Tigre language titled “MeQberet Kibt Wezen” meaning “The Grave on the Hill.” PHOTO | COURTESY

“Life as an exiled writer may have its own challenges and limitations, but I never complain about that. Safety is first, as they say. It’s all fine,” Berekhet said. “If you compare it with the life I could have had back in Eritrea, life here is great. I have ample ground to defend my rights in case anything goes wrong.”

Painter at large

Dawelbait, a contemporary artist, was born in 1968 in Sudan, and attended the College of Fine and Applied Arts Khartoum in the 1980s. The college is also known for the Khartoum School, a modernist art movement that was started in 1960 to reflect the identity of the newly independent nation.

A decade after graduating, Dawelbait and other artists fled Sudan when the former leader Omar al-Bashir took power in the June 1989 military coup, and institutionalised Sharia law.

The regime also cracked down on art and artists, banning and destroying all ‘’un-Islamic’’ imagery.

“I was a student then and we resisted the ‘Islamification’ of art, and for that I was suspended for two years. I lived in Libya for a year, and later returned to Sudan and completed my Bachelor’s degree in textile design,” said Dawelbait, who is exiled in Kenya. Part of the resistance was against the separation of men and women at the university.

“I had fellow Sudanese in Kenya who sent me an invitation to an art exhibition in Nairobi in 1997, and that was my chance to escape and practice my art in exile. I was looking for a healthy and free environment, and connections in East Africa. I am now based in Nairobi, and I have travelled to Tanzania, Uganda and other countries for art shows, biennales, fairs, auctions and residences,” Dawelbait added.

“When we came to Kenya, we started by putting up art shows to exhibit Sudanese art in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Slowly we became part of the art scene in Kenya and East Africa at large,” Dawelbait said.