When I asked my Eritrean journalist and poet friend why he had decided to leave his home country for exile, he gazed at me for a long time before saying it had been a painful decision.
Painful because it marked the beginning of years of exile and the crisis of expectations that often characterises life in exile.
He said political repression had forced him to leave and seek political asylum in South Africa, before moving to the UK.
He noted that the theme of immigration or exile that is so close to his heart also appears to hold great fascination for arts lovers, literary critics and anthologists.
“Probably, what makes exile and the topic of immigration interesting to me are some of the questions that I am asked wherever I go,” he said. For example, he is often asked, ‘Now you are in exile, are you still able to write?” and “What does exile mean to your writing?”
To such questions he often replies indignantly: “No, I have not gone into exile, in a way. I am merely away from home on a political sabbatical.”
I put to my friend the words of the Nigerian Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka: “Surely even an exile must exist in some space, physical and mental. Even more optimistically, there is that strong temptation to describe exile as simply a state of mind.”
My Eritrean friend explained that “to some extent, I find myself agreeing with Professor Soyinka’s viewpoint, since over any state of mind we may arm ourselves with the challenging power of the will and thus negate all debilitating tendencies that threaten the ego with the inescapable fact of exile.
“However, sometimes migration and exile is indeed a place and writers like myself went into exile for different reasons.” He cited the case of another Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, whose exile was prompted by a car crash in 1990, only weeks after attending a gathering ahead of his 60 birthday in the eastern Nigerian town of Nsukka. The accident left him paralysed from the waist down and in a wheelchair.
Achebe was airlifted to the UK for surgery. His injuries were severe and he was advised to undertake further therapy in the US – where he subsequently took up a professorship.
“I thought I would go home to Nigeria after a year, Achebe was quoted as saying, but he didn’t because he felt that hospital facilities in his homeland had gone from bad to worse.
Achebe added that he suffered from severe infections after the accident and needed proper antibiotics, not fakes: “When you say a country has broken down, that is what it means,” he commented.
The reasons that drove Chinua Achebe into exile are similar to those that have driven many journalists and poets into exile like my Eritrean friend and other writers in parts of the world where there is political repression and economic hardship.
My friend told me that many of his colleagues who remained home had died mysteriously in the past few years and that others are living and working under difficult and desperate circumstances.
He felt that “beneath the veneer of banality that still dominate daily life in Asmara, as in other African and European capitals where people live under political repression, an abnormal reality is growing.” Gone are the casual conversations with strangers about politics: activists work on the assumption that their phones are tapped, since the secret police are more active than ever, prowling hotel lobbies and other public places looking journalists, activists and foreigners.
Migration or political exile, which is often a stressful experience for writers, is now considered one of the avenues of escape from the harsh realities of life in Eritrea, said my friend – and that, he added, is true for many African writers he has met in the diaspora: they have accepted exile and its challenges, while others have simply set up barriers against the acceptance of the condition of exile.