by Lolly Ockerstrom
A land of dramatically changing terrain, Eritrea spans 670 miles of coastline along the Red Sea on the northeast Horn of Africa. It has six provinces covering mountainous highlands and arid lowlands over a total of 48,000 square miles. To the north and west lies Sudan, and to the south, Ethiopia. The tiny country of Djibouti is located to Eritrea's southeast.
About 400,000 people live in the capital city of Asmara, located in the smallest province, Maakel. The low-lying plains states of Semenawi Qayih Bahri and Debubawi Qayih Bahri make up the coast line. Anseba, Gash-Barka, Debub, and Maakel are located inland and are comprised of the central highlands, the western lowlands, and the mountainous north. Over 100 islands lie in the Red Sea.
At least nine languages are spoken in Eritrea, although linguists report a total of twelve languages, including one used only for religious purposes. The government conducts its business in Arabic, English, and Trigrigna. There is no official state language.
Life expectancy in Eritrea is 46 years. Only 15 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water. The infant mortality rate is 135 per 1,000 births. There is only one doctor for every 28,000 people. Between 750,000 and one million Eritreans left the country as refugees as a result of a 30-year long war with Ethiopia, and approximately twothirds of them relocated to Sudan. About 2.7 million Eritreans remain in Eritrea.
Equally divided between Christian and Muslim religions, Eritreans live a mostly agrarian life. Eighty percent of the population is rural, with 50 percent working as farmers. The Gross Domestic Product is $115 per capita. The monetary unit is the Nakfa. The Eritrean flag is green, red, and blue with a gold olive wreath. Its emblem is a camel encircled by an olive wreath.
The youngest nation in Africa, Eritrea celebrated its independence on May 24, 1993. Eritreans maintain a strong national identity. Despite the presence of several distinct ethnic groups and nine languages in their country, Eritreans have experienced little internal conflict. Continued border wars with Ethiopia throughout the latter half of the twentieth century demanded that Eritreans overcome cultural differences among themselves in order to survive as a nation. For most Eritreans, particularly those removed from Eritrea, national identity took precedence over their ethnic identity.
For centuries, peoples of diverse religions, traditions, and ways of life inhabited the area now known as Eritrea. The earliest reference to the name Eritrea, which is derived from the Greek word for red, is found in Fragment 67 of Aeschylus: "There the sacred waters of the Erythrean Sea break upon a bright red strand...."
Although a young country politically, Eritrea's history reaches back to about 4000 B.C., when people from the Nile valley migrated to the Mereb-Setit lowlands. They are thought to be the first food-producing peoples in Eritrea. For several thousand years thereafter, migrations of Nilotic, Cushitic, and Semitic-speaking people entered Eritrea, and were among the first in Africa to grow crops and domesticate livestock.
In the fourth century A.D., Eritrea became part of the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, although it remained a semi-independent state. Other powerful kingdoms were established in portions of Eritrea, though none controlled the entire area. Some of these kingdoms included the Ptolemic Egyptians of the third century B.C.; the seven Beja kingdoms of the eighth to thirteenth centuries; and the Bellou kingdom of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire annexed Eritrea.
The modern state of Eritrea was created by the decree of King Umberto I of Italy on January 1, 1890, at the height of European colonial expansion. A mission had been established at Adua in 1840 by an Italian priest, Father Guiseppe Sapeto, who later established one at Keren. In 1882, the Italian government purchased all the land near Assab, acquired earlier by a shipping company, Societa di Navigazione Rubattino, with the help of Father Sapeto. In 1889, the government also purchased land from the Sultan of Raharita.
From 1890 to 1941, Italian plantation growers and industrialists settled in Eritrea. The Italian government established administrative oversight in Eritrea, creating transport services and a communications network. During World War II, Italian forces were defeated throughout Africa, and the British established a protectorate in Eritrea. It became a strategic regional center for British and Americans during the War. In 1950, a United Nations resolution placed Eritrea under the Ethiopian federation. Despite Eritrea's desire for independence, the resolution went into effect in 1952, although Eritrea retained limited democratic autonomy.
In 1961 Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea using military force, ending Eritrean resistance to Ethiopian rule. Selassie was assassinated in 1974, and a ruling unit called the Derg took over Ethiopia. In 1977, the Derg received large amounts of military aid and forced Eritrean troops to withdraw from cities they had controlled.
Between 1978 and 1990, border disputes between Eritrea and Ethiopia erupted in violent military struggle. Ethiopian forces were supported with Soviet aid. By 1991, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front succeeded in establishing the Provisional Government of Eritrea. At the same time, an Ethiopian resistance group overthrew the Derg, and a transitional government was established in Ethiopia.
In April 1993, 99.8 percent of voting Eritreans passed a referendum for independence in an internationally monitored election. Independence was declared on May 24, 1993. The National Assembly was reorganized and a four-year plan for drafting a democratic constitution was put into place.
When Eritrea's first constitution was ratified on May 23, 1997, a 75-member legislative body was established. A repatriation program for 25,000 Eritrean refugees living in the Sudan also began. However, border disputes between Eritrea and Ethiopia continued to escalate during 1998 and 1999. In a statement to the United Nations Security Council in New York on March 22, 1999, Eritrean Foreign Minister Haile Woldensae expressed Eritrea's willingness to abide by cease-fire proposals put forth by the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity.
Following its 30-year war with Ethiopia, Eritrea spent much of the 1990s rebuilding the country. The transportation infrastructure had all but collapsed, food was scarce as a result of drought and the war, and Eritrea's industrial base was shattered. The economic system was also in ruins. By the time Eritrea gained independence in 1993, it was estimated that 75 percent of Eritreans depended on food aid for daily survival. Many Eritreans were forced to leave not only their homeland, but the African continent as well, relocating to the Arab peninsula and the United States.
THE FIRST ERITREANS IN AMERICA
Significant Eritrean immigration to the United States did not take place until the 1970s and 1980s when drought and famine drained the resources of a country already devastated by war. Between one fourth and one third of Eritrea's population was forced to leave Eritrea. Many of Eritrea's refugees came to the United States.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
When Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in November 1962, a resistance movement soon emerged. The militant Eritrean People's Liberation Front was supported by the great majority of Eritreans, who were willing to engage in combat for their country. For more than 30 years, until Eritrea declared Independence on May 23, 1993, the country was at war with Ethiopia. As a result of the war, in addition to drought and famine, more than 750,000 left their country as refugees. Two-thirds of the refugees settled in neighboring Sudan, although many came to the United States. Metropolitan Washington, D.C. hosted the largest Eritrean community outside of Eritrea, but sizable communities also formed in Columbus, Ohio, Atlanta, Georgia, and Dallas, Texas.
Eritrean family ties are very strong. Eritreans forced to leave their country seek out other family members and members of the larger Eritrean community. While this is a common pattern among many immigrant groups, Eritreans feel a particularly close bond and move to areas where other Eritreans live. They are deeply loyal to their country and are always conscious of Eritrea's continued struggle for sovereignty. Most Eritreans living in the United States in the late 1990s expressed a desire to return to their homeland and the majority of Eritreans identified themselves as displaced people.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Through education, younger Eritreans tend to assimilate more easily than their older counterparts. Throughout the 1990s, the lack of English language skills among Eritrean immigrants continued to prevent many of them from fully participating in American culture. This was especially true for Eritrean women. The literacy rate in Eritrea in 1999 was 20 percent overall, but for women it was 10 percent. Many Eritrean immigrants settled where they could interact only in their native languages if they so chose. The strong sense of national identity felt among Eritreans, along with the fear of losing their culture, also contributed to the slow pace of acculturation. As families resettled in their new country, and new generations were born in the United States, the young more successfully balanced the cultures of their past with the customs of their adopted country.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
With nine distinct cultural identities, Eritrea is a country rich in traditions and religious beliefs. The major cultural group in Eritrea is the Trigrigna. The eight other ethnic groups are the Nara (or Baria), Afar, Bilen, Hedareb, Kunama, Rashaida, Saho, and Tigre. Each group speaks its own language and observes its own customs.
About half of the population is Muslim, while the other half is Christian. It is not uncommon to see older Eritreans with a tattoo of a cross on their fore-head, identifying them as Christians. Dress can also denote religion. Muslim women wear scarves covering their entire heads, while Christian women wrap scarves about their head for a distinctive headdress.
Eritreans follow both the Orthodox and the Roman calendars, though most businesses prefer the Roman. The Orthodox Church calendar differs significantly from the Roman, with thirteen months rather than twelve. Twelve of the thirteen months have 30 days each; the thirteenth month has five days, or six in a leap year.
Eritrea is largely rural and undeveloped, and camels play an indispensable role in everyday life. Found primarily in the western lowland areas, camels are used to transport both household goods and items for trade. Eritreans rely on camels to carry firewood and water for household consumption. During periods of migration, the animals transport tribal communities, often as far as several hundred kilometers. Some ethnic groups move up to five times a year, and it is essential for each household to have adequate numbers of pack camels.
Camels are also used as draft animals on farms. For small industries camels provide a source of power. In addition, they are also a source of milk. Milked three times a day, camels produce nine liters of milk per day during the wet season. During the dry season, they produce about six liters per day, significant in a country prone to great drought. Capable of carrying 200 kilograms of food, camels can work between eight and ten hours a day. During the Ethiopian-Eritrean War, camels were especially important to troops who needed to move arms and supplies in areas lacking roads.
Although the dromodarius, or one-humped, camel is the most common type of camel found in Eritrea, many different sub-categories of camels exist. Each location has a different type of camel, which can be classified according to function, color, and tribal ownership. Pastures are used communally to raise individually owned camel stock, as both herds and households migrate seasonally. The camel is such an important part of Eritrean life that it is on the national flag as a symbol of Eritrean life and its many cultures.
Eritrean proverbs provide insight into their world-view. Two typical proverbs of the Tigrigna people have to do with the importance of patience. One proclaims: "Zurugay sava luchae yo-u-se, " or, "If you are patient, you'll get butter." Turning milk into butter takes a long time when churning, but the required patience and hard work is rewarded. A Trigrigna parent might say to a child, "Kwakolo kus bekus bougru yehahid, " which means, "Little by little an egg will walk." The reference is to the process by which an egg is hatched, a chick emerges, and gradually grows into an adult. The message is that you will reach your goal by working at it day by day.
Another common Trigrigna proverb has to do with possession and envy. "Adgi zeybulu bakeali yenekeah " can be roughly translated as, "You don't have a donkey, but you sneer at my horse." This means that those with nothing should not negatively comment on the possessions of others.
Eritreans like spicy foods and are fond of bread. Two particular types of breads are staples in Eritrean diets. Kitcha is a thin pancake-type bread, made from wheat. It is baked and unleavened. Injera is another type of pancake, more spongy, made from teff, wheat, or sorghum. It is fried on top of a special stove called a mogogo, which measures about 30 inches in diameter. Traditional mogogos were fueled by wood fires, although modern ones are electric. The dough is made from grains that are ground into a watery mixture and allowed to ferment for several days. Women usually cook enough bread to last from three days to one week. Injera is eaten with a stew, or zigini, in large pots set in the middle of a table. Family and friends gather at the table and eat out of the same plate, using pieces of the bread to scoop up the stew. Another popular food is a bread into which whole eggs and large pieces of chicken is baked. Lamb, goat, and beef are also eaten frequently, as are lentils. A chickpea puree called fool is eaten at breakfast. A large cake-like bread called basha is also eaten at breakfast. A legacy from Italian colonial days is the frittata, made by scrambling eggs with onion and peppers.
Citing Tesfai Gebrema in New Americans: An Oral History: Immigrants and Refugees in the U.S. Today, Al Santoli (Viking Penguin, Inc., New York, 1988).
I have come to like American food, but it took time, because the spices and texture of Ethiopian food are very different. After living here for two years, we have shifted our expectations and feel more comfortable being a part of this society.
Women prepare and cook all the food. Much cooking is done in huge pots over a wood fire, stirring ingredients with a long stick. Food is eaten communally with fingers. Those who share the meal often offer each other pieces of bread, putting it directly in the mouth of another. Meals tend to be noisy, joyous affairs, and no one is turned away. Eritreans enjoy sharing their food and their culture with outsiders, and show great pleasure when non-Eritreans try eating without the use of utensils.
The national drink is sowa, a bitter alcoholic beverage made of fermented barley. It is usually drunk from a special cup called a millileek. For holidays and important celebrations, a sweet honey wine, mez, is served. Eritrean-Americans make these drinks in the home using traditional techniques. In Eritrean-American communities, families signal that they have sowa to sell by putting a tin can atop a long stick in front of their house. The drink is considered a staple for everyday meals.
In Eritrea, coffee remains a delicacy outside the major cities. An invitation to drink coffee is a special occasion, and the guest is expected to spend at least an hour waiting for the coffee to be prepared. It is often accompanied by burning incense. The common practice is to drink three cups. The experience of drinking coffee is surrounded by a great deal of ritual, which is communal in nature, and as important as the coffee itself.
Music plays an integral part of daily life in Eritrea. Festivals are usually religious in nature, and are always accompanied by singing and chanting. Family groups and community groups, express their cultural and ethnic experiences through songs. Following religious ceremonies that last all night, in which religious songs are sung for hours, many Tigrigna Eritreans continue their celebrations at home, eating, singing, and dancing. Drums called kabaro are often used in non-religious festivities. Women frequently ululate, or make high-pitched trilling sounds with their tongues, to signify joy.
Drums used in Orthodox Church festivals are called nagaret. They are made of hollowed out tree trunks with cowskin stretched on either end and tied with rawhide strips. The treetrunks are of the oule-eh, a tree indigenous to Eritrea. Kabaro used as an accompaniment for general, non-religious singing are also made of cowskin, though the skins are stretched over a metal cylinder.
Prior to Italian colonialism, Eritrean costumes were very simple. Among the Tigrigna, leather kilts were widely worn by both genders. Some, including young girls, wore loincloths. These were baggy calico pants made of cotton and came just to the knee. They were worn with loose cotton shirts. Tigrigna women wrapped themselves in netselas, or cotton shawls embroidered at the edges. Sometimes more elaborate, multi-layered shawls called gabi were worn.
As Italian influence spread, clothing began to change, particularly in villages and towns. Footwear, for example, was uncommon among Tigrignas until the Italians. Roughly made thonged sandals were worn only in lowland areas where the terrain was rocky. The Italians introduced rubber soles, and slowly shoes replaced traditional bare feet.
Traditional Tigrigna attire differed according to age and sex. Women were expected to cover their heads with netselas, although young girls were not. Women wore long jellebyas, or gowns with long sleeves, which covered them almost completely. Young girls wore a short-sleeved jellebya reaching only to the knee. Tigrigna men and boys wore long, tight-fitting cotton shirts slitted at the sides that came to the knee. During periods of mourning, women wore black or black-spotted clothing; men in towns wore black ties or hats, similar to those worn in Ethiopia.
Among Tigrigna women, gold jewelry was worn, particularly on holidays or for special occasions. The more important the occasion, the more gold was worn. In earlier times, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, rings, and armbands were made of silver or wood, though gold is traditionally the metal of wealth and security.
Tattoos were common for both therapeutic and aesthetic purposes, especially in villages. Women with goiters were tattooed on the throat. Young girls often had their gums tattooed. First they were pricked, then rubbed with charcoal to turn them blue. This was considered a sign of great beauty. The herbs illam and henna were used by women to soften and beautify their skin.
DANCES AND SONGS
The national song of Eritrea pays homage to the Eritrean struggle for independence. Roughly translated, the first couple of lines evoke Eritrean strength: "Eritrea, Eritrea, she did well in her fight for independence/ the world witnesses Eritrea's strength." Other songs are usually celebratory in nature, and sung on such special occasions as weddings, holidays, and religious festivals.
Hymns of praise to God are frequently sung. Singing is usually accompanied by clapping hands and the beating of the kabaro, while celebrants dance together in a circle. Everyone joins in the gwila, or circle dance, which often occurs spontaneously when a joyous event occurs. Dancing the gwila is a boisterous activity, which builds in momentum as the rhythms of songs increase in tempo and the beating of the kabaro grows faster. More and more family members and friends join in a large circle, which moves slowly around. Inside the circle are the drummers, sometimes two or three or more, who jump up and down while beating the kabaro. Singing and dancing is accompanied by a great deal of laughter and joking, and spirits remain high among the participants.
Church dancing, by contrast, occurs only in certain locations inside Orthodox churches, which have been designated for men. Women do not dance in church. Church dancing, which is referred to as either zayma or mahalet consists of clapping hands and swaying back and forth while remaining in place. On special feast days, they encircle the outside of the church building three times, but do not dance once they leave the building.
Tigrigna folk poetry, handed down through oral tradition, is usually sung from memory. Usually a lamentation, the poems are in couplets. They may express grief over the loss of a loved one, disillusionment with life, longing for home, or the pain and sorrow of the poor. They are sung and accompanied by a guitar-like instrument called a k'rar, or on a local violin-like instrument called the chira wata. Both instruments are special to Eritrea.
Eritrean holidays reflect both Muslim and Christian traditions. The major Christian holidays include Christmas, on December 25; the New Year, January 1; the Orthodox Christmas, January 7; Timket, or the Baptism of Christ, January 19. Women's Day is celebrated on March 8.
The dates of Muslim holidays, which follow the lunar calendar, change each year. Eid el-Fitr is a feast celebrated in the spring, as is Easter, or Fasika. The Eritrean National Day, or Liberation Day, is marked on May 24. Martyrs' Day on June 20. Another feast day is Eid el-Adha, which is summer's day. September 1 is celebrated as the Start of the Armed Struggle, followed by the Orthodox New Year on September 11. Meskel, or the Festival of the True Cross, is celebrated on moveable days in late September. The Prophet's Birthday, Eid Milad el-Nabi, is celebrated in autumn. January and February are popular months for weddings in Eritrea.
Orthodox Church holidays are preceded by periods of fasting, sometimes as long as 42 days following Biblical example. When fasting, celebrants abstain from eating meat, dairy products, and other foods. On the day of the holiday, Orthodox Eritreans attend an all-night church service, which begins at sundown. Eritrean Orthodox Churches do not have pews or chairs; most churchgoers stand for the entire period unless they are elderly or sick. Many hold long staffs, and when tired, they lean upon them. They sometimes pass them around during the service so another person can take a turn leaning on the staff.
Most traditional Christian singing, chanting, and praying takes place under the leadership of priests dressed in special black clothing and colorful vestments. Incense burners are lit. Men generally occupy one side of the church. Women, usually dressed in traditional shawls and tunics, occupy another side. They remain in separate areas of the church throughout services, which sometimes last for hours. Children remain with the women.
The conclusion of the ceremony includes a procession in which church members go outside the building and encircle the church three times chanting and singing. Several traditional Eritrean drums and bell-like instruments accompany them. Finally, families return to their homes to eat. Women have spent days preparing for the feast, which includes breads, stews, and traditional sowa. The meal takes several hours, during which songs are sung and stories are told. Following the meal is more singing, dancing, and drum beating.
Once removed from the immediate threats of war, drought, and famine, Eritreans Americans have no greater health issues than the general population. However, the long-term physical and mental effects of years of deprivation have yet to be documented. Eritreans find strength in their religious tradition and in their family and community relationships.
The working languages of the Eritrean government are Arabic, Trigrigna, and English. Many older Eritreans speak some Italian. The government does not claim an official language, probably because of the religious diversity of the populace. Language and ethnic groups are divided along religious lines. Muslims generally speak Arabic, while Christians speak Trigrigna. According to the 1996 Summer Institute of Linguistics, twelve distinct languages are known to exist in Eritrea, although most Eritreans claim only nine. Indigenous languages include Afar, Bedawi, Bilen, Geez Kunama, Nara, Saho, and Tigre. Many Eritreans also know Amaric, a language spoken widely in Ethiopia.
The Tigrigna language is spoken by about 1,900,000 people in Eritrea, out of a total of 6,060,000 speakers of Tigrigna worldwide. Roughly half of the people of Eritrea know or can speak Tigrigna. It has its own script of more than 200 characters, based on the ancient language Ge'ez, used now only in the Orthodox Church. Each character represents a different sound. It is more of an oral than a written language, and is very difficult to learn.
Although there is no text offering phonetic instruction of Tigrigna, a few general characteristics of sound can be observed. The sound of the letter "r" is always slightly rolled; the hard "k" sound is sounded in the back of the throat; and the "t" sound is pronounced with the tip of the tongue. Several other sounds originate in the back of the throat, often as a voiceless click rather than a voiced fricative. This includes the hard "g" sound and the hard "h" sound.
GREETINGS AND POPULAR EXPRESSIONS
Typical greetings in Tigrigna, spelled phonetically, are: Selam —hello; selamat or dehaan waal — goodbye; yekanyelay —thank you; uwauway —yes; and noaykonen —no. Questions have different endings depending on whether you are addressing a single male, a single female, or several persons. For example, the greeting, "How are you?" has several variants: Kemayla-ha (male); kemayla-hee (female); kemayla-hoom (male or mixed plural); and kemaylahen (female plural). The same is true when asking, "What is your name?": Men shem-ka (male); Men shem-kee (female); Men shem-koom (male or mixed plural); Men shem ken (female plural). Other phrases are: Ayeteredanen —I don't understand; Shegur yelen —no problem; and Dehaan —okay.
The most common exchange among Eritreans speaking Tigrigna is selam —hello; keyayla-ha —how are you?; tsebuk —I'm fine. In Arabic-speaking regions, the most common greeting is keff —hello.
Family and Community Dynamics
Eritreans celebrate major events with members of their community. Birthdays, marriages, graduations, and other events are commemorated with great fanfare. Traditional foods, songs, and music always play a major role. Many members of the community are included.
Lengthy, elaborate greetings are very important, especially on special occasions. Women greet each other by ululating, or making a high pitched sound by trilling the tongue. They kiss each other on each cheek three times. It is customary to ask how things are, and also inquire about one's spouse, children, and other family members. The happier one is to see a friend, and the more important the occasion, the longer the list. Each greeting is accompanied by a great deal of genuine laughter and joyousness.
Care is taken to make guests feel welcome and included in all phases of the celebration. In the United States, Eritreans retain their cultural ways of celebrating life's milestones, and are pleased when non-Eritreans show an interest in their customs.
The overall literacy rate in Eritrea is 20 percent, although for women it is only 10 percent. Children learn English after the sixth grade. By the end of the 1990s, more children attended school than ever before, but continued war and drought drastically impeded the educational process. Prior to the defeat of the Italians by the British in 1941, the country had been administered by colonial rule, which barred Eritreans from occupying civil service positions. During the fascist period of the 1920s and 1930s, only 24 primary schools existed in Eritrea. There were no secondary schools.
Following British rule, the first teacher training institution was established in 1943. Eritreans were allowed to train for the civil service. Although some progress occurred when the British founded educational institutions in Eritrea, the country was subsequently beset by high unemployment. Military projects were closed down, and the workforce shrank from 30,000 in 1947 to barely over 10,000 in 1962. During that time, little attention was given the education of children. When war broke out, the country remained in a state of emergency. In the hierarchy of needs, food, water, and medical attention preempted money that might have been used for building schools and supporting education.
The University of Asmara is Eritrea's only university. The missionary Comboni sisters founded it in 1958 as the Holy Family University Institute. Italian was the language of instruction. In 1964 English was adopted. It became the sole language of instruction in 1975. In 1990, the university was disbanded by the Ethiopian government, which moved its staff and movable property to Ethiopia.
The Provisional Government of Eritrea reestablished the school in Asmara in 1991. Academic work was resumed in October 1991 with five faculties: natural sciences, social sciences, agriculture, law, and languages. University officials planned to develop additional programs in engineering, architecture, medicine and public health, marine resources, and education. In 1991, 1500 students were enrolled in the regular day program. Another 1200 registered in the evening extension. The academic staff numbered 80.
BIRTH AND BIRTHDAYS
Among the Nara ethnic group, childbirth is perceived as a natural process unless complications develop during labor. Traditional tribal medicine is then used. At the birth of a boy, women ululate seven times. If the child is a female, the number of ululations is reduced to four, or omitted completely. When a disabled child is born to a Naran woman, it is killed immediately. The birth of twins is considered a tragedy. The mother, along with her twins, is traditionally banished. Male children are circumcised at the age of six or seven.
Unlike Tigren families, Naran families do not arrange marriages for their children. Both men and women are able to choose their own spouses. Virginity among young brides has no value. Unmarried women who have previously given birth are in great demand, since they have already proved their ability to bear children.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
Women in Eritrea generally experience less privilege, status, and economic security than men. An estimated 85-90 percent of Eritrean women were considered to be functionally illiterate in 1999. In addition, Eritrean women and their children have had to bear many of the consequences of the war. In an attempt to address these conditions, the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) was formed in 1979 as part of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Its slogan was "Emancipation through equal participation."
The NUEW started several progressive programs during the 1990s, including a literacy campaign. The goal was to help women develop language skills so they could find productive employment in business and management. Vocational training programs were also started in such traditionally female professions as tailoring and typing, as well as in nontraditional skills of carpentry, masonry, and electrical and plumbing service. In the rural areas of Barka, Gash, and Setit, a pilot program in credit and finance was started with the goal of providing women with a means for establishing economic support structures. The National Union of Eritrean Women remained active throughout the 1990s in promoting human rights in Eritrea.
Babies born to Orthodox Christian families are christened several weeks after birth. An Orthodox priest performs the ceremony, which is attended by family and friends. Godparents are chosen for the baby, gifts are given, and generally the baby's parents offer a meal to those who attend the christening. Female babies are baptized 80 days after birth; boys are christened after 40 days. Following the christening, the priest ties four strands of red and white thread around the infant's neck to signify he or she has had a Christian baptism. The baby is then dressed in new clothes to begin his or her new life as a Christian.
Marriage customs differ among Eritrea's nine ethnic groups, and closely follow either Muslim or Christian traditions. Among the Tigre ethnic group, marriage is intimately connected to the financial and social well being of families. Marriages may be arranged, even before birth, among affluent families strictly for the purpose of keeping their wealth in the family. However, if two families are experiencing a blood feud, they may settle their agreement through a marriage alliance. Also, if a poor man is able to marry off his daughter to a wealthy man in order to pull his family out of financial difficulty, he will do so. Tigre parents have the final say in their children's marriage arrangements. Such agreements are preceded by many lengthy familial consultations, which include everyone's opinion except those who are to marry.
However, in many Tigre villages, practices are changing as a result of influences from both Catholic and Protestant churches. Ethnic border influences and geographical differences among Tigre communities have created variations in how marriages are arranged and conducted.
Among the Tigre, marriages between two closely related people may take place. This allows families to keep family wealth within a close circle. In some Tigre communities, people may not marry if they are blood-related within seven generations.
INTERACTIONS WITH OTHERS
In the United States, Eritreans remain fiercely loyal to their country. They have been able to put aside differences with Ethiopians, however, and they sometimes socialized with each other, as they do with other immigrant Africans. Both Eritreans and Ethiopians speak Amaric and shared other common cultural characteristics, which create a close bond. Eritrean Americans might have mixed feelings about Ethiopians being their closest cultural allies. So long as they avoid the topic of the war, the two groups are able to get along very well. In addition, many Eritreans had previously lived in Ethiopia, or married Ethiopians.
Religion among Eritreans is equally divided between Orthodox Christians, who live mostly in the highlands, and Muslims, who reside primarily in the lowlands. Large numbers of lowland Muslim groups were displaced during the 1970s and 1980s. This resulted in a greater number of Christian groups in Eritrea, at least temporarily. Among Christians, most are of the Orthodox Church. A smaller number adhere to Roman Catholicism. Less than five percent of the population are animists. This includes such tribes as the Kunama.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Traditionally, Eritreans lived rural lifestyles as farmers or nomadic herdsmen and women. Farmers made up one half of the population. Upon coming to the United States, Eritreans settled in urban communities, dramatically changing their way of life. Those who came to the United States had to develop new ways of earning a living. They became business owners, pharmacists, computer scientists, or entered other professions. Many Eritreans immigrants relied on their cultural traditions to start Eritrean restaurants.
During the 1990s, major efforts in Eritrea centered around rebuilding the country and repatriating refugees. Skilled carpenters, engineers, and city planners were in demand to help build roads, railways, ports, homes, and businesses. Because road reconstruction and repair was less costly than rehabilitating ports and airports, two thirds of the transportation budget in the early 1990s was allocated to building roads. The goal was to build a modern transport system that could connect the whole country.
Equally important was the rebuilding of Eritrea's industries, which had either closed down altogether or moved to Ethiopia during the war. Recovery projects included efforts to revive stagnant industries and provide raw materials. Others tried to generate investment capital to restart dying industries.
The agricultural industry of Eritrea was particularly hard hit during the war. Eighty percent of the population relied on agriculture for their livelihood at the end of the twentieth century. Drought and war almost wiped out agricultural businesses completely. Particular focus was placed on enhancing farming productivity by providing seeds, fertilizers, implements, and making sure reliable water sources were available. The Eritrean government was determined to end dependency on other governments for food sources.
Many Eritreans who came to the United States as refugees first had to study English. Some went on to study engineering or business so they could to return to Eritrea and help in the rebuilding process. In 1987 the Eritrean Government created the Commission for Eritrean Refugee Affairs (CERA) in response to the needs of Eritrean refugee communities. In 1991, working with the United Nations, CERA developed a plan to repatriate refugees living in Sudan. A budget of $262 million was set up to provide relief to repatriated refugees. On November 14, 1994, 279 refugees from Sudan returned to Eritrea as part of a pilot program.
Politics and Government
The Eritrean government is composed of a National Assembly, a president, and a council of ministers. Administrators appointed by the president govern each of the six Eritrean provinces. The National Assembly was established when Eritrea won its independence on May 24, 1993. It included the 75 members of the Eritrea People's Liberation Front. They were the original members of a congress set up in February 1994 to design a transitional government for the new nation. In addition, the provinces elected 75 legislative representatives. The National Assembly sets international and domestic governmental policies, regulates policy implementation, and writes budgets. It also elects a president for the country.
With approval of the National Assembly, the president appoints ministers to head the various commissions, offices, and bureaus of the government. The president chairs the cabinet, which is made up of 18 ministers and two director generals, and serves as the country's executive branch. The judicial branch of government oversees Eritrea's court system on village, district, provincial, and national levels.
Major political organizations include The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the most prominent political force since Ethiopia took control of Eritrea in 1962. The EPLF organized the national referendum on independence. Other significant political parties include the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrea (DMLE) and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). The National Union of Eritrean Youth (NUEY) is a student organization deeply involved in the movement for Eritrean independence and liberation.
The Eritrean government was committed to the development of a democratic constitution in which all adult citizens can vote. As a young country facing the daunting task of rebuilding itself after years of drought, famine, and war, Eritrea also faced the responsibility of educating its citizens. For many in Eritrea, the experience of voting in local, regional, and national elections was entirely new.
All Eritreans are expected to join the military at the age of eighteen. Eritrean children are raised with a sense of patriotism. For 30 years, no model other than a military state existed for young Eritreans. Even after the war ended in 1991, Eritrea had only a short-lived period of peace. With high unemployment and constant threat of invasion, Eritreans felt little choice but to join the military.
RELATIONS WITH ERITREA
Most Eritrean immigrants were forced to leave their homeland, and many wish to return. Those who left Eritrea as adults, especially, maintained close contact with family members who have remained behind. Because the border wars with Ethiopia continued after independence, Eritreans living in the United States followed political news closely well into the end of the twentieth century. First and second generations of Eritreans born in the United States also followed political developments closely, though with less urgency than older Eritreans.
Individual and Group Contributions
As a group, Eritreans made their food popular in large cities with Eritrean communities. In the Adams-Morgan section of Washington, D.C., famous for a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, many Eritrean restaurants opened during the 1990s.
Eritreans combined a love of soccer with an opportunity to celebrate their culture while living outside of Eritrea. The Eritrean Sport Federation in North America (ESFNA) played a significant role in helping expatriate Eritreans maintain a strong sense of ethnic and national identity by founding an annual sports festival in 1986 in Atlanta, Georgia. Only five teams played. The tournament was held every year in a different North American city. By 1991, the San Jose tournament drew 26 teams, all of whom viewed the gathering as a time to celebrate Eritrea's newly gained independence.
Participation rose and fell in years following, but the organization continued to expand its mission to include children's sports and sporting events for women. In 1994, $10,000 was awarded to the winning team from Santa Clara, California. The players used the money to travel to the Eritrean capital city of Asmara to represent North America and play local Eritrean teams. In 1997, the tournament was held for the first time in Canada, which has a growing Eritrean community in Toronto.
"Voice of Eritrea," a weekly radio program, is broadcast Sundays between 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m.
Address: 3589 North Decatur Road, Scottdale, Georgia 30079.
Telephone: (404) 292-1420.
Fax: (404) 508-8930.
Organizations and Associations
Embassy of Eritrea.
Contact: Semere Russom, Ambassador.
Address: 1708 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009.
Telephone: (202) 319-1991.
Fax: (202) 319-1304.
Sources for Additional Study
Beyond the Conflict in the Horn, edited by Martin Doornbos, et al. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1992.
Duffield, Mark, and John Prendergast. Without Troops and Tanks: Humanitarian Intervention in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1994.
Grinker, Lori. "The Main Force: Women in Eritrea." Ms. Magazine. May/June 1992.
Moussa, Helena. Storm and Sanctuary: The Journey of Ethiopian and Eritrean Women Refugees. Dundas, Ontario: Artemis Enterprises, 1993.
Paice, Edward. Guide to Eritrea. 2nd edition. Old Saybrook, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, Inc., 1996.
Sorenson, John. "Discourses on Eritrean Nationalism and Identity." Journal of Modern African Studies, 29 (2): 301-317.
Wilson, Amrit. The Challenge Road: Women and the Eritrean Revolution. Lawrenceville NJ: Red Sea Press, 1991.