Eritrea

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Key facts

Capital: Asmara

Government: Transitional government

Official Language(s): There is no official language - Tigrinya, Arabic and English are the working languages. Other common languages are Tigre, Afar, Saho, Bega, Bilen, Nara and Kunama.

Population: 4.4 million (2011)

Ethnic Make-up:  55% Tigrinya, 30% Tigre, 4% Saho, 2% Kunama, 2% Bilen, 2% Rashaida, and 5% Others

Religions: 62.9% of the population adheres to Christianity, 36.6% follow Islam, and 0.4% practice folk religion. The remainder observe Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other faiths (<0.1% each), or are religiously unaffiliated (0.1%)

Culture and Society: Eritrean culture is made up of the collective cultural heritage of the various populations native to the country. It shares historic commonalities with the traditions of Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan. The local culture consists of various, and often quite similar, traditions practiced by the nation's many Cushitic and Ethiopian Semitic-speaking Afro-Asiatic ethnic groups, in addition to those practiced by the area's Nilotic (peoples indigenous to the Nile Valley) minorities.

Dress: Traditional Eritrean attire is quite varied among the ethnic groups of Eritrea. In the larger cities, most people dress in Western casual dress such as jeans and shirts. In offices, both men and women often dress in suits. A common traditional clothing for Christian Tigrayan highlanders consists of bright white gowns called “zurias” for the women, and a white shirt accompanied by white pants for the men. In Muslim communities in the Eritrean lowland, the women traditionally dress in brightly colored clothes.

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Food: Overall, Eritrean cuisine strongly resembles that of neighboring Ethiopia however Eritrean cooking tends to feature more seafood than Ethiopian cuisine on account of the coastal location. A typical traditional Eritrean dish consists of injera (sourdough flatbread) accompanied by a spicy stew, which frequently includes beef, chicken, lamb or fish.

Additionally, owing to its colonial history, cuisine in Eritrea features more Italian influences than are present in Ethiopian cooking, including more pasta and greater use of curry powders and cumin. The Italian Eritrean cuisine started to be practiced during the colonial times of the Kingdom of Italy, when a large number of Italians moved to Eritrea. They brought the use of "pasta" to Italian Eritrea, and it is one of the main foods eaten in present-day Asmara.

dynamics

Family

  • Generally, people live together in nuclear families although in some ethnic groups the family structure is extended

  • The man is the public decision-maker in the family, whereas the woman is responsible for organizing the domestic activities of the household

  • Inheritance rules follow the customary norms of the different ethnic groups. Generally, men are favored over women, and sons inherit their parents' household possessions.

  • The nuclear family, although forming the smallest kin unit, is always socially embedded in a wider kin unit. The lineage and/or clan hold an organizing function in terms of social duties and obligations and as a level of identity.

  • With the exception of the Kunama who are matrilineal, all ethnic groups in Eritrea are patrilineal, that is, descent is traced through the male line

  • Generally, girls marry at an early age, sometimes as young as fourteen. A large share of the marriages in the rural areas are still arranged by the family groups of concern.

Hospitality

  • One of the most recognizable parts of Eritrean culture is the coffee ceremony

  • Coffee is offered when visiting friends, during festivities, or as a daily staple of life

  • During the ceremony, there are traditions that are upheld. Loose grass is spread on the floor where the ceremony is held, often decorated with small yellow flowers and the coffee is served in three rounds:

    • the first brew or round is called “awel” in Tigrinya (meaning "first")

    • the second round is called “kalaay” (meaning "second")

    • the third round is called “bereka” (meaning "to be blessed")

  • There is a routine of serving coffee on a daily basis, mainly for the purpose of getting together with relatives, neighbors, or other visitors

  • If coffee is politely declined, then Chai tea will most likely be served

notes for foreigners

key phrases

Tigrinya

Welcome: merhaba

Hello: selam

Goodbye: selamat

Thank you: yekenyeley

Social Etiquette, Customs and Protocol

Meeting and Greeting

  • The usual mode of greeting is a handshake, followed by the word “Selam”

  • Depending on the degree of familiarity with the other person(s), hugging and kissing on the cheeks is also common (irrespective of gender)

  • Eye contact in the first encounter is generally viewed as a sign of disrespect; avoiding eye contact and looking away are considered as virtues equated to reverence and respect

  • Conversations often start with lengthy greetings, how is your family, friends, how is work, etc.

  • It is customary to spend some time asking about one’s family and work, after which you can be more direct in communicating

  • It is best to avoid speaking about religion, politics or conflict until a strong relationship has been established. Once you get to know people, you will generally find that they will be more comfortable speaking candidly

Gender Dynamics

  • With many women serving as fighters in recent conflicts, their roles in society have become more liberal to a certain degree.  That being said, there are still defined roles for women such as keeping the house, raising the children, and for the most part women are not free to socialize in bars with men or other women.

  • In rural areas, the only women out at night, in bars, tend to be working women (waitresses/barmaids/prostitutes)

  • Most women who are seen out a night get a bad reputation.  This can be true with foreign women as well.

Personal Space and Touching

  • Less than an arm’s length of personal space tends to be the norm during conversations. Between two people of the same gender, it may be even less

  • It is common to see men holding hands with other men while walking and talking. This is a sign of friendship

  • Touching while talking is accepted for men with men and women with women, but between genders there is usually no touching and more personal space given

Business Meetings

  • It’s best to show up on time for a meeting even though you may end up waiting - meetings and gatherings rarely start on time even though as a foreigner it is polite to be punctual

  • It is best to pay respect to the highest ranking person in the room and then follow accordingly

  • Always start with the requisite greetings – how are you, how is your family, how is work, etc. This can go on for minutes before getting down to any business.

  • The person who is hosting the meeting should open and close the meeting

Taboos

  • Avoid showing the bottoms of feet, soles of shoes, and moving or touching objects with the feet when interacting with Eritreans who are Muslims or follow Islam.