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Africa Files: Eritrea

Friday, August 30, 2019 5:34 PM | Jennifer Wisniewski (Administrator)

At a glance

Population:  5,970,646 (2018)

Capital:  Asmara

Official languages:  Tigrinya, Arabic, English

Religions: Sunni Muslim, Coptic Christian, Roman Catholic, Protestant

Fertility rate: 3.9 children per woman

Life expectancy:  65.6 years

Literacy rate:  73.8%

Children under 5 who are underweight:  39.4%

Natural resources:  gold, potash, zinc, copper, salt, fish

Currency:  nakfa

Form of government:  presidential republic (1)

Image source: Wikipedia


Located on the horn of Africa, Eritrea lies between Djibouti and Sudan on the Red Sea. Ethiopia shares its western border. Eritrea boasts a long coastline of 1200 kilometers. Off of its mainland are 350 islands known as the Dahlak Archipelago.

Image source: World Atlas

Though a relatively thin stretch of land, Eritrea has three geographical regions, each with a different climate. Along the coast lies a strip of dessert. Because of its high salt content, the land is infertile and the climate arid. The northern portion of the Ethiopian plateau also known as the Central Highlands is the most fertile part of Eritrea. The climate is temperate and the land fertile. The western lowlands are semi-arid.


Of the large number of ethnic groups that reside in Eritrea, the Tigrinya is the largest. As a result, Tigrinya is one of three official Eritrean languages. The others are Arabic and English.

One of the cultural traditions for which Eritreans are known is the coffee ceremony. The ceremony takes place often at the end of a long day and the coffee and accompanying snacks are offered to family members, guests and neighbors. No quick run to Starbucks, this languorous ceremony can sometimes extend for several hours. A woman in the household roasts the green coffee beans over a charcoal fire, grinds the beans and prepares the coffee, often with sugar. She then serves the coffee in small handleless cups. Incense is burned throughout the ceremony to enhance the aroma. (4)

Eritrean cuisine has both Ethiopian and Somalian influences. A traditional Eritrean meal is tsebhi, a spicy stew made with mutton, lamb or beef. It is often served with taita, a sourdough flatbread, and hibbet, a legume paste. The meal is often served on one large, shared plate. Because of Eritrea’s colonial history, Italian food is also easy to find, especially in urban centers. (3)


With its access to the Red Sea and natural resources, Eritrea has been invaded and dominated by other peoples throughout history. In the late 19th century, the area came under Italian colonial rule until independence was gained in 1941. It then went through a ten-year period of British administrative control until the United Nations established it as an autonomous region in 1952. When Ethiopia annexed the region in 1962, a 30-year war for independence began. Finally, in 1991 Eritrea became a truly independent nation. Since that time, only one president has served - Isaias Afwerki. Tensions continue to remain high between Ethiopia and Eritrea. (1)


Following the battle for independence, an effort was made to increase the number of schools in both urban and rural areas. Still, the rate for children attending primary schools is 81%.  The rate drops to 30% for lower secondary schools. Higher rates of absenteeism from school are found in rural areas with 31% of nomadic children not attending. One fun fact about the Eritrean education system is that children are taught in their mother tongues in primary school while instruction in secondary schools is in English. (5)

Advances and Challenges

Though Eritrea is a patriarchal society, the government has passed legislation protecting women’s rights. This includes the prohibition of female mutilation, gender-based violence and underage marriage.

Image Source:  Jack Ninno/Unsplash

However, Eritrea faces a number of challenges both natural and man-made. Frequent droughts and dependence upon subsistence farming for 80% of the population continue to bring hardships to the population. In addition, the government is authoritarian and repressive. For example, Eritreans are faced with mandatory conscription into military or civilian service for indefinite periods of time.  A large exodus of Eritreans has taken place because of human rights abuses, a lack of political freedom, militarization and a lack of opportunities. These migrants are especially vulnerable to human trafficking, an increasing problem. (2)







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