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Customs of Eritrea

Marriage and Family

In Eritrea, nearly all marriages are arranged by families. Among the Tigrinya, parents suggest marriage partners to establish family alliances. The couple involved usually makes the final decision to marry, although some couples in rural areas may not be acquainted before they wed. The bride is often some ten years younger than the groom; in cities she will most likely have completed secondary school before getting married.

The wedding celebration involves at least a week’s food preparation and requires a month to brew suwa, a beer, and miyess, a honey mead. The bride’s female relatives provide food for a banquet that follows the morning ceremony. After the gifts have been received and displayed, the couple enters the banquet to share a meal with their guests. In urban areas, some couples also cut a tiered wedding cake. For two or three weeks, the couple stays at home while relatives provide their meals. After marriage, a couple usually lives with the husband’s parents for at least two years before establishing their own home.

Among Muslims, wedding festivities include the bride’s arrival on a camel and a feast at which guests sit on mats to eat from bowls. Muslim men may have up to four wives if they can provide for each equally. Due to the economic burden of looking after several wives, the practice of polygamy is diminishing.

The family is more important than any of its individual members, who will sacrifice personal needs for the good of the group or for future generations. Typically a family will have four or more children, and it is common for grandparents to share the same home. Respected for their wisdom, the elderly are cared for by their adult children.

Village men are usually farmers. Women work on the farm and do all household work. Some women in urban areas work outside the home and employ house servants.

Village homes, usually made of stone, have thatched or metal roofs and concrete or dirt floors. City dwellings, made of stone or brick, have metal roofs, tiled floors, water, and electricity. Nomadic and seminomadic peoples (the Afar, Hedareb, Rashaida, and Tigre) have different lifestyles from the settled population. Accordingly, their homes are portable or built with whatever materials they find when they settle temporarily. Regardless of the style, homes are kept clean and neat.

Eating

Years of drought, famine, and war have greatly affected the diet in Eritrea. The preferred meal is meat (chicken, goat, mutton, or beef) cooked with onion, garlic, red pepper, spices, and clarified butter. Shuro, a typical meal of garbanzo bean flour and spices, is cooked similarly. Lentils or other vegetables are served. Spicy main dishes, eaten for lunch or dinner, are complemented by injera (also called taitah), a sour pancake bread made of millet or maize flour fermented in water. Breakfast may include honey and k’itcha (unleavened bread), yogurt and fit fit (bits of sauce-covered injera), and ga’at (a thick barley porridge), or leftovers; tea sweetened with sugar is usually served.

Copts do not eat dairy products or meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. Many Christians often abstain from dairy products during Lent. Muslims abstain from pork and alcohol.

Among highlanders, adults and children eat separately. Among other Eritreans, families eat together, although children eat separately when guests are present. In such cases, the hostess serves the guests and eats later with the children.

To begin each meal, the oldest man takes a piece of bread, blesses it, and offers some to each person. It is customary to eat with the right hand from a large communal tray set on a low table. Each person eats only the portion directly in front of him or her. In Christian homes, mealtime etiquette is stressed because it is believed that God is watching. Restaurants offer traditional as well as Italian foods, which became popular when Eritrea was an Italian colony.

Socializing

Greeting styles vary according to region and ethnic group. Highlanders greet with a handshake. Nudging right shoulders at the same time is common between male former soldiers and villagers. In urban areas, friends or relatives may shake hands and kiss the air while brushing alternate cheeks three times. Verbal greetings depend on the time of day but nearly always involve an inquiry about well-being. Salaam (“Peace”) is a general greeting and leave-taking phrase. Muslims grasp and kiss each other’s right hands, ask Kefelhal? (“How are you?”), and answer Hamdellah or Marhaba (both roughly mean “Fine”).

Friends often call one another by nickname. Older people are addressed by their title and name. Some examples of Tingrinya titles are Hawobo (“Uncle” on father’s side), Ako (“Uncle” on mother’s side), Amo (“Aunt” on father’s side), Hatno (“Aunt” on mother’s side), Weizerit (“Miss”), Weizero (“Mrs.”), and Ato (“Mr.”). Professional titles are used in formal situations. A person’s given name is followed by the father’s name, so that Mhret, the daughter of Tesfai, is called Mhret Tesfai.

Relatives and good friends visit each other often and without invitation. Guests may be offered food or asked to join the family for a meal, which they may accept or politely decline. Guests are always served tea or coffee. The latter involves a prescribed sequence of roasting and pounding the coffee beans. The coffee is then boiled, heavily sweetened, and served in small cups. Three customary rounds might be accompanied by fresh popcorn. People enjoy the prolonged conversation encouraged by this coffee ceremony.

When visiting on special occasions, townspeople often take villagers gifts of coffee or sugar; villagers take urban dwellers local produce or food (such as bread), a chicken, or firewood, which is precious due to soil erosion and deforestation.

Special events require an invitation and involve women and men socializing separately. Wedding guests take injera for the feast or they contribute to its cost. Ga’at is served at gatherings to welcome new babies. When someone dies, friends and relatives gather for the burial. For at least 12 days, they attend the bereaved family, cook their meals, divert their attention with games and entertainment, help receive many visitors, and collect money for the family.

In Asmara, espresso coffee bars are popular meeting spots, especially for men. Villages have tea shops. Women visit mostly in each others’ homes. They also get together to weave baskets that are used to store and serve food.

Recreation

Men enjoy soccer, bicycle racing, karssa (a game similar to field hockey), and a game that involves throwing stones at a target. Both men and women play gebetta, a strategy game played with pebbles on a playing surface created by making depressions in the ground. Women enjoy drumming and dancing.

Holidays and Celebrations

Eritrea’s holidays include International Women’s Day (8 March), Independence Day (24 May), Martyr’s Day (20 June), and the Anniversary of the Start of the Armed Struggle (1 September). Christian holidays include Christmas (celebrated on 7 January); Timket, the baptism of Jesus, also in January; Easter; and Meskel, the finding of the true cross by Saint Helena, in late September.

Muslims celebrate Eid el Fitr at the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting in which they go without food and drink each day from dawn to dusk. Forty days later they observe Eid el Adha to mark the completion of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah) and to honor Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son.

Whole families take part in annual religious festivals, and urban dwellers often return to their home villages for such celebrations.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas