People and Languages

The People of Eritrea

The People

Eritrea’s nation-building strategy is built upon a fundamental building block of internal human resources. The government is firmly committed to policies of religious and cultural freedom and tolerates no discrimination or favouritism on any such bases.

The country’s most precious resource-and that which holds the most promise for Eritrea’s future–is its people. For this reason, the government invests heavily in health, social welfare, education and skill development sectors. It provides access to these services for all its citizens, regardless of their ethnic or religious back ground, their geographical locations, their gender, age or other social categories.Though there is no single official language Tigrinya, Arabic and English are predominantly used in commerce and government affairs. The use and development of all nine of Eritrean languages are encouraged at the local level and children attend primary school through the fifth grade in their mother tongue.


The Nationalities – Unity In Diversity

The nine Eritrea ethnic groups are the Tigrinya, Bilen, Afar, Saho, Rashaida, Tigre, Kunama, Nara and Hidarib.Eritrean Afars, also known as Dankalis, live mainly along the south-eastern sea coast and on the offshore islands in a highly-segmented, patrilineal society. Afars inhabit one of the least hospitable terrains on earth and are renowned for their prowess in battle. They have a long history of independent sultanates and strong warrior traditions. Many of their songs and much of their oral literature is built on this, and it is still common to see afar men wearing jile or curved knife. Today, most are herders, traders or artisanal fishers.

The Afar families typically live in large hemispherical houses of hides and woven mats stretched across a framework of wooden poles that can be carried by camel over long distances. In the few oases in Afar territory, the people cultivate maize and tobacco. Traders carry slabs of salt on their camels to the highlands from long-dried salt pans by the sea.

The Bilen live in and around the city of Keren. Among them are Muslim and Christian (mostly Catholic) herders and farmers. Theirs is a traditional society organized in to kinship groups. Bilen women are known for their brightly colored clothes, their gold, copper or silver nose rings, and henna tattoos that resemble diamond necklaces.

The Hedareb, also known as T’badwe live in a wide arc stretching from western Barka across the north-western valleys of the arid, volcanic Sahel region, where the liberation front had its fortified rear bases throughout much of the independence war. Their ancestral roots are among the Nilotic Beja peoples, whose territory stretches from Eritrea across the north-eastern Sudan to southern Egypt and who have lived along the sea coast for thousands of years. Their Muslim society is patrilineal. Most Hedareb are semi-nomadic pastoralists. Many travel over long distances in search of pasture for their animals, which can include large camel herds as well as goats and sheep. The Hedareb are known as highly skilled camel drivers.

The Kunama live in south-western Eritrea around the town of Barentu and close to the border with Ethiopia. Some are Christian, some Muslim, but many follow their own faith, centred around worship of the creator, Anna, and veneration of ancestral heroes. Their society is strongly egalitarian with distinctive matrilineal elements. Historically, most were hunters and farmers, tilling the soil with hand-held hoes to grow a variety of grains and vegetables. Today, they tend to be farmers and herders, whose cattle are also important sources of wealth and prestige. The Kunama, thought to be among the aboriginal inhabitants of the region, were one of the Eritrea’s largest nationalities until the late 1800s, when repeated assaults and slave-raiding by Tigrayan warlords sharply reduced their population and impoverished the society. Many of their dances are re-enactments of historical events.

The Nara live in the western slopes and Barka plains. Like their neighbors, the Kunama, with whom they share some customs, the Nara are mainly sedentary farmers with a marked interest in cattle. However, their matrilineal family structure was transformed into a patrilineal one-and their traditional religion forcibly supplanted by Islam during the Egyptian occupation of their homelands in the 1850s.

The Rashaida are the country’s only ethnic Arabs. Mainly pastoralists and traders, the Rashaida migrated to northeast Africa in the 19th century from the hejaz. They are Arabic-speaking Muslims, living along the northern coast and along the Sudan border in tightly-knit, patrilineal clans. Rashaida women are noted for their red-and-black patterned dresses and their long heavy veils, often embroidered with silver, beads and seed pearls.

The Saho inhabit the coast and hinterland south of Asmara and Massawa and the highlands as far inland as the Hazemo valley. Most are Muslim. Some are seasonal farmers and herders, though a growing number are sedentary farmers living in the southeastern highlands. Among them are skilled beekeepers, widely known for their high quality honey. The Saho live in patrilineal descent groups, each of which has a traditional warrior leader, the Rezanto, who is accountable to an all-made public assembly.

The mostly Muslim Tigre people extend from the western lowlands across the northern mountains to the coastal plains. Most are herders and seasonal farmers, cultivating maize, durra (sorghum) and other cereals during the rainy season before moving with their herds and their families. Household goods, as well as sick or aging family members, are transported long distances by camel and donkey.

The Tigre have a rich oral literature of fairy tales, fables riddles, poetry and stories of war and the supernatural. They are also known for their singing and dancing, which is usually accompanied by a drum and a mesenko (a stringed instrument, plucked like a guitar). Theirs is a highly stratified society traditionally ruled by a hereditary village leader.

The Tigrinya-speakers are mostly sedentary farmers living in the densely populated central and southern highlands of Eritrea. Currently they spread from this ancestral farmland over much of Eritrea today. The overwhelming majority are orthodox Christians, though there is a small minority of Muslims, known as jeberti, and there are significant minorities of Catholics and Protestants. Like all Eritreans, they are deeply attached to their land, but Tigrinya speakers also makeup a large portion of urban traders and operators of small business, restaurants and other services throughout the country.

Age structure

0-14 years: 44.8% (male 1,023,900; female 1,019,400
15-64 years: 51.9% (male 1,170,800; female 1,194,700)
65 years and over: 3.3% (male 74,300; female 78,400)
(2005 estimate)
Population growth rate 2.51% (2005 estimate)
Birth rate 38.62 births/1,000 population (2005 estimate)
Death rate 13.53 deaths/1,000 population (2005 estimate)

Gender ratio

At birth 1.03 male/female
Under 15 years 1.00 male/female
15-64 years 0.98 male/female
65 years and over 1.05 male/female
Total population 0.99 male/female (2005 estimate)
Infant mortality rate 74.87/1,000 live births
(2005 estimate)
Life expectancy at birth:
Total population 58.0 years
Male 61.0 years
Female 59.5 years (2005 estimate)
Total fertility rate 5.61 children born/woman
(2005 estimate)

Languages of Eritrea

These (ሀ ሐ ቐ ኸ አ ዐ) Tigrinya sounds are not in the English language; however, a description follows. ሀ and አ are difficult to describe and you shoud consulta Tigrinya speaking persons for their pronunciations. ሐ Is produced like “h” with the constriction of the throat. ኸ Produced in the back of mouth slightly behind where “k” is produced; it is held longer than “k” with more air passing over the tongue. ቀ Is produced in the back of the mouth slightly behind where “k” is produced (same as, ኸ ) with tighter contact between tongue and roof of mouth and a minimal amount of air flow (very short). ዐ Produced with constriction of the pharynx with a throaty sound.The widely spoken native languages in Eritrea are the Semitic ones, the closely related Tigrigna and Tigré. The Kunama and the Nara are the Nilotic languages of Eritrea, spoken in the lowlands between the Gash and Setit rivers. The main working languages are Tigrigna and Arabic. English is the medium of instruction from middle school level upwards. Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans from a total population of close to 4 million are in exile. This presents the phenomenal scenario that one out of every five Eritreans lives abroad. Young people were sent away for fear of forced conscription into the Ethiopian army and to avert the daily cruelties of the 1961-91 Ethiopian occupation.

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The Tigrinya characters