Sunday, 26 August 2012

Eritrea - How to Speak Eritrean?

Slightly smaller than England, but with the population of Ireland, or roughly the same size of Ohio, but with the population of Wisconsin - Eritrea is one of Africa's (and the world's) 'newest' countries, officially gaining its independence in 1993, after a long and bitter struggle against neighbouring Ethiopia.  I've put the word 'new' in inverted commas as, arguably, Eritrea has been a nation for quite some time.  For most people of my generation, Eritrea didn't exist as a nation, so I'm really interested to start at the beginning with this fascinating country and find out what Eritrea is all about.  Like a lot of you out there, my knowledge of Eritrea is pretty minimal!

A good news story?

So I've got some books, I'm listening to the Asmara All-Stars and Faytinga and trawling the Internet for information about this relatively unknown country.  What I've found on the Internet, thus far, paints a pretty dismal picture of a politically isolated nation, with an autocratic ruler and an appallingly bad record of press freedom - a far cry from the optimism of Eritreans, when their country achieved independence, almost twenty years ago.  I feel like I did when I was researching Saudi Arabia and (to a certain extent) Cambodia - it's hard to get the 'good news' story.  But I want to go beyond the more negative aspects of Eritrea, portrayed in the media and find out more about Eritrean culture, music, food and people.

Unity in Diversity

Eritrea independence day by thecomeupshow
One of the first things I've learned about Eritrea is that it is a nation with nine main ethnicities.  I think Eritreans can be proud of the fact that the ethnic diversity of their country has become one of its defining characteristics.  Not to mention the fact that Islam and Christianity peacefully co-exist in Eritrea, without any of the tensions that these two religions experience in many other countries around the world.  When I asked the question How to Speak Eritrean? the answer is that there is no such language as Eritrean.  People in Eritrea speak a variety of languages which represent three of Africa's major language families, Semitic, Cushitic and Nilotic.  (For my previous blog post on African linguistics, click on this link.)

So who are the nine nationalities of Eritrea?  Well, I've grouped them in my own way below:

The Majority

The Tigrinya and Tigre peoples are ethnically related and make up the majority of Eritrea's population.  They live in the heartlands of Eritrea, mostly in the north around Asmara, the Eritrean capital.  The Tigrinya and Tigre languages are both descended from the Ancient Ge'ez and are related to Amharic and (more distantly) Arabic and Hebrew.

Orthodox Christian church by thecomeupshow
Whilst closely related, these two languages are not mutually intelligible and, although commonly confused, the Tigrinya and Tigre peoples have very distinct cultures.  Most Tigrinya are Orthodox Christians, with a minority Muslim Tigrinya, know as Jeberti.  The Tigre, by contrast, are almost exclusively Muslim and, whilst Tigrinya has a long written tradition, using the ancient Ge'ez script (a version of which is also used to write Amharic), Tigre has a strong oral tradition and, despite the fact that the Eritrean government uses Ge'ez script to in Tigre publications, a lot of Tigre people prefer to use Arabic or Latin scripts to write their language.

With more than half of Eritrea's population being Tigrinya, it's hardly surprising that Tigrinya language and culture is the one that's most associated with Eritrea.  I've seen some lively debates on Twitter, with Eritrea ex-pats, now based in the US, reminding the world that Eritrea has more languages and cultures than Tigrinya.  Although they make up the majority of Eritrea's population, there are more Tigrinya people living in Ethiopia than in Eritrea.  By contrast, the majority of Tigre people live in Eritrea, with a smaller number across the border in Sudan.

The Cushites

Forming much smaller minorities are the Cushite tribes of Saho, Afar, Hedareb and Bilen.  It's believed that the Cushites (and the Saho in particular) may have been the original inhabitants of this region.  Their languages are more closely related to Somali than to Tigrinya or Amharic and they live right across Eritrea, from the Hedereb on the northern border with Sudan, to the Afar tribe, who live in southern Eritrea and are close to their kinsmen who live in the Afar state in Ethiopia.  The Afars have a particularly fierce reputation and were known as a warrior tribe, when Europeans first colonised the region in the 19th century. The Bilen people mostly live around one city, Keren, about 60 miles north-west of Asmara.  Most of the Cushitic tribes practice Islam, except the Bilen people, who are a mixture of Christian and Muslims.

The Nilotics

Eritrean Highlands by thecomeupshow
The Kunama and Nara (also known as Baria) are two small tribes who speak rare Nilotic languages and live in the north of Eritrea, on the borders with Sudan and Ethiopia.  Their languages seem to have been pushed aside by the more dominant African language families and, nowadays, Nilotic speakers are scattered in small pockets all over eastern and northern Africa, as far apart as the Maasai people of Kenya to the Songhay people of Mali and Burkina Faso.

Not surprisingly, Nilotic languages are very much in decline across Africa and Nara, in particular, is being replaced by Arabic or Tigrinya.  Interestingly, the Kunama still hold many animists beliefs and their supreme deity is called Anna. They're amongst the most ancient peoples of Africa but together, they make up less than 4% of Eritrea's population.

The Newcomers

The newest ethnic group to arrive in Eritrea (apart from the Italians!) are the coastal Rashaida people, who arrived in Eritrea in the mid-19th century, fleeing war in their native Arabia.  They make up less then 1% of Eritrea's population, speak Arabic and practise Islam.

Image credits:

To illustrate this blogpost I have used images taken by Flickr member thecomeupshow aka Adulis 'Chedo' Mokanan, a hip-hop and R&B DJ who is based in London, Ontario!  Adulis took a trip to Eritrea in 2011 and has shared his photos with us, using the Creative Commons license - you can see the whole album on his photostream and you can listen to his music on his website.

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