Hanging with the Eritreans

EritreaIt is a tiny country and it’s main problem is that it denies Ethiopia water access. Orignally an Italian colony it was occupied by the British in 1941. In 1952 the UN resolved to establish it as an automonous entity federated with Ethiopia as a compromise between Ethiopian claims of sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. 10 years later the Ethiopian emperor, haile Selassie, decided to annex it triggering a 32-year armed struggle. After a 32 year struggle the Eritrean Liberation Front defeated Selassie’s communist successor and in a 1993 referendum supported by Ethiopia, Eritreans voted almost unanimously for independence, leaving Ethiopia land-locked. It was not a friendly compromise.

In 1998, border disputes rekindled the war. A peace agreement was reached in June 2000, but not before tens of thousands of soldiers had died. Today the countries are separated by a security zone patrolled by the UN. Two-thirds of the population receives food aid and progress is hampered by the number of Eritreans who are in the Army rather than the work force. It is the only African country with no privately-owned media and Reporters without Borders states that there is no freedom of expression. Female circumcision was banned just this year in April 2007. And in spite of it all, the Eritreans I met are lovely generous people.

  • Full name: The State of Eritrea
  • Population: 4.4 million (UN, 2005)
  • Capital: Asmara
  • Area: 117,400 sq km (45,300 sq miles)
  • Major languages: Tigrinya, Tigre, Arabic, English
  • Major religions: Islam, Christianity
  • Life expectancy: 51 years (men), 55 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 Nakfa = 100 cents
  • Main exports: Livestock, hides, sorghum, textiles, salt, light manufactures
  • GNI per capita: US $220 (World Bank, 2006 )

  • It was Saturday night around 8:00 p.m. and Senait hadn’t called yet, so I thought I would hear from her. I was disappointe, but I figured she had to work. At 8:30 my gray Patagonia bag started ringing obnoxiously, everyone in Kuwait seems to have the same ring tone, I wish I could figure out how to change mine. It was Senait and she was on her way to pick me up. Thinking she wasn’t coming I still hadn’t showered, so I popped in the shower tried to make myself as presentable as possible and then went downstairs to wait. She and a young man named Abdu arrived in a white car, big like a Cadalliac. Abdu barely spoke English and Senait doesn’t speak much.

    We drove to another part of Kuwait called Hanwella (pronounced Hal wall lei) it is about a 15 minute drive from Salmiya. Senait confided in me that they are trying to make their place into a community center along with offering classes to the young people. I think they want to set up a computer center. We stopped briefly at a coffee shop and Senait went in to purchase coffee. She got back in the car and we drove a little further, parking right next to a fast food restaurant. A lot of the fast food restaurants don’t have any place to sit and the workers stand outside, because Kuwaiti’s drive up in their cars and the workers standing outside take their orders and then they bring the food out to them. No wonder they are so  fat. As we got out of the car the food joint owner yelled at Abdu about where he parked his car. Abdu just shrugged him off, the whole exchange was in Arabic so I didn’t understand.

    In front of a dilapidated white stucco wall a group of young men were speaking Arabic. Senait greeted them and we entered a courtyard through rusty metal gates. Straight ahead was a run-down building. I would later learn that the second floor isn’t safe. To the left was a poorly constructed white shack with windows and inside older men dressed in dishdashah’s with red and white checkered Schumagg’s clustered around tables playing cards.

    On the left side of the courtyard was the a similar shack, but with one small window. We went in there. In 20 x 12 room there were chairs against two of the walls, chairs and couch against one wall and at the end of the room was a TV and a small table. I was introduced around. Most of the people were younger than I was and they were all just hanging out. Next to the door a woman, who I was told just arrived from Eritrea, she looked closer to my age, maybe 32-35 was stoking coals in a tin box, with short stubby legs..

    “She’s making coffee,” Salah said. Salah had self-appointed himself to be my interpreter and he spoke English very well. He was 29, born in Kuwait to Eritrean parents, so no chance of Kuwaiti citizenship, married at 15 and has an 11 year-old son. I asked why he married so young. “I’m the only boy of my family,” he explained.

    The woman stoking the coals pulled out a long handled silver spoon like instrument, but instead of a spoon at the end it was more like a frying pan, albeit a very small one. She poured the raw coffee beans into and started roasting them, a thick aromatic smell permeated the room. When the coffee beans were roasted she walked around with the ladel frying pan and as it passed in front of you, you took your hands and wafted the smell towards you. “Tradition,” Salah explained.

    I didn’t see her grind the coffee, but the next time I looked over she was pouring water into a earthen ware jug. Unpainted, it’s bulbous bottom tapered up into a long skinny neck. Senait and another woman started serving cake and then came the coffee. Thick, like Turkish coffee, heavily sugared with ginger, a very unique taste. I was offered the first cup.

    “Tell her “Dorn,” Salah instructed me. “Dorn,” I said to the woman who had made the coffee, to thank her. She said something back in Eritrean. The next thing I knew I was getting a second cup. I started to tell the woman “Dorn” again, but Salah instructed me that you only say it after the first cup.  It was around midnight when we started drinking coffee. The cake they served with the coffee was store bought and typical, but then they passed around what looked like donut holes. It was fried bread dipped in sugar, yum!

    At around 1:00 p.m. I was served my third cup of coffee. At my alarmed look, I wondered if I would ever get to sleep, Salah explained that it is tradition to drink three cups. I’m not one to flout tradition, so I drank my third cup. As we sat around drinking coffee with the TV blaring and conversations shooting back and forth in Arabic, people came in and out of the room. The women in charge of the Eritrean Women’s Society in Kuwait. An older man dressed in traditional Arab style, leader of the community and the young people traipsed in and out. Their were more men than women and the women kept looking at me. Senait’s cousin looked  a little like her and spoke enough English we could communicate. Her hair was uncovered. Two other girls, Sofie and a petite 22 year-old with a green head scarf kept looking at me.

    “They want to speak with you, but they are shy,” explained Senait. I patted the seat next to me and asked the petite girl in the green head scarf to sit next to me and she started talking to me in broken English. Her boyfriend was there, but they never touched. When he sat down next to her and his knee brushed hers, she put a bottle in between their two knees and looking at me said, “No touching.” Eritreans are mainly Muslim and  Christian, which explained why some of the women covered their hair and Senait, her cousin and the woman making the coffee did not. It didn’t matter what religion they were, they interacted with no thought at all to that division. The guys teased the girls, the guys talked amoungnst themselves and at around 2:30 a.m. they tried to cover up the window so they could dance.

    “Why are they covering up the window?” I asked, “Is dancing forbidden?”

    “No, but it’s Ramadan so they don’t like us to dance during Ramandan,” someone explained, they being the older crowd.

    Despite the three cups of very strong coffee, which I’m sure wasn’t Decaf I was fading. Tell us when you want to go home Senait and Salah told me, but I knew that it was the one night they could stay up, so I didn’t want to be drag. In Kuwait, people who work in the homes only get one day off and I think it’s Friday, but maybe it’s Saturday.

    At around 3:00 a.m. they took me on a tour of their “community center.” There is a restaurant where Senait used to work before MC, an office for the head of the Women’s Society, an office for the Youth, which is Senait and her group, but right now it’s being used by one of their countrymen who is homeless, as a place to sleep. And then two other offices and the two gathering places in the courtyard. There is a warped ping pong table that they have hopes of getting up and running and a billards table with no balls or cues. The paint and stucco is peeling off the walls and the kitchen looks like a grease explosion waiting to happen.

    I think a Kuwaiti lets them use the space. The young people have big plans for it and dreams to make into something much nicer. I hope I can help them in some way, but it won’t be through MC, we don’t operate in Kuwait.

    Salah asked me if I would be willing to teach a seminar and I said yes, and asked on what, but haven’t yet received an answer. They told me the Eritrean Ambassador might come visit them next weekend, I’m not sure if it is their Ambassador to Kuwait or how they are using the word, but they asked me if I would come also. Of course I will.

    I hope they aren’t looking to me as the answer to their prayers, but I do hope I can help them in some way.

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    One Response to Hanging with the Eritreans

    1. Simon Mace says:

      If you truly want to know exactly what is going on the horn of Africa and specifically Eritrea, you will find the links below quite useful.



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