Eritrea cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
When people meet or want to get someone’s attention, they will generally say "Selam", a word that, in its literal translation, means peace. It is an expression equivalent to saying hello.
The response to Selam is the same word, selam. If you know the person’s name, especially his or her first name, even better. Calling people by their name tells them how much you know about them and opens up the comfort zone needed to strike a meaningful exchange of greetings and engage in conversation. Typically, this entails engaging in a long question and answer dialogue about the purpose of your meeting or visit to the country.
For an informal introduction, for instance, if you don’t know the person next to you and want to ask or get some information (directions, name of a place etc.), the way you address the person depends on the gender and age of the person:
Female: Ati Habtey (Sister Hatbey); Ade Hatbey (Mother Hatbey).
Male: Ata Hawey (Brother Hawey); Abo Hawey (Father Hawey).
This approach has been in use from time immemorial and immediately gets you help and attention. With these forms of address you identify yourself as a family to the person you are talking with; as a result, he or she will respond with no hesitation to give you the required information. He/she will not bother to ask who you are and where you are from. It is a very direct and effective way of contacting Eritreans; it also reflects a desire to not be regarded as too inquisitive and disrespectful.
Generally, Eritreans don’t ask or like to be asked on their first encounter about matters that are considered personal and private, such as religion, political affiliation, marriage, etc., whether it is a stranger or a compatriot who is asking.
Eritreans often drop by without warning; when this happens, you try to make your visitor feel at ease by offering drink (coffee) and in the process ask about the visitors health, the harvest, etc. After the drink, the hospitality and general discussion on trivial topics is exhausted, either the host or the visitor will calmly broach the reason for the visit.
Good subjects to talk about initially are where you are from, the purpose of your work in Eritrea, and your family. It is important to ask about the person’s family. (You should always ask about the how a person’s family is, even when meeting people regularly, as this is considered good manners). It is good to enquire about where the person you are meeting is from (most Eritreans are linked to a particular village even if they did not grow up there). You can also enquire about their work. These are all safe subjects; they open up conversation and allow one to get to know the person. One can also talk about the part of Canada you are from, and what distinguishes it from other parts of Canada. Many people you will encounter will have relatives living in Canada and you can talk about where these relatives are living and what your connection to that part of Canada is.
Initially, one should avoid conversations about the war with Ethiopia, political discussions, or anything implying a negative perception of the country. These are very sensitive topics and are best left until one has built a relationship. The issue of the conflict with Ethiopia may come up and it is best not to get into analysis, but to simply hear the perspective of the person you are speaking with. The emotions attached to the conflict are such that any discussion drifting towards an objective analysis may cause offense. The political environment also does not permit open discussion, and it is often difficult to discover the political perspectives of people even after you have know them for some time.
However, if one discovers that the person you are meeting served as a "fighter" during the liberation war, asking about their role and experience during this struggle is appropriate and often welcomed. "Fighters" are held in high esteem. Many women served as "fighters", and often women holding senior positions in government are former "fighters". It is important to acknowledge the role that they played.
The usual mode of greeting is a handshake, followed by the word Selam. Depending on the degree of familiarity with the other person(s), hugging and kissing on the cheeks is also common (irrespective of gender). As people get to know you and accept you amongst themselves, they become less formal and guarded and more relaxed, making direct eye contact. Eye contact in the first encounter is generally viewed as a sign of disrespect; avoiding eye contact and looking away are considered as virtues equated to reverence and respect.
As a result of Eritrea’s rich history, you will see a blend of pastoral and modern subcultures and norms, flavoured by religious divergence & ethnicity. Eritrean towns and cities are like any cosmopolitan cities in the world. In the villages and suburbs there are few of the amenities of a city life. However, the people of Eritrea have been exposed to diverse cultures and they will go the extra mile to accommodate you (they will assume you are an expert visiting their country with a specific mission).
It is very likely that within the first two weeks of your arrival in Eritrea you could be invited to the home of an Eritrean family for coffee. Do accept, but you should expect a rather long discussion about the ritual of coffee making, a ceremony that involves several stages. In that span of time your host family can cover a wide range of topics including politics, religion and culture.
When meeting someone that you have gotten to know as a friend or colleague, it is common to greet each other with a tap on the right shoulder as a form of a hug. This is a gesture of friendship and warmth.
Generally, Eritreans are comfortable standing at a closer distance from the person to whom they are speaking than is common for North Americans. Personal space is perceived differently. Once you get to know someone, it is not unusual to continue holding the person’s hand when you exchange greetings. Once people get to know you, Eritreans are very comfortable with physical touching. Women will often place a finger full of food in another woman’s mouth as a sign of friendship. Women will feel comfortable adjusting another woman’s hair or clothes. Physical contact between men and women is much more limited, and restricted to related family members. Direct eye contact is acceptable, but for relatively short periods of time. One can be relatively direct in speaking with Eritreans, but the tone should not convey perceived negative judgment about Eritrean ways.
Display of emotion
People try to refrain from displaying their emotions in public. However, bottled up anger and suppressed emotions do flare up once in a while.
Public displays of affection are quite acceptable and expected. One can also express joy, excitement, and pleasure in what one is seeing or experiencing. However, one must be careful about expressing anger in public, particularly if the anger suggests one is critical of how Eritreans are conducting themselves. It is common to see an adult expressing anger publicly at a child that has behaved in a way that is considered unacceptable.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Just like in Canada, every office has its distinct culture influenced by the local norms and practices and the organization’s philosophy and management style.
Office etiquette and cultural values demand that you have clean attire that covers your entire body. Exposing parts of your body even partially is unacceptable. Because of the usually warm weather, cotton suits (long pants or skirts; shirts and jacket) are recommended.
People value their employment; they will understand the consequence of absenteeism and punctuality, as the time card is often used as an effective and impartial system of control.
The first few weeks will be the defining moments; try to learn people’s names and use Ato (Mr.) + [first name]; Weizero (Mrs.) + [first name] (women retain their maiden name followed by their fathers name); and Weizerit (Miss) + [first name]. As you become more familiar with each person, you can just call them by their first names.
Business dress is generally smart casual. For men, a suit and tie is not common, even when meeting with senior government officials. Possibly, when meeting with a Minister, one might choose to wear more formal business attire. Women should not wear sleeveless tops that expose the shoulders, or short skirts. This holds true even outside the workplace. Even men do not take off their shirts and expose their shoulders in public. In the workplace, women may wear a mixture of traditional dress and western dress.
Eritreans are addressed by their first names, and not their second names (the second name is simply their father’s first name). To address a man on a more formal basis, one adds formal title of "Ato" (Mr.) before the first name. There is a similar title for women equivalent to Mrs., "Weizero"; when meeting a person for the first time (particularly in a business setting), one should use this formal form of address. This can be dropped quickly with colleagues, but may be retained when addressing a supervisor or senior official. One should observe how colleagues address this person to determine the level of formality expected. It is considered polite to use the formal address with elderly people that one does not yet know as friends.
There is considerable variation in the approach to time. It is important to arrive on time for meetings as a sign of respect, but one must be prepared to wait if the person has other business to attend to. There is an expectation that foreigners will show more respect for time, so one must not adopt the same attitude to time as Eritreans; this may be perceived as showing a lack of respect. Also, as a foreigner, one cannot "demand" certain tasks be completed by specific deadlines. One can speak about deadlines and follow-up on progress, but avoid implying any threats for missed deadlines.
Eritreans generally respect work hours (which are long), and expect people to be working during these hours. They are industrious and expect that of others.
Preferred managerial qualities
Eritrean culture accepts authority that comes as a result of one’s profession. Teachers, priests, and medical doctors garner a high degree of respect and acceptance for their job title and position.
People expect their supervisors/managers to have some qualifications and expect that they will work to earn the loyalty and respect of their subordinates. As a newcomer, people will accept you at face value, with a let’s-wait-and-see attitude.
Don’t be surprised if people look up at you even more than to their compatriots because they believe you have better training and education as someone from a developed country. Therefore go ahead, set the tune, establish your own standard and expectations and create or be a catalyst for the change you want to introduce. Be punctual and respectful and people will take note. Your staff will judge you on qualities such as fairness, integrity, knowledge and capacity to lead, especially in time of crisis.
Education is highly valued as a criterion for management and leadership. Pay and promotions are often dependent on educational credentials. However, one’s role during the liberation struggle is also an important factor. People who played major leadership roles within the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) continue to occupy senior positions in government, even if their education levels are not as high as those of some subordinates. Considerable effort is being made by this cadre of people to upgrade their educational levels. Many of the senior government officials have participated in a correspondence program with the Open University in London to obtain their MBAs, including the President himself.
Eritreans will examine an expatriate’s educational and technical credentials to determine whether they have useful technical skills to offer. In an international agency, your authority (if you are a manager) will be respected. In an Eritrean structure, your educational and technical skills will be important. Once you demonstrate certain technical skills and knowledge, your views will be sought more readily.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Eritrea is moving from a very highly structured authoritarian culture to a participatory and inclusive type of management style. Traditionally, decisions were made from top to bottom but this has been changing a great deal with two decades of systematic campaigns to improve literacy and social consciousness.
Thus, a new wave of decision-making process is taking root. Study groups, committees and highly capable individuals are expressing and asserting their ideas and inviting others to follow suit. Now, village councils are being elected in an open democratic way and ideas and decisions are emanating from the grassroots upward. This new phenomenon is giving Eritreans the chance to approach their immediate supervisors to present their ideas and receive feedback.
Eritrean work structures are very hierarchical. Most decisions move up the ladder rather than being delegated down. People are reluctant to make these decisions without consulting with their supervisors or more senior managers. Managers may consult with their staff, and issues may be hotly debated among staff. But in the end, the manager makes the decision, and does not need to consult.
If one is working for an international agency (such as a UN agency), then expatriate managers are expected to make all major decisions in a traditional hierarchical manner. Within Eritrean structures, however, Eritreans are reluctant to give expatriates positions of authority. Generally, expatriates will be treated as technical advisors. One must be prepared for decisions to be made where you are not consulted or even informed and for conversations to take place in the local language while you are present even though all people in the room speak good English. Information is generally shared on a "need to know" basis.
It is a good idea to go to your supervisor to get answers to specific questions. Frequently, colleagues will not feel free to share information, not knowing if the supervisor believes the information should be shared. One must develop ways of asking questions that do not appear to be delving into issues that you don’t "need" to know about.
Religion, Class, ethnicity, & gender
Historically, women have been relegated to child rearing and housekeeping and have been denied education as a result. Thanks to the gains achieved during the long years of struggle for liberation, in which women contributed enormously (women accounted for 30% of the Liberation Army), they have come out on a better footing and are in a position to change that legacy.
The government has decreed that 30% of the seats in the National Assembly are to be reserved for women. Women are now moving to fully exercise their rights and a number have been appointed to Ministerial jobs. Together with the government, the Eritrean Women’s Association has had a lot of success in getting away from the taboos that prevented girls from going to school.
I have been very much encouraged to see women from minority ethnic groups from remote villages going to literacy courses, learning how to drive cars and trucks and becoming bread winners.
People have absolute freedom to worship God in accordance with the tenets of the religion of their choice. The only area in respect of religion that is forbidden is the formation of a political party or association that serves a particular religion or ethnic group.
Eritrea’s population is roughly 50 % Christian and 50% Muslim. There is an encouraging level of harmony, tolerance and a trend of inter-religious/ethnic marriages that was unheard of a decade ago.
I was working as a high school teacher in a predominantly Muslim community in Eritrea and I had my days off on Fridays and Sundays while my friends working in the predominantly Christian zone had theirs on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Christian denominations are Orthodox (Coptic), Catholic & Lutheran Churches. Other Christian denominations are mushrooming in the country and time will tell if they will survive governmental laws separating the state from religion.
There is no class distinction in Eritrea. Peasants who till their individual farmland inhabit the countryside. Traditionally, village administration responsibility was done on a rotating basis but now the government is introducing a village council based on open nominations and voting.
The working class is relatively homogeneous and the main employer is the government so there is no rich capitalist group of any significance. As in most African countries, strong labour and trade unions have existed since the mid 40s. These unions were historically more preoccupied with political rather than economic issues and were the backbone and stepping stone for future African leaders, the Liberation movement and the fighting force. They continue to be an important force to reckon with.
In Eritrea, there are 9 distinct ethnic groups with different cultures, languages and modes of life. Despite their diverse ethnicity and religious (mainly Christian & Muslim) differences, the people of Eritrea were able to forge a united front and waged a 30-year war of liberation from Ethiopia. This war culminated in 1993 in the creation of the state of Eritrea, achieved through a United Nations supervised referendum.
The workplace has its own norms and practices; people may think what they like but you should focus on the relationship you are trying to foster and the laws and regulations that bind you.
During the liberation war, the EPLF developed a strong ideology of equality between the sexes, with women being treated as equals and serving as fighters and in leadership roles. With the end of the war, it was expected that this new role for women would continue as the EPLF formed government. While the ideology of gender equality continues in principle, in practice, women have increasingly been sidelined into more traditional roles. Their advancement in the workplace is also hampered by their generally lower educational levels. Thus, women are generally found in administrative support roles, or technical roles such as accounting or health services.
The highlands are largely orthodox Christian, while the lowlands are inhabited primarily by Muslims. Officially, there are equal numbers of Christians and Muslims in Eritrea (it is difficult to know the actual numbers). The EPLF liberation movement made a conscious effort to overcome religious differences and form a decidedly secular liberation movement. However, there are still underlying tensions between the Christian highlanders and Muslims from the lowlands. This serves as a basic cultural and ethnic divide in the country, with the Christian population largely occupying the most powerful positions. Nevertheless, there is considerable religious tolerance for the major religions. There is less tolerance for some of the smaller Protestant Christian denominations, with many of these churches having been deregistered. The government seeks to restrict Christian and Muslim activities to pastoral and religious activities, separate from social service, development and political activities.
This religious dimension plays little role in the day-to-day workplace. The larger Eritrean identity has been successfully established. Unless one takes an interest in their lives outside of the workplace, one can work with colleagues without ever encountering their religious identity.
The social and work structure respect hierarchy. Status is important and it is based on education and one’s position at work or within social institutions. Eritrean society permits social movement within the hierarchy based on education and ability. There does not appear to be a set class structure that is rigidly maintained.
There are nine formally recognized ethnic groups in Eritrea, with the Tigrinya being the most numerous and dominant. The Tigrinya live in the highlands and are generally Orthodox Christian. The other groups are primarily Islamic and often live or have their origins in the lowlands. The major languages spoken are Tigrinya and Arabic, with English being increasingly spoken in the major centres. Some of the older people still speak Italian. Ethnicity continues to play an important role in social life, but the ruling party has made major efforts to transcend ethnic cleavages. The EPLF liberation movement that led the country to independence built a movement that joined peoples from the various ethnic groups and religions into one united movement. The EPLF pushed aside other liberation movements that were more ethnically and religiously based.
It helps a lot and things go better where there is friendship and trust. In Eritrean society, the norm is chat and exchange niceties before delving into more serious business. People always want to have a win-win situation and part amicably so they can resume another round of negotiation until a mutual agreement is reached. The saying goes, "it is better to have a bad marriage than a divorce".
It is possible in Eritrea to engage in professional and business dealings without developing a personal relationship first. Direct discussions of the issues at stake are possible in a spirit of mutual respect. There may even be a preference for engaging in this direct manner if negotiations are required. However, there is also considerable opportunity to develop personal relationships with colleagues and clients. Eritreans are open to the development of friendships. This can be started by inviting people to a restaurant for a meal, and then to one’s home. Showing and interest in cultural or sporting events and attending these together is another way to build friendships. Accepting invitations to weddings is important. Eritreans are pleased to share their culture and lives with others. Once a basic friendship is established, visiting a colleague’s home and meeting their family is common and appreciated.
When entering a room, even if a meeting is in progress, it is important to greet everyone before engaging in business discussions.
Privileges and favouritism
An individual will not come and ask you for a salary increase or a favour but as in most cultures, depending on the relationship and the level of comfort, it is not uncommon for someone to ask for a favour to hire a friend or relative.
No pressure or pushing the envelope is involved; it is all subtle and gentle. The only problem may be that it may become a nuisance if they keep pestering you, thinking you are the expatriate with a lot of influence.
A common practice that I have seen is that if an employee dies or is disabled, his wife, son or daughter could be hired. This has a big positive impact for the family and the morale of the rest of the personnel.
The EPLF has developed a strong "anti-corruption" culture in which special favours are not encouraged based on personal/family relationships. I never experienced any pressure to provide special favours to persons in the workplace based on personal friendship, other than the normal kindness and support one would extend to any friend (eg: help with getting the latest copy of the official soccer rules, advice on schools in Canada, a ride out to their village). Outside of the work environment, if one asks for assistance in hiring domestic help, or locating certain technical services such as an electrician or plumber, people with links to the family are often recommended.
Conflicts in the workplace
It is not hard to decipher if a colleague is having a problem or an issue with you. Body language and facial expressions will be enough to indicate that something is not right. You will be able to detect a change of attitude in the manner or the way he responds when you greet him.
In such circumstances, find out if the grievance or grudge is work-related or not. If it is work- related problem, it should be resolved by calling the person to your office and asking him/her what is the trouble. If the issue seems universal, raise the issue with everyone through a meeting or the bulletin board. If it is not work-related, you should meet the person outside the office and confront the person.
Note that in Eritrea, it is not uncommon to appoint or ask elders/colleagues or workmates to act as mediators. This is quite a good tool and is encouraged by the Eritrean legal system. In the Eritrean tradition, an independent conciliatory body that both parties accept and trust may be appointed to settle the issue right away. If it is serious, they will table their findings and recommendation to the courts and/or union leaders.
Work related problems are best dealt with privately, not publicly. An unresolved problem with a colleague can also be addressed with the person’s supervisor. If the problem is with one’s own supervisor, one can address the matter with that person, but it is not wise to go over the person’s head to their supervisor. This would be regarded as overstepping your boundaries. As an outsider, one needs to make the necessary accommodations to colleagues if one wants to be effective, particularly supervisors and managers. You can very easily be sidelined and rendered ineffective by seeking to force change on others, by being perceived as requiring Eritreans to act in the way you think they should act. Eritreans are extremely proud and very resistant to outside pressure. Demanding your rights or respect is rarely successful.
Motivating local colleagues
Stability, prestige, benefits and good pay are some of the factors that play a big role in boosting motivation and performance of local colleagues at work.
Most Eritreans take pride in their work and strive to excel. Positive reinforcement for work well done is important. Being critical of performance is not generally helpful. Rather, one should share ways to improve performance using non-judgmental technical advice. There is a strong commitment to rebuilding the country following the liberation war and the recent conflict with Ethiopia. Efforts to improve performance built around this rebuilding ethic are positively received, as long as they are not presented as criticism. Showing excitement about what can be done is useful. Comparing performance to other countries or people is often counter-productive.
Recommended books, films & foods
Before setting your foot in Eritrea you could learn about the culture by visiting some of the Eritrean web sites such as the Eritrean Embassy in Washington. These sites will give you general information about the land and its people and what to expect while there.
Depending on where you are in Canada, you can get in touch (at least in the major cities in Canada) with Eritreans and Eritrean Community offices or Eritrean restaurants, where you can drop in and learn the culture, see the diversity, taste their food and ask questions. You can also watch films made by Alter-Cine and National Film Board of Canada to learn about Eritrean history of the recent past; you might also ask some of the communities to lend you any videos they may have from Eritrea.
Basic travel guides to Eritrea are useful starting points to getting background information on Eritrea. General histories of the region, including Ethiopia provide useful background. Books about the liberation war are important, as one cannot understand modern Eritrea without understanding the liberation struggle. This 30-year war has fundamentally shaped modern Eritrea. Although many books on the country are available in Eritrean book stores, they are hard to find outside the country.
Culturally, the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea are very similar, as are the lowlands of the two countries. Books on the culture of the region, even if they are about Ethiopia, are useful. Eating at an Ethiopian restaurant (similar food to Eritrean food and often more easily found) exposes you to the unique injera bread (sour dough fermented flat bread) and various sauces.
Before travelling to Eritrea one can usually make contact with the local Eritrean community. Many Eritreans have settled in Canada. They are almost always delighted to meet with you and share their culture. They will usually help you make contact with their relatives in Eritrea. This provides you with contacts outside of your immediate work colleagues, and is a great way to begin entering the Eritrean community once you arrive there.
When in Eritrea, one good way to learn more of the Eritrean culture is to watch comedies on TV, which are true reflections of the daily life and culture of the people. Sitting in cafes, chatting with people over coffee or tea is also a good way.
Once you have friends, they will tell you the jokes of the day (like Air Farce). People thrive on jokes and graffiti but unfortunately, you would not know who the artists and authors are of these insightful and humorous jokes. They are spread through word of mouth and can be informative. Newspapers and magazines sometimes carry cartoons and are quite entertaining and provocative.
The Canadian Embassy/consulate in Asmara will be able to give you current information and may get you a reliable interpreter. There are a number of Eritrean-Canadians who have started businesses in Eritrea and meet once in a while; contacting them could be quite helpful.
The best way to learn more about the culture is to develop friendships with Eritrean families. There are many Eritreans with family connections in Canada and they are usually interested in making contact. Families in Eritrea are usually interested in sharing their culture. It is likely you will be invited to a wedding. This is a major cultural event and a great opportunity to discover more about family life. Local people appreciate your effort to participate in their dancing, which is relatively easy to do. Ask a work colleague to attend with you, and they will be happy to explain what to do. In Asmara, the capital, there are often concerts of local musicians that you can attend. There are also local theatre productions that reveal much about local concerns, but you need a local person to interpret for you.
It is important to get out of the city to a village. Again, families are willing to be your guide to their village. All Eritreans are "from" a particular village, even if they have never lived there.
The coffee ceremony is an important social practice. This ceremony consists of a ritual roasting, grinding, brewing and sharing coffee, often accompanied by popcorn, as a time for relaxed conversation and friendship. It usually follows the sharing of a meal, but can be offered at other times when the purpose of the gathering is to socialize. It is impolite to hurry this ceremony. If one is rushed for time, it is wise to choose tea rather than coffee.
There are major religious festivals in the Christian orthodox tradition. These are public festivals that you can attend. You can also attend church services in the beautiful Orthodox churches early morning (services often start before sunrise). Again, if you show interest, an Eritrean colleague will be happy to attend with you and explain what is happening. Once you make friendships with families, you may be invited to a baptism. Express interest in these events and you will receive invitations.
The two major sports are soccer (football) and bicycle racing, reflecting the Italian colonial heritage. I regularly attended soccer matches with work colleagues.
Independence day is a major event. There is a major celebration in the national stadium that is worth attending and there is lots of celebrating the night before.
The war of Liberation has produced a lot of unsung heroes and heroines in Eritrea. Unfortunately, other than what some individuals write about the astonishing sacrifice and heroism of their comrades, we have no list of names and only a few have been written about in the daily newspapers. There is a strong sense that Eritreans succeeded because of the sheer guts and determination of many Eritreans.
The use of the word "Selam" shows how peace is important in the daily life of Eritreans. For centuries, Eritrea was the battleground of big Empires. Peace, more than anything, is the primary wish of an Eritrean.
The most prominent heroes of the nation are the "fighters" who liberated the country from Ethiopian colonialism. They are celebrated and revered, particularly the "martyrs" who died during the struggle. One night a year these martyrs are remembered and celebrated in particular. The families walk along the main street in Asmara carrying candles to remember the martyrs. This is a very moving evening. Almost all the families you meet have lost someone during the war.
Shared historical events with Canada
There is a long-standing friendship and respect for Canada that dates back to the years of liberation. At that time, Canada was among the few countries to recognize the need to help alleviate the suffering of the famine-stricken Eritrean people and it arranged cross border shipments of a much needed food aid and medical supplies.
In addition, Canada was among the first nations to send a peacekeeping force when an unfortunate war erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the people of Eritrea are grateful for the initiative undertaken by Canada.
These shared historical facts will help you as a Canadian visiting or working in Eritrea.
Many Eritreans that fled their country during the liberation war have settled in Canada. There are few families in Asmara that do not have some family connection to Canada. This provides a bond between the two countries. Also, during the liberation war, Canadian food aid (primarily wheat) was supplied behind the fighting lines. Many people remember eating this Canadian wheat. In fact, when asked how they were doing, fighters who had eaten and were feeling good would reply "Canada", as this represented food and well being.
More recently, tensions have developed between the Canadian Government represented by its aid agency CIDA and the Government of Eritrea. The Government of Canada is not perceived as being particularly supportive and diplomatic relations between the two countries have been strained ever since the recent Ethiopian/Eritrean war. This negatively affects the perception of Canada in senior government circles, but not in everyday contact with Eritreans.
I have not come across any Eritrean or Eritrean-Canadian who can tell me of any Eritrean-held stereotypes of Canadians. Canada and Canadians are affectionately remembered for the ties and bond that started in pre-independence days and have continued since Independence.
Eritreans are a very proud and strong-willed people that insist on making their own decisions. As much as possible, one must avoid getting into contests of wills. Canadians may be tempted to react strongly to the Eritrean tendency to articulate matters in a "take it or leave it" manner which can put serious strains on effective relations. One must find ways of avoiding framing issues in these either/or terms, if at all possible.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born and raised in Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. He is the second oldest of six children. At age 20, he moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he completed a Bachelor of Business Administration in Management/ Accounting at Haile Selassie I University. Following his studies, he taught high school and worked as a Training Officer with the National Bank of Ethiopia before moving on to work for Ethiopian Airlines in various Management positions. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada. Currently he is living in Toronto working as an Accountant. In his spare time, he helps NGOs and cultural centres to fundraise and advises on issues related to African development. Your cultural interpreter is married and has one child. He has travelled extensively in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, the oldest of four children. Shortly after he was born, his parents moved to Kenya where they served as missionaries for over 20 years. He lived in a rural part of Kenya for the first 10 years and then they moved to Nairobi, the capital city. After finishing high school, your cultural interpreter returned to Canada, where he studied business administration at Ryerson in Toronto, Sociology and African studies at York University, and did his graduate work in international development at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa. He has worked in the field of international relief and development for most of his career. This work included an assignment in Eritrea where he served as the project advisor on a CIDA funded project designed to build the capacity of the Eritrean Grain Board. Your cultural interpreter is presently living in Winnipeg, Manitoba where he is the executive director of an international relief and development agency. He is married and has three children.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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