Today Eritrea is not exactly a wonderland. Freedom of press and speech is nonexistent, the state has taken control of all private companies, and the country has one of the most restrictive economies on the planet. Mass conscription has deprived many industries of manpower. The end result? Eritrea has won the less-than-enviable sobriquet of 'the North Korea of Africa', while the slightly more generous might realistically compare it to Cuba. Despite these harsh realities and the clampdown on civil liberties, Eritreans show an exceptional resilience and have not entirely lost hope in the future of their country.
The population of Eritrea is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Christians are primarily Orthodox; the Eritrean Orthodox church has its roots in the Ethiopian one but separated after liberation. There are also small numbers of Roman Catholics and Lutheran Protestants as a result of missionary activity. The Muslims are primarily Sunnis, with a Sufi minority.
Roughly speaking, the agriculturalist Orthodox Christians inhabit the highland region, and the Muslims are concentrated in the lowlands, the coastal areas and towards the Sudanese border. Some animists (roughly 2% of the population) inhabit the southwestern lowlands.
Eritreans are different in temperament from Ethiopians (which partly explains the bitter relations between the two countries). Years of invasion have created a siege mentality and a sense of isolation, and government policy in the ensuing years hasn't done much to change that mindset. Though impoverished, the nation has from the outset shown self-reliance, vigour and independence.
The contrast in lifestyle between Asmara and elsewhere is stark. No matter the state of the economy and rationing, Asmarans still take the passeggiata very seriously – a legacy of the Italian era. Then there is the rest of Eritrea, where poverty is about the only thing prevalent in excess.
In a country where there's little faith in the government, the family remains one pillar of society on which Eritreans continue to depend. Religious occasions and public holidays are vigorously celebrated, as are more personal family events, such as weddings.
Women enjoy far greater equality in Eritrea than in most other African countries. Eritrea’s women themselves contributed more than one-third of troops in both of the recent wars against Ethiopia, and continue to serve in the mandatory national service on an equal footing with the country's male population.
People of Eritrea
There are nine ethnic groups in Eritrea, each with their own language and customs, as well as a handful of Italians who live in Asmara. The most numerous group is the Tigrinya, who make up approximately 50% of the population and control most of the political structure of the country, followed by the Tigre (27%), Saho (5%), Afar (5%), Hedareb (4%), Kunama (3%), Bilen (2%), Nara (2%), and Rashaida (1%).
Approximately 35% of the population are nomadic or semi-nomadic. Around 20% of Eritreans are believed to live abroad, mostly in Europe and the USA.
Eritrea has three main geographical zones: the eastern escarpment and coastal plains, the central highland region, and the western lowlands.
The eastern zone consists of desert or semidesert, with little arable land. The northern end of the East African Rift Valley opens into the infamous Dankalia region in the east, one of the hottest places on earth. The central highland region is more fertile and it is intensively cultivated by farming communities. The western lowlands, lying between Keren and the Sudanese border, are watered by the Gash and Barka Rivers.
Several mountains exceed 2500m, with the highest peak, Emba Soira, reaching 3018m. Offshore lie over 350 islands, including the 210 of the Dahlak Archipelago, the largest in the Red Sea. Major Eritrean marine ecosystems include coral reefs, sea-grass beds and mangrove forests.
Eritrea’s birdlife is very rich. Of the 2600 species of birds in Africa, Eritrea hosts 560 to 660 species, including two endemic ones.