Family Matters

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The concept of a “family” is essentially the same in every culture around the world. Generally, a nuclear family includes one’s parents and siblings – these are your immediate relatives. An extended family includes your aunts, uncles, and cousins – people you may not always see or live with.

This model of a family is arguably similar for most modern cultures, as it includes a surface-level definition (explaining “this is what a family is”). The basis of most family ties includes raising and nurturing children until they are of a certain age and able to begin their own families, with the cycle eventually repeating. But what goes on during these formative years that truly expresses how a family functions and why does it function the way that it does?
The significance of a family begins to vary when you take a closer look at a culture’s ideals and values. What is considered protective and attentive behavior in one culture may simply appear overbearing in another, while freedom and trust in one culture may appear as neglect and lack of necessary restriction in another.

Is there a “right” way to be a family? It is obvious that the way we nurture our loved ones has an effect on our mental and emotional health. Additionally, it teaches us how to raise our own families when we grow up. How to be a family is subjective and reflects the principles of that specific family. Furthermore, it can show you the principles of the culture a family is a part of. How do families in Eritrea function in comparison to the United States and where do these differences stem from? I analyzed the interactions of my extended family in Asmara and compared them to how my nuclear family functions back in the United States.

On a surface level, it is obvious that the members of a typical Eritrean family are pretty close with one another. But why is this so? It could be the daily lunch breaks that most workers are given. Around noon (“fadus”), people head home, grab a meal, and spend time with their loved ones before returning back to work. However, in the United States, this is unlikely to happen. You can certainly get a lunch break, but heading back home to grab a bite is definitely not the norm. Can this affect familial relationships? Eating meals with your family can trigger bonding moments that allow you to get more familiar with your relatives. It also provides you the time to pay more attention to your loved ones.

The traditional coffee ceremony (“bun”) is another opportunity for Eritrean families to come together. During the ceremony, which most families tend to share about once per day, family members dedicate several hours to their loved ones, drinking coffee and discussing a range of issues, both significant and inconsequential. This was a great surprise for me, as my own family back in the United States doesn’t consider bun to be a daily necessity. This may be the norm for most of the Eritrean diaspora.

Another observation is that children in Eritrea play a big role in helping out around the house. A lot of my family members will say how the work never stops in this country – and they’re right! While mothers tend to take care of household chores, like cooking and cleaning, fathers help out with errands and do a lot of the so-called “grunt” work. Children are expected to lend a helping hand and, in this way, it’s safe to assume that they mature pretty quickly here. It’s normal to have serious and heated conversations with or around your children, which is fascinating to witness. Normally, children in the United States are expected to “act as kids,” meaning, they are not expected or allowed to discuss certain matters with their parents. It is also normal for kids to not provide complete support to their parents or around the house. With the Eritrean youth in the diaspora, we see the consequences of this as being unable to partake in traditional customs, such as cooking Eritrean meals (of which I am guilty).

Does globalization play a role in how families function? Typically, people are able to adapt to the culture that they are in. This means that for the Eritrean diaspora, and specifically the youth, integration comes quite easily. For the most part, we’re stepping in and out of two different cultures: inside the house, we are in a “strict” Eritrean household guided by rules and regulations, while outside of the house, we are introduced to people and families with different values that allow us to question our parents’ authority and attempt to create flexible living situations that accommodate our unique lifestyles. For instance, in a typical Eritrean household in Eritrea, it is perfectly acceptable, and even sometimes mandatory, for adults to live at home with their parents until marriage. Could this be because of economic conditions, in addition to cultural expectation? That may, in fact, play a large role. In the United States, however, living at home while in your late twenties is considered odd and often looked down upon. I would garner an educated guess that most Eritrean youth in the United States are also expected to eventually move out upon graduating college and securing a job, and it’s surprisingly met with general praise from most Eritrean parents. It is possible that Eritrean customs and traditions become lost with the younger generations because of their assimilation to American customs.

My time here in Eritrea is opening my eyes to how culture can play such a large role in family matters. As I am challenged to adapt, I hope I am able to learn and take these necessary skills with me back to the United States.