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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Eritrea’s Identity as Cultural Crossroads

Tekle M. Woldemikael.

This paper deals with the cultural ideology that maps the social relations within and between the nine ethnic groups in Eritrea, as well as Eritrea’s relations to its neighbors and the rest of Africa. Since Eritrea is still an agrarian and a small-scale society, most of the social relations are centered on the institution of the family. Thus, a family’s and an ethnic group’s oral history of domination and subordination, interaction, migration and conquest, slavery, and enslavement of others determine that group’s status in a hierarchy of social relations. Although Eritreans cannot and do not see themselves in terms of clearly defined races as in the West or the U.S., the social relations between one another is based on exclusion and a mythology of purity based on family genealogy and lineages where such genealogy and lineages are said to be free from assumed ‘slave’ lineages or membership in a caste group in society. Religion, regional belonging, and an oral history of origins determine the boundaries as well as the intermixing of the groups that evolved over a long period of time to form what we now consider ethnic groups. This cultural ideology of inclusion and exclusion, belonging and not belonging, also becomes an organizing principles of social relations among Eritreans and Ethiopians, Eritreans and other Africans, and others. The Eritrean identity that is constructed from principles of social relations that intersect and merge with the supposed uniqueness of Eritrean history as a crossroads of the Middle East, Africa, and the antiquity of the region, as well as the recent history of Italian colonialism (1890-1941), British occupation (1941-1952), and Ethiopian federation and annexation (1952-1991). The nationalist movements that emerged in 1958 and lasted until 1991 built their own mythology of the uniqueness of Eritrean identity from other postcolonial Africans. Such a myth of uniqueness has intersected with the existing, socially constructed sense of uniqueness in the society.


Tekle M. Woldemikael  (United States)
Associate Professor of Sociology
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Redlands

Tekle Woldemikael is the chair and an associate professor of Sociology and Anthropology. He has written numerous articles on ethnicity and nationalism in Eritrea and black immigrants experience in the US.

  • Eritrean identity
  • National identity as a unique nation
  • Cultural ideology

(30 min Conference Paper, English)