Having discussed the negative impacts that the government’s NGOs policy and land expropriation have on the people of Eritrea, I now proceed to cast light on the coping strategies the people pursue in the face of these challenges and crises. In general it can be concluded that the coping strategies of the populations are extremely overstretched that the people have reached a point where they can no more cope with the scale of the crises they are facing. The endless national service, war and natural disasters and the resulting poverty and the humanitarian crises over the past years have eroded the people’s coping strategies. There are a variety of coping strategies that are employed by the Eritrean population. Some coping strategies are common both to the rural and urban contexts while the others are context specific, i.e. they are specific either to urban conditions or to rural conditions.
Coping strategies that are common both to urban and rural setting area:
- Quantitative and qualitative food intake reduction: here the people reduce the amount of calories intake and consume less balanced and less quality food.
- Selling of household’s assets such as gold and other household property. This is very evident in Asmara that people auction their household properties such as bed, cupboards …etc. in the auction markets.
- Borrowing: although the opportunity to borrow is now eroded because of the long term poverty which puts people on a position that does not enable households to repay their previous debts and there are almost no people that have the resources to provide loans, borrowing is still one of the coping strategies households seek.
- Sharing of resources: there are good traditions and customs that have been in practice for millennia in which the better off relatives and neighbours share from what they have with those who do not have. The degree of sharing may vary between urban and rural areas and between ethnic groups or between one area (region) and another, but is one of the social safety nets people resort to. However, the capacity of sharing to really contribute to solving of the problems has diminished with the increase in poverty. Sharing is more practiced in the rural setting than the urban setting.
- Emigration: emigration to foreign countries is one of the coping strategies that people have pursued to escape from the grip of poverty and humanitarian crises. Putting aside those emigrating because of the endless national service program, human rights violations and tortures, there are also people who emigrate for economic reasons. For example many of those exempted from national service emigrate. There are whole families and children even below the age of five years that flee from the country. If not for the obstacles and risks that are put by the government many people would emigrate because of the critically difficult living conditions in the country.
- Petty trading: this includes smuggling goods from the border areas such as Tesseney to the towns and trading in the towns. If we take Asmara as an example, almost all the Asmara streets are overwhelmed by people trading in the streets. Majority of the petty traders are women with children standing second in rank in terms of proportion. Particularly the districts of the Medeber, Edaga Hamus and Edaga Arbai, Mai – Abashawl and ST Mary church and Kidene Mihret church, Markato and Goidaif are overcrowded.
This business involves the risk of loosing properties as the municipality of Asmara confiscates the properties claiming it illegal trade. It is a hide and seek business, with the traders always on alert and on the run and the municipality searching and chasing them. But this year it seems the searching and chasing activities seems to have lessened and this is evident by the increase in the number of people trading at the streets – the number of people who trade in the streets is so huge, in some days there are no space for walking and this signals probably the government has accepted as a matter of fact that people have to trade to cope with current crisis. In the villages almost in every village there is one day per week organized as market day in which people from the neighbouring areas and even from far away areas come to trade. In these market days similar trends of increase in the number of women involved in the petty trade activities is observed as opposed to the normal situations where most of the goods and services traded are locally produced and the main actors are men.
- Prostitution and child labour: As the bread winners of the households are absent, families resort to sending their children to work in different economic activities such as restaurants, bars, and other activities such as being street vendors. Some of the underage girls finally end up as sex workers. Many adult women also resort to the prostitution as a coping strategy. However, as the government targets and sends the sex workers and children who are street vendors or street children or any child or adult person out of school to military training, mere observation of the number of sex workers and of children engaged in the above mentioned activities does not give the actual picture of the scale of child labour and prostitution in the country.
Coping strategies specific to rural population:
- Migration and begging: In the Eritrean cultures, there is deep rooted tradition of social safety nets in which the poor or destitute move from farm to farm begging for food crops at the harvest time or threshing time. These include moving from ones’ own villages to neighbouring villages or even to far away area/villages that have relatively better/good harvest. In normal years, the number of destitute constitutes only a negligible proportion of the population, and the begging catchment area is confined to one’s own and neighbouring villages. However, at times of droughts, as the greater proportion of the population or whole villages or geographical areas are left without food, the entire villages or communities may migrate to neighbouring or far away villages/areas at harvest season and return after the harvest. During this temporal migration they camp in the host villages sheltering in empty houses, or accommodated by the host communities or may stay in the open air or under trees. Usually the practice is the household moves from farm to farm as a unit, i.e. all its members move together where the household is composed of the household head plus children (children who need care and guidance of the adult and can not work on their own). Adult members of the household can move independently on their own while begging but manage and use their resources together and live together. According to the deeply held traditions and beliefs (based on religious principles), giving a fraction of your harvest to the poor and needy at the time of collecting the harvests brings God’s blessings and grace to the harvest and the family. It is also considered fulfilling one’s religious obligations as God teaches so. The usual practice is, after making the prayer, the farmers first give to the beggars before putting the grain into their own bags. If the begging household is made up of more than one member, the farmers give a fraction of their harvest multiplied by the number of household size of the begging household.
The seriousness of the drought this season can be measured by the level of people engaged in this type of begging. This crop season, entire villages have migrated begging from farm to farm leaving their villages deserted. In the subzone of Debarwa many villages in Sef’a area and in the Tselima area such as Emni- Tselem have migrated to other villages. Some villages from the former Akeleguzai and from the Kola Seraye have migrated either to around Mendefera and Adi Quala or to Gash Barka (such as Tekombia, Shelalo even Goluj which is 200 – 300 KM away from their area of residence). Migration to Gash Barka is massive. The migrating households do not use any transportation systems to reach even the areas that are very far away from their areas of residences such as Gash Barka but trek from village to village until they reach their destination. It is worthwhile to mention that those areas to which the drought stricken communities have migrated to did not harvest crops that are equivalent to the normal years – they are better off only when compared with the critically drought stricken areas. This means, overall, there are more beggars and less harvest that can be shared with the affected communities.
- Selling of livestock: people sell their animals to cope with the extreme poverty and humanitarian crises. However, as the economic and humanitarian crises and poverty have persisted for years there are less animals available to cope with the current situation because the number of animals per capita has been in decline.
- Animal migration: As drought equally affects livestock through the constraints of pasture and water availabilities which result in mass death of animals, people move from one area to another in search of feed and water for their animals.
- Eating wild fruits, leaves and roots where available such as coconut fruits along the riverbanks in Gash Barka and during the wet season eating leaves, roots and “beles” (cactus) fruits
Coping strategies that are specific to urban population:
- Begging: begging has now entered the domain of the main coping strategies. People who have had respectful and dignified living and who had never thought in one day in their life’s time they would be beggars have now become beggars. If we take Asmara as and example there are countless beggars everywhere, in every street and corner. The main public places such as bus stations, market places, mosques and churches are overwhelmed by beggars comprising mainly of women. In churches there are hundreds of beggars waiting/sitting at the gate every day and night. In the special saint days (this is particularly common practice with the Orthodox Tewahdo church where there is communion processions in which many believers gather), the beggars start making queues on the eve of the day making queues of about 200 metres long on either side of the church compound gate (a total about 400 metres long queues). The people spend the night in the queues enduring the colds in the open area with no adequate protective cover or clothings. In every neighbourhood or streets those people who feel humiliated to make public appearance during the day being embarrassed as begging is new experience for them, appear in the night under the darkness cover and sit in the streets and cover their face not to be recognized by their neighbours, relatives, and friends. It is almost an every day phenomenon; beggars come to visit residential houses, offices and other places such as garages, internet cafes, restaurants, and cafeteria.
During “Nigdet” (an annual saint’s day that is celebrated every year by the church and by the people who get spiritual services from that specific church), on top of those who spend days and nights on either side of the gate of the church, there are newly arrived beggars that come to the churches to beg because there is big gathering of people at the churches during these days. Also during this day food is served at the church compound to every person irrespective his/social class. In addition the families or households provide adequate meals to the beggars during that day (on that day people are more generous and show great mercy to the beggars) which make these saint days attract more beggars even from far away places. In these days the beggars get more food than would consume within one day on their own thus store it and to last them for 2-3 days or share it with other family members. This also applies to similar occasions in the country side.
But in Eritrea even begging is a crime because for president Isaias and his clique who are announcing that Eritrea has attained food self sufficiency and registered an unprecedented economic development in the African history, arrogant as they are, they can not tolerate to see beggars in the streets as begging is the indicator of destitution, famine and economic and social crisis and backwardness.
Thus they banned begging as an activity and rounded up the beggars in a couple of instances and put them in detention in Ala and Asmara military prisons for several weeks and released them after making them promise not to go to go back to begging again. But for these people, as stopping begging means choosing death over life, neither those who promised to stop begging have abandoned it nor did new beggars hesitate to enter into the act of begging.
- Out (internal) Migration: there are also people also who migrate from the towns of the highland and other towns such Keren to Gash-Barka such as Tesseney, Goluj … etc, preferred for the relatively better opportunities these areas provide in terms of availability and affordability of basic necessities due to their agricultural potential and the relatively active trade with the Sudan. Those who migrate there either become farmers or engage in trading or other activities or just migrate to these areas to live there because the costs of living are relatively less expensive than in other parts of the country. This migration differs from the forced migration pursued by the government which is mainly focused on the country side. Those who migrate are of two categories: those who migrate permanently with the whole family to reside there and those who only send one or some members of the household there temporarily or seasonally to engage in different activities such as agriculture or trading