Asmara, Eritrea Report of what it's like to live there - 04/27/21
Personal Experiences from Asmara, Eritrea
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I've lived in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Lome.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
USA, now. From DC, it takes nearly a day to get here, with a stop in Addis Ababa. The only real difficulty with getting here is the visa process.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing varies, but generally people who work in the diplomatic missions have large houses in nice residential parts of town. It's a small town, so commutes tend to be good for all expatriates. Our house is good overall, but we have issues with drain flies and our water system in general. Our mission does a good job of keeping it up, but we have to call for repairs often.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
VERY limited. There are good vegetables, at the right stores, but most things are very seasonal, if they have them at all. Prepared foods are expensive and difficult to find. Chicken is VERY expensive and often quite bony.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We did ship the things we needed, and we've taken some quick trips to Dubai for vacation and come back with coolers full of groceries. The most important thing--if you like a particular kind of ethnic/cultural cuisine, bring the staples of that cuisine. You will have a hard time finding things like soy sauce, tortillas, etc.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There is almost no food delivery. Most restaurants offer very similar menus, mostly Eritrean and Italian dishes (with some global staples like sandwiches.) There is one place that does Indian and Chinese food, though don't go looking for the most authentic experience there. I've heard tell there is Middle Eastern available, but I've not been there. Expect to cook a lot at home. (Note: During COVID, ALL of these have been shut down. It seems they're about to start opening, though.)
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Drain flies in our bathrooms. We've had a locust swarm come through town, but it passed quickly.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The only international delivery service here is DHL, and it does not fly in and out daily. I do not know about local postal facilities.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We pay a housekeeper $100/mo for 2x a week. This is probably on the high end of payment.
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are not accepted ANYWHERE in country. There are NO ATMs. If you are coming for a short stay, bring your own cash. Otherwise, you will need people to wire you money through Western Union. My employer maintains accounts that let me cash checks for local currency.
4. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Tigrinya is helpful but not essential. English is the language of instruction for middle and high school, and most younger people know at least a bit. Shop owners that cater to expats speak English very well. Older people will not speak English, but many speak Italian.
5. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Less so than you'd expect, considering GDP and such, but yes, still some trouble. Many buildings are not accessible, and elevators stop working when the power goes out (which is frequent.)
1. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
If you are bringing a car, the government requires it be less than five years old. If you stick to the city, you may be able to get away with a sedan, but even in the city you can sometimes come across horrible potholes that could wreck a low car. We have an SUV, and are glad to have it. No concerns of carjacking, though.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Check with your employer. My mission provides home internet access, and it's functional. However, not all do or are able to, and local internet plans are outrageously slow and expensive.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I kept my home-country plan for use while at home (I have internet), but you will need one on the local provider. Getting a SIM card can be tricky; work with your employer to get it done. The network is terrible and drops calls often.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
No quarantine, thankfully, but the veterinarians in country are not great. They can handle some minor things, but be prepared to provide your own medicines and vaccinations. No ability to do imaging, monitor anesthesia, etc.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
All I know work for the missions their spouses work for. There are no other options.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
It's not possible, usually-- In my opinion, there is a lot of government suspicion of aid groups and "volunteers." What groups do exist here would be putting themselves in trouble allowing an expat to volunteer.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
More relaxed than other places I've been. I wear a suit for meetings, but otherwise can get by in jeans and a polo often. (Check with your employer, of course.) In public, it's good to cover visible tattoos and wear modest clothing--no one will say anything and you won't get in trouble, but you will definitely draw attention in short shorts or if you have visible tattoos.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Despite common belief to the contrary, sexual assault is a huge issue, but more so for locals than expats. I don't know any expats to have been victimized here.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is poor--you would need evacuation for most things. Fortunately, the air is clean and I've not seen people come down with foodborne illness.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Great--this is the cleanest air of anywhere I've lived. One issue to be aware of--we're up high, so the air is thin. It will take time to adjust, and you likely will never fully adjust.
4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Travel in and out is difficult, and one can feel a bit cooped up after awhile, especially as we're not allowed to leave the capital without permission from the government.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Temperature is always pleasant. It is very dry, however, most of the year. Due to how thin and dry the air is, the difference between shade and direct sun is STARK. Wear sunscreen.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is one international school, and it's in danger of closing due to funding issues. Please check with people who are here at the time you apply.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
I know there is a preschool, but as I have no kids I know nothing else.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small community, overall pretty good morale. The type of people who come to Asmara are usually well prepared for the hardships.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
House parties are the most common, at least with people over the age of 30. There are a few clubs I've hard people say good things about.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's great for couples--I recommend having someone who can be your anchor. I can't speak for single people. School problems make me think it's less good for families.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
No--people here are very reserved, and foreign friends could be cause for suspicion. No particular prejudices, that I'm aware of, though.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No. The culture is very conservative, and same-sex sexual activity is criminalized. It would be very difficult to be out here.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is government repression of certain religious groups, so do not go looking for a Pentecostal religious service. The country prides itself on its gender equality, and formally they do really well--but at home there are still very set ideas of a woman's place in the home.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Just seeing the city. It's BEAUTIFUL. Summer has beles (prickly pear) fruit, which is delicious. The restaurants are fun. If you can get out, it's neat to see the geology of the rest of the country.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Go to art shows if you can. The art here is AMAZING. (VERY pricey, but amazing.)
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Paintings, mostly, but again, be prepared for sticker shock.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The weather is beautiful, the local food is delicious, and the people, while reserved, are really kind.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
To expect extra sleep issues, due to the thin air.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. In heartbeat. I've loved it here.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
ideas about what "Africa" is like. Asmara is VERY different from the other parts of the continent.
4. But don't forget your:
Patience. Many things will be more difficult than you expect, for reasons that you'll likely never understand. This is more true of your work than your home, however.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
"I Didn't Do It For You". Great short history of the country.
6. Do you have any other comments?
I'm very happy I came here, both personally and professionally. This is a beautiful country with the most amazing people. If the hardships mentioned are not dealbreakers, come to Asmara.