Before I came to Eritrea, people filled my head with ideas of what it would be like to live here; some were good but most people had negative things to say. A lot of people living in the diaspora seem to think that Eritrea is this small, isolated nation living in the stone ages. I received questions like “what will you do about drinking water?” and “how will you communicate with your family”, as if clean water, phones, and Wi-Fi didn’t exist.
Whenever Sawa was raised, people had even more to say; the weather is extremely harsh, the food isn’t enough, the training is too tough, and it went on and on. What people had to say wasn’t based on facts and personal experience; rather it came from individuals who had never set even their foot in the country, let alone in Sawa. I strongly believe that if more people were to come here and experience the country for themselves, they would leave with a very different understanding and unique experience.
There are few myths that I want to dispel about Sawa: the biggest one being that it’s only a military base with the sole purpose of producing only soldiers. First and foremost Sawa is a school, not only for the 20,000 high school seniors that go to complete their education every year but also for the students who score certificate level on the Matriculation exam – secondary school leaving examinations. These students spend two years in the different technical schools that are established in Sawa.
Another myth is that students spend all year in military training; in reality, the training is only three months long, the rest of the year the students attend school in a style similar to that of most boarding schools and prepare to take the matriculation exams, only after they’ve taken the exam does the training begin. This was where I joined in, since I’ve already completed my education, there was no need for me to go to Sawa before they took their exam. So, I had arrived at the end of March, a few days before the training began.
There were two things that I immediately noticed when I arrived; the first was the hot weather and the second was how incredibly welcoming everyone was. After I was assigned to my Hayli (the house and people you live and work with) all of my roommates were surprised to see someone from the diaspora and they assumed that I would stay for a few days only. Seeing me being part of them, we slowly started to get closer. Eventually, ‘my Hayli’ became my favorite part of the entire experience.
The most beautiful thing about Sawa is that you meet many Eritreans from different walks of life and different languages. Just in my Hayli alone I met girls from seven different ethnic groups, from all the six districts of the country, who practiced different religions and spoke different languages. It was amazing to see all these different girls living under one roof, studying and working together. I loved seeing how the whole house came together to celebrate both Easter and Eid; it didn’t matter if you were a Christian or Muslim, we all came together to decorate the house, make food, and spent the day celebrating with skits and performances put on by our fellow housemates. It doesn’t matter where you came from, what kind of living standard you have, what religion you follow, or from which ethnic group you are, for the year that you stay in Sawa, you become a family.
The difficult part about Sawa for me was definitely the hot weather. I was raised in Seattle, WA, and for those of you who don’t know Seattle, it’s a city that literally never sees the sun and rains 24/7. For me to go from a cold to a hot area was a challenge that required me to struggle to get adjusted to it.
The training itself is not as difficult as most people would say. Of course it’s challenging, but it definitely makes you a stronger person at the end. My personal view of Sawa has not changed; in fact it has only gotten stronger. I believe it’s a great way to bring people together and create religious and ethnic harmony among the young; there is no other place in Eritrea and no other experience that allows youth to encounter and embrace all of Eritrea’s different ethnic groups, languages, religions, cultures and traditions the way Sawa does.
Sawa is the key to peace in Eritrea and I hope everyone gets to experience it at least once in their lifetime.
Heaven Tesfamariam Bereketeab