Sawa is an educational hub that is often misrepresented as solely a military training area. However, in addition to the Warsai Yekealo school, where students from all over Eritrea converge for their final year of high-school, Sawa also houses a vocational training center that is divided into seven departments, which include building construction, accounting, advanced machinery, wood and metal works, etc. This year, Sawa will be graduating its 28th round of 12th grade students as well as the 7th batch of those that have completed their studies at the vocational training center.
My colleagues and I visited Sawa earlier this week. It was certainly an eye-opening experience. Upon arrival, we were warmly welcomed by the Director of the vocational training center, Mr Tesfai Tewelde, a dedicated man who has spent many years in Sawa. He provided us a comprehensive picture of the center.
The center was implemented to meet the demand in vocational trainings and capacity building for those who, for different reasons, had not had a chance to continue their studies at the college level. This year, the center will be graduating its 7th round with a total of 16,000 students who attended the school since its commencement.
Sadly, the training center is wrongly portrayed in negative way by the general public but also by new students upon their arrival as there is this idea of ‘failure’ for not having achieved well during the metric examination as the teachers Berhane Ande and Bereket Kebede explained to me.
Hermon Solomon, 19 years old, a student in drafting was quite frank sharing with us the contrast between what he had originally felt about the center and how he feels now as he prepares to graduate. He said that it was initially very difficult for him to accept the fact that he would only get a certificate instead of a degree. However, once the program started and he experienced the high level of teaching methodology and variety in coursework, he was quite impressed and found himself growing fond of this experience.
Many countries in Europe, for example, have similar system of ‘apprenticeship’, in other words a system of learning between theory and practice, which allows the student to merge within the professional world. The vocational training center at Sawa uses a similar learning and teaching approach by dividing the coursework between theory, at 40%, and practice, at 60%. For their hands-on experience students are placed for a certain amount of time with companies such as Bisha Mining Share Company, Segen Construction, etc.
As Haben Semere, talking about her practical experience in Kerkebet, stated: when you are on your excavator and you are building up, when you witness the results of your work, you feel proud of yourself and feel that you are contributing to the development of your country and for the benefit of your people while you are learning.
In addition, the training center changed its course program duration from an initial eight months to two years since the 6th round in order to meet the need in terms of practical work. As the Director said, the two years program enable students to enhance their practical work and enter the professional world. Hence, the aim is also to move from a certificate level into a diploma level. In other terms, students are enrolled on a two school-years basis. Many students were surprised to witness the change in the program, however, it is clear that eight months remain a short amount of time to gain the sufficient professional skills.
So my question was about the location. Why was the vocational center based in Sawa? The Director explained to me that the region of Gash Barka is the main area of development projects in Eritrea and with a high access to technology, heavy machineries, IT system its practically the ideal place for a center like this. The region allows students to get their practical education by contributing to the development of the country.
For instance, students in the agriculture sector are able to learn with the agricultural technology school in Hagaz, working on the field in Keren, Hamelmalo, Elabered and also Gerset. Similarly, students in advanced machinery spent one semester in Kerkebet, Afabet or Akordet and are taught by professionals of the sector. The vocational training center also works closely with different ministries such as the Ministry of Education, companies such as Segen or with civil society organizations such as NUEYS and NUEW.
The partnership with government bodies, colleges and companies allows students to learn a profession. As a matter of fact, many students who choose to study in advanced machinery are due to the greater amount of post-studies opportunities. When I asked Haben on why she chose this field, it was clear to her that by firstly gaining her driving licenses and endorsing the expertise to drive or work on heavy machineries give her a great advantage on the job market.
Moreover, among the 2,029 students graduating this year, 1,060 are women, which bring the percentage of female students to 52%. The average ratio was 48 % each year, thus, a steady increase on the 7th round. In fact, some areas have mostly women involved such as the accounting, management and secretariat sciences departments with 810 female students and 91 male students. Most classes have about 30-32 students in overall but it could vary according to the number of teachers.
In fact, teachers who are often young graduates from the higher education system spent 2 years in Sawa vocational trainings while some senior are still working hard for the last 6 years such as Mr. Bereket Kebede who explained to me that teachers are also mentoring students especially at the beginning of the program. Also, the center face shortages in terms of teachers, as it was the case in the department of metal work for instance.
As Mr. Leine Yacob the director of the department of building technology explained that due to the shortages of qualified teachers, the Ministry of Education sent different teachers on a two weeks basis last year.
Conversely, from the point of views of students, there is a great sense of respect towards their teachers and Awet Berhane, a student in plumbing, stressed that: without my teacher I wouldn’t be here and also it would be more beneficial to have teachers with years of professional experiences to teach us the practical work while the younger teachers could help us with the theoretical part.
Clearly, also the shortages in terms of human resources within the teaching bodies, the ones present are dedicated and managed to multiply the number of taught classes. Mr. Mahmoud Tahir, a graduate in farm technology and automotive technology, is one of them. Indeed, his approach to learning but especially mentoring is remarkable as I was observing the interaction with his students. Further, he explained the importance of teaching the safety regulations in using heavy machineries despite the overload of work. In fact, about 327 students are graduating this year. Although the number of students increases, the number of teachers decreases from 25 to 30 to 16-18 this year.
Furthermore, the vocational training center is at its early stage and face challenges in regards to the curriculum. In fact, the curriculum remains the same as the 8 months program one. Many expressed that the revision of the curriculum by adding extra courses or changing the duration should be overviewed for the next round and to enable to move from a certificate level to a diploma.
Despite the challenges, however, students seem to be satisfied by the methodology. It is also clear that the government carries out the financial aspect, which allow students to get professional skills while having fee-free education, accommodation and food.
As Lidia Tekle explained that it would have been unthinkable for me to learn if I had to pay as many do at SMAP, for this we have to be thankful. Also, new courses are also planned to start for the coming school year such as in electronics.
Despite the ongoing challenges such as the climate or shortages in materials and teaching bodies; the main challenge, which remains is the psychological war they have to face. Indeed, Hermon Solomon and Filmon Fessehaye explained that at the commencement of the course some will try to convince students to just leave and take dangerous route into the desert and also relatives would not necessarily encourage them to continue their studies as many parents will try to convince them to not return to Sawa.
The external challenges are common in areas with great concentration of youth and the mental strength will define the behavior of students and teachers. Thus, the awareness and sensitization to the society is key to overcome the lack of knowledge and information on the structure of the vocational program.
Nonetheless, despite the stereotyped idea in regards to Sawa, the vocational training center gives the opportunity to students to get the professional skills, which would profit not only them but also the community as a whole. The name Sawa may be the source of misunderstanding in regards to the structure of the center. In fact, it has similar infrastructures and facilities as any other colleges in the country.
From the few days spent with these students and teachers, I noticed the level of confidence and maturity at such a young age but also the passion and dedication of teachers. Sawa, once again, is the ‘capacity-builder’ and allows students from all over the country to learn both at educational level but also at community level by learning how to live with others and having a sense of collectivism and tolerance.