Although the meaning of Sawa may be subjective, people who have been to Sawa have many things in common. I will list three.
First and foremost is the new sense of family that we get. With no parents or adult relatives supervising us, we learn to rely on one another. We mingle with complete strangers and accept differences. Little do we know that those ‘complete strangers’ will eventually turn to be our partners for life. As we grow old, memories of them stay in our hearts and we remember them with a smile.
Towards the end of July and the beginning of August, Eritrean youth grab their bags and walk out of their homes at dawn. Emotions build in their stomach, shaking their guts. “You are not a kid anymore” is what you chant as you take heavy steps away from home. You’ll be away from home for the next 365 of your life. At that moment, fear strikes and you begin to miss home when you’re just few meters away from the doorstep. Voices of your family members start echoing in your head. The last glance you took of your family members’ faces, painted with mixed emotions, shuffle in front of your eyes. Blink all you want, but you won’t stop them from annoying you. Lips, hands, knees, all parts of your body tremble and you struggle to say goodbye.
“It’s just one year! One year!” the strongest of your family members reminds you.
“Yeah, right,” you mumble walking away with watery eyes you don’t want to show.
At that instance, now and back in the days, every one of us who got on a bus destined for Sawa ironically thinks alike: “I am not a kid anymore”.
Without looking back you get on that bus, hide your watery eyes because you can’t show your classmates you’re weak. “I am not a kid anymore,” we would repeat to ourselves in silence. But what awaits us in Sawa is still a mystery.
After a year’s stay in Sawa, on the last day of our journey, the line “It’s just one year. One year!” begins to ring in our heads. It’s true one year is just one year. Not one day longer, and not a day shorter. You finally realize what the strongest of your family meant by “just one year”. What seemed the biggest challenge when you got on that bus to Sawa is not a challenge anymore. You overcame it. But that is just one of the many, countless other unimaginable challenges you overcame.
The second thing those of us who have experienced Sawa have in common is our attitude. We don’t fear challenges anymore. After overcoming the challenges we face in life while adjusting to a complete new lifestyle, we become better versions of ourselves: grownups, fearless and courageous.
The earliest days in Sawa make you feel seasick. Once you get off the bus in Sawa and you’re shown your dormitories you feel queasy. Sitting on the edge of your bed you rub your sweating against your laps. Faint dizziness overwhelms you as you study the structure of the building you’re put in. It’s mostly white; the walls of the arched dormitories. They say it’s built that way to allow free movement of air during the hot season, and you try to understand how.
An unofficial meeting and greeting session begins with people of your age who come from different parts of the country. They’re all nice. The older ones, the trainers in military uniform, pass by to make sure everything is alright for the newcomers.
For many, the first night is sleepless. Adjusting to the new bed and new ceiling above your head is not easy. You toss and turn until you finally fall into a deep sleep of what is to be the first night of many comfortable nights ahead.
Speaking of nights, for students in Sawa night time is precious. After a long day of education, topped by a whole list of activities, you learn to appreciate bed time. That’s unlike the view you had back home, where you’d delay bed time as much as you can.
We missed home so much that we learned that we could have been better children to our families. We learned that we should have spent more time with them and done more house chores. We missed them. We missed them dearly.
Besides adjusting to our new family Sawa and completely falling in love with them, a common escape from homesickness for many is telling our new brothers and sisters all about home, our families and our siblings while looking at the beautiful sky the world has ever seen. It works. This specific method proved to be efficient by many.
The night sky in Sawa is spectacular. It gets better every night. The night sky reminds me of Francesco Saveerio Fresa’s ‘Dancing of the Muse’ atop the Teatro Asmara’s chapel. Personally, I saw more shooting stars in Sawa than anywhere else. Stars twinkled right above our heads. It felt as if we could touch them if we stretched our hands, just a little bit more. Stars are not timid in the skies of Sawa. They are not shy. When the night deepens, they vigorously strip off soft clouds to sway in front of the bare human eye.
When the last day of Sawa approaches we get nauseous, again! Just like the first day, all over again. We get so used to our new family that we hate to part ways. But we also think of our other family at home waiting for us. It is a bitter sweet time that we really want to get over with as soon as possible. As we part ways and we get on our buses home, emotions build up shaking up our guts. We don’t know what great things the new versions of us will get us to. We are, by then, very strong, resilient and proud of what we’ve achieved. Life ahead of us is a mystery, again.
We suddenly crave our home’s food. We feel an urge of seeing our families. We don’t want to leave our “home” in Sawa but we really have to go back home. This specific moment is what marks the end of a chapter of our lives. We get on the bus back home. We sing and scream our way back. It is the only way of exhaling out our mixed emotions.
When we get home everything feels unbearably different. The house feels small, the toilet somewhat not comfortable and your bed too soft, more like a crib. “I am just too old for this!” you whimper. Toss and turn till you finally tumble in a deep sleep of what is simply a continuation of the many nights you started in Sawa as a grownup. What changes is just the setting of the ‘bedroom’, from a dormitory to your own bedroom. You have grown into a man or a woman who doesn’t take life for granted. And what your mother doesn’t know is that you’ll have your bed done by the time she comes to wake you up. And what your siblings don’t know is that you’ll have the toilet clean before anyone gets in early in the morning.
The third thing those of us who have gone to Sawa have in common is that the nausea of the last day is followed by the untapped quest of the life we all realistically imagine for each of us.
Writing this piece at this point in time makes me think of those who have been in Sawa this past year. They are still there, the 33rd round. As the world is being torn by Covid- 19, we, human beings, have come to terms with our weakness. We’re weak, no doubt. We have come to realize how fragile we are as a global community in spite of the military might, health systems and big leaps in technology humanity has achieved. The pandemic has forced us, social animals, to live in seclusion.
As if what they had on their plates was not enough, for the youth in Sawa, this period has become yet another challenge on their list. I can only imagine how they took it. When they set out for Sawa last year, they didn’t anticipate this. It must have required them to be immensely strong to fight the emotions of being away from their loved ones at such a gloomy time and not know firsthand about their relatives’ health. The lockdown has generally been depressing, but it gets a lot easier when you have family members to share the burden with. Can you imagine being away during such a time?
Also, their stay had to be prolonged. Remember the third thing the youth who have been to Sawa have in common? …The nausea of the last day followed by untapped quest of the life we all realistically imagine for each of us. For the young girls and boys of the 33rd round, that day was extended because of the lockdown. That one day nausea, for them, must have lingered longer, becoming a nausea that went on for weeks.
Moreover, the virus called for humans’ constant attention to “normal” behaviors. Not touching our faces, covering our mouth with our elbows when coughing, not touching anything at all and keeping distance from one another. All unconventional but vital steps in the fight against Covid-19. Many of these practices require repetition and discipline. After all, we were taught not to touch fire but not the door handles!
Abandoning many of our habits is what makes us heroes in this fight against Covid 19. It is certainly not easy. Sometimes we forget and shake hands and when we realize it was a wrong move we get agitated until we spot a bottle of hand sanitizer. It’s amazing how we make mistakes even when in seclusion. The youth of the 33rd round in Sawa, however, cannot afford to make those mistakes. They simply can’t. While living in big groups, their only way out through the lockdown must have been serious, serious discipline. For this, they are indeed heroes.
On Saturday 15th August 2020, the 33rd round graduated. Normally, Eritreans from inside the country and outside flock to Sawa to attend the big event. With the lockdown in place, however, fewer people went to be part of the event. Nevertheless, it was not as lonely because people watched the event broadcast live on television.
Sawa is challenging as it is. How far more challenging must have it been around this time? That is something only the students and their instructors can answer. What we all can agree upon, though, is that every human being is nowadays required to practice patience and wisdom. That is exactly what the members of the 33rd round, graduates of Sawa Centre for Vocational Training and teachers demonstrated.