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Memories (Part II)

By Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

Last week, I read Billion Temesgen’s article, “How Must Sawa Have Been in 2020?” which was published by Eritrea Profile on August 19. I found the piece extremely insightful and very enjoyable. Eloquent and well-written, it presented a detailed and interesting perspective of life in Sawa.

It also evoked a flood of memories from my own experiences at the institution. As I was reading, I found myself being transported back into time, happily reliving some of the things she discussed and also being reminded of so many other things that made my Sawa journey so special.

Taking the cue from Billion’s recent contribution, I decided to write a brief article sharing some of my own memories of Sawa. I should point out that many of the experiences I discuss are of things that are often forgotten, less recognized or do not instantly come to mind. Additionally, with so many different things to share about my experience, I thought it would be a bit easier and a lot more fun to “organize” and present my memories alphabetically. In the last edition of Eritrea Profile (August 22), I presented the first part of my experiences, with entries categorized from the letter A through to the letter H. The following article, Part II, covers the letters I through Z.

I is for Ide Tibeb: Handicrafts, or ide tibeb, are a fun way to pass some of your free time in Sawa. Students are creative and they can make a broad array of unique ide tibeb, including bracelets, anklets, small banners, colorful mats for the traditional boon (coffee) ceremony, and cushion or table covers. These are then given as gifts to friends, family, former teachers and significant others.

J is for Jallon: One of your best friends in Sawa is your jallon, a 5-gallon plastic container that you fill with water. Everyone has their own jallon, and it is always kept nearby and close at hand, helping to ensure that you are always cool, refreshed and well-hydrated. We all cover our jallons with a cloth and then wet the cloth. This keeps the water inside wonderfully cool throughout the day.

K is for Kokob: In her article, Billion mentioned that the night sky in Sawa is spectacular. I wholeheartedly second that point. In Sawa, the evenings are calm and the skies are clear, helping to showcase a glittering array of bright kokob, or stars. After a day full of studies and various activities, there is hardly a better way to relax than to peacefully lie down in the field alongside your friends, eyes focused on the pearls and diamonds shining high above.

K is also for Kirar: A kirar is a traditional wooden stringed musical instrument that is similar to a guitar. It has been played by some of Eritrea’s greatest musicians and is a regular feature of some of our country’s most popular songs. In Sawa, every different section of students has at least a couple of kirars on hand and several talented players who play original or popular songs to the great enjoyment of everyone else.

L is for Learning: Attending Sawa is all about learning. Of course, it is generally the case that you learn in your classes. However, you learn outside of class time, too, acquiring greater understanding and insight about your culture, country, history, and people. Sawa also helps you to truly learn about yourself.

M is for Mai: Mai, or water, is life. In stark contrast to a lot of misguided reports, in Sawa mai is plentiful – with more than enough available for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing, cleaning, and for the plants and animals.

This point also leads to another important fact: mai has been a longstanding focus of Eritrea’s national development programs. In recent years, access to clean drinking water in rural and urban communities in Eritrea has risen to over 85%, dramatically higher than the meager figure at the onset of independence, and a significant increase from several years ago. Furthermore, dams and ponds with a capacity of well over 300 million cubic meters of water have been built across the country, thus supporting the vital agricultural sector.

N is for Narit: After exams are done and school is fully completed, training begins. Part of the training includes narit, or running. During narit, which is usually in the morning, we move as a single group, enthusiastically singing songs and teasing other sections.

N is also for Nicknames: In Sawa, nicknames are common. For the most part, the nicknames given are friendly and reflect admiration or endearment. For instance, one short, spindly student who is a wonderfully talented footballer is nicknamed “Messi”. In other cases, nicknames are bestowed upon those from popular, well-known cities and towns. Thus, you will frequently hear Wedi Arreza, Wedi Batze, Wedi Segeneiti, and so on.

O is for Opportunity: One of the most important aims of Sawa is expanding opportunity for all. Regardless of ethnicity, sex or gender, religion, socio-economic status, or any other distinction, all youth deserve an opportunity to learn, grow, develop, and reach their full potential. We should remember that while some students in our country grow up with access to laptops and tablets, Internet, tutors, and up-to-date learning materials, which is certainly positive, others may face challenges with access to the basics, such as enough food and water. Thus, Sawa helps fulfill our collective obligation and responsibility to ensure that the latter are supported, provided an opportunity, and not left behind.

P is for Packages: Few things match the excitement of receiving a package at Sawa. When you receive the news, you run to the post office, sign your name, and grab your box. When you return, smiling like a proud conquering hero, you are warmly greeted by the others. As you are opening the box, everyone else is seemingly on top of you, elbowing each other for space, trying to get a look at what’s inside. Of course, you share some of the goodies you received in the package – like biscotti, mastika, kitcha, lekka-lekka, and qolo (cookies, gum, traditional bread, lollipops, and fruit seeds) – with gorebetka (your neighbors) safe in the knowledge that they will share some of their goodies when their own package arrives.

Q is for Qotcera Habesha: Eritrea’s culture is rich and diverse. There are so many wonderful, colorful elements to appreciate and admire. However, some parts of our culture are not so positive. One example is qotcera habesha, which can be understood as running late or poor timekeeping and management. It is downright frustrating. Qotcera habesha can see someone make an appointment for 5 p.m., only to arrive at 5:30 p.m.! When asked about their late arrival, they’ll shrug their shoulders nonchalantly and casually brush it off, “Yakreta (sorry)…qotcera habesha.” In Sawa, however, there is no such thing as qotcera habesha. Instead, it is all about arriving on time, if not early, and keeping to the tight schedule. Here’s to hoping that this slowly seeps into the rest of our society!

R is for Ruba Sawa: The Sawa River, or Ruba Sawa, flows in and around Sawa and feeds the large Molober agricultural area. Notably, Ruba Sawa also gets a special shout out in the classic song, “Sawa”, by legendary Eritrean artist Wedi Tikul: “Ruba Sawa seyesey…Sawa keydom menesey.”

S is for Shilemat: In Sawa, shilemat, or awards, are presented to outstanding students, teachers, and trainers. These are special moments for the recipients and the entire Sawa family offers their appreciation and applause.

T is for Temri: Temri, or dates, are among the most popular snacks in Sawa. Sweet and delicious, temri have been common in Eritrea and the surrounding region for thousands of years. In Sawa, we usually would snack on temri during hikea time.

T is also for Teamwork: Teamwork is defined by Scarnati (2001: 5) “as a cooperative process that allows ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results”. In Sawa, teamwork is a basic element of life and it touches upon everything we do. Importantly, teamwork also helps to promote deep learning that occurs through interaction, problem solving, dialogue, cooperation, and collaboration.

One of my favorite examples of teamwork in Sawa comes during narit, or running. When we run, we run as a group. Despite everyone having different abilities, however, we manage to move quite fast and no one gets left behind. How? Teamwork. We assign some of the fastest runners to the front and to the back of the group. Meanwhile, the middle is reserved for some of the slower runners. The fast pull from the front and push from the back, ultimately helping to encourage the slower runners to keep up. Thus, through teamwork, we move fast as a group and ensure that no one is left behind.

U is for Ubal: In and around Sawa there is a plethora of ubal, or large, tall trees. Besides their massive height, what makes ubal particularly special are that their thick, leafy branches extend out far and wide, offering great shade and cover. Ubal and their shade are thus perfect for sitting with friends or taking a nap.

V is for Victory: In Sawa, we have many different competitions between sections (e.g., highest grades, cleanest dorms, sports and athletics, etc.). Victory is sweet and precious, providing you with bragging rights – and super material for narit (running) songs – until the next competition!

Sawa also helps ensure that our spoken words are not empty or devoid of meaning: victory to the women, victory to the youth, victory to the masses (awet n’ansetie, awet n’menesey, awet n’hafash)!

W is for Warsai Yikealo National Secondary School: All students complete Grade 12 at Warsai Yikealo National Secondary School (WYNSS), which is located in Sawa. WYNSS has several aims, including: meeting the learning needs and aspirations of youth; helping youth to develop and make the best use of their talent; improving quality of and access to education in the country; and promoting unity and social cohesion.

X is for Xada Addes: As described in my entry for the letter A, addes is one of the staples of the Eritrean diet and it is a common feature on the menu in Sawa. While healthy, full of protein, and very tasty, addes poses a small challenge for me, since it is usually prepared with different types of spices (including red hot berbere, the undisputed king of the spices). However, xada addes is flavored with onions, garlic, tomato, and oil instead of berbere and thus poses no such challenge. All the deliciousness, without the sweat and fire!

Y is for Youth: In Sawa, you become aware of Eritrea’s greatest and most precious resource – its youth.

Z is for Zur: Each batch of students that attends Sawa is known as a zur, or round. Thus, you have Zur 20, Zur 21, Zur 22, and so on. Zur 33 graduated last week while the students of Zur 34 are currently preparing to depart to Sawa. The members of your zur are like family and the experiences you share with them stay with you forever.

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