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Eritrea Digest: A Day In The Life Of Sawa High School Students


A Day In The Life Of Sawa High School Students

To give its readers perspective of what life is like in Sawa for those who attend the Sawa High School (officially the Warsay-Yikealo Secondary School), Eritrea Digest interviewed two individuals, a male and a female. While the answers they provided are comprehensive, it may not be representative of what every Sawa High School student experiences because (a) the government changes its policies year-to-year; (b) the individuals interviewed both received matriculation exam results that would qualify them for college, which is the exception and not the rule. At the time they were bused to the military camp, they were both underage.

1.When did you first learn of the inevitability of Sawa High School and Sawa in general. Did you have older friends, family members who went there?

Samuel: I learned of the Warsay Yikealo Secondary School in Sawa in 2002/3 when the government announced that it has restructured the secondary education system and that until it builds enough infrastructure and trains teachers, Grade 12 would be offered in Sawa. I went to Sawa in the 18th round, i.e the second batch of the Warsay Yikealo Secondary School. I was the first from my immediate family to go to Warsay Yikealo Secondary school and I had no friends who went there before me. So, I had no detailed information of what school in Sawa would look like. The government, as always, does not give much details about Sawa.

Mehret: Regarding the high-school program in Sawa, I really didn’t know what to expect. Like everywhere else, the gov policies are reactionary and short-sighted, so I went there expecting nothing and everything. Regarding Sawa in general, yes, I had a close relative who went to Sawa in the earlier rounds. I remember her telling us of camaraderie and fun she had with the friends she made in Sawa. She also warned me of harsh living conditions and severe punishments. She emphasized that some of the trainers could really be unrestrained on how they treat the trainees.

2. How would you describe your feeling? Was it dread? Excitement?

Samuel: In the absence of sufficient information about Sawa, I was not sure how to feel about going there. I did not immediately form an opinion or feeling about Sawa. But, I had a different vision of my life, of what educational path I should follow, of what I should do along studying in the University of Asmara to support myself financially and relieve my adopted family of the burden of supporting me for years, etc. I had a fixed time frame within which I intended to accomplish what I set to achieve. So, I thought of how going to Sawa would rupture the coordinates of my vision and was at a loss on how to reconfigure it again within the new reality.

The main feeling, I had was thus confusion.  Reflecting on it now, I also remember that I had a faint sense of how Sawa might possibly be a way to explore and test myself, an avenue to get away from the all-caring and loving family. (You know how teenagers hanker for a chance to get away from parents! Sawa presents that chance of rebellion, a way for the proverbial prodigal son to flee his/her home in search of the unknown and adventures…)

Mehret: Mixed feeling – on the one hand there is the excitement of going out on ‘adventure’ with my peers. On the other hand, there is the dread of facing harsh conditions and punishments. The difficult part was the uncertainty of how the education part was going to go.

3. There was a period of time when students were deliberately flunking classes to delay going to Sawa.  Did you have classmates, friends who did that?  What ended up happening both in terms of government policy change and the classmates/friends who did that?

Mehret: Yes, I had classmates, neighbours e.t.c  At some point, I believe the government decided that students couldn’t repeat a class/school year more than twice. Those who left school to evade Sawa would be rounded up and taken to military training centers even if they were under-age.

Samuel: Yes, there were many classmates and family members who did that.  At one point, the government also noticed this trend and circulated a directive to all High Schools in Eritrea to register those students who had reached 18. Then it bussed them all to Kiloma (18 km from Assab) for a military training. Interestingly, the issue was hotly debated by the executive committee of the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS). One member of the committee, Awate Osman, the former head of the NUEYS Higher Education and Sawa branch and a close relative of Abdela Jaber [PFDJ Executive Committee member, arrested in 2012) by marriage, suggested NUEYS writing a letter of protest to the Eritrean government about the issue. Unfortunately, his colleagues did not support the idea.

Also, there is no failing grade 11. You can’t flunk it. Even if you are a terrible student, they make you pass it so that you go to Sawa.

Recently the government has instituted a policy where the Ministry of Education sends the list of students who complete Grade 11 but fail to go to Sawa to local administrations (they call them ምምሕዳር ከባቢታት in Tigrinya) and the local administrations would contact the families of the students and ask them about the whereabouts of their children. If the local administrations establish that a family has refused to force their children to go to Sawa, they would proceed to cancelling their coupons [for subsidizing price of essentials] and take other punitive administrative measures.

4. To your knowledge, what is the government’s policy for sending all 11th graders, regardless where they attended, to one central location?  And if it has to be one central location, what is your understanding of why it has to be in Sawa, next to a military boot camp?

Samuel: In the beginning, officials from the Ministry of Education, including Osman Saleh, tried to justify the policy by arguing that it is a temporary fix to the problem that could arise from restructuring the junior and secondary school system. Prior to 2002/3, the school system in Eritrea looked like this:

  1. Elementary school, 1-5 (5)
  2. Junior School, 6-7 (2)
  3. Secondary School, 8-11 (4)

But, as part of its broader reform of the education system, which included changing the curriculum and textbooks, the government made a change on the structure of the school system as well. As per the new system, it looked like this:

  1. Elementary school, 1-5 (5)
  2. Junior School, 6-8 (3)
  3. Secondary School, 9-12 (4)

According the warped logic of the Ministry of Education, the new arrangement would require new classrooms and teachers in secondary schools throughout the country. Since it takes time to build new classrooms and train new teachers for grade 12, so went the argument, the government chose Sawa to be the temporary centralized place. The government argued that Sawa, with all its buildings (read, hangers) and efficient administrative structure would be the best choice.

As you can see, the government’s justification is bogus. If the restructuring of the school system required new classrooms and teachers it would be for the junior school, not for the secondary school. It was to the junior school that a new year is added not to the secondary school level. By its own rationale, the government had to take Junior school students to Sawa not high school students.

In my opinion, there are two important facts that could help us make sense of the real rationale behind the policy of sending high schoolers to Sawa. The unilateral decision that Isaias Afwerki took to close the University of Asmara was taking around the same time. The University had stopped accepting new students in 2003 and in its place the government built new colleges, first in May Nefhi and later in Halhale, Massawa, Hamelmalo and Adi-Keih.

From the outset, the new colleges were put under a military administration. In theory, the military administration was to supervise the administrative and financial affairs of the colleges. In practice, however, it put all affairs, academic and non-academic, under its purview. Colonel Izra Woldegebriel had to approve grades and assignment of students to departments or units. But more importantly, a sizable part of the military personnel in Sawa were assigned to the new Colleges to supervise students and oversee their daily exercise routine. This state of affairs continued for five years, between 2003 and 2008.

Considering this fact, the Warsay Ykealo Secondary school is part of the bigger policy of completely militarizing the school system in Eritrea. The policy was not to take High School to Sawa but to bring Sawa to High school and the Colleges. PFDJ cadres are not shy talking about the main objective of the policy. One of their high priests, Ahferom Tewelde, once said in the Nakfa Cadre school that the purpose of mixing the military with education, both in Sawa and in the Colleges, was to produce ተመሃደራት፣ ተመሃሮ+ ወተሃደራት [students+soldiers = stuldiers]።

The second important fact that we should consider when we want to understand the logic and objective of the Warsay Ykealo Secondary School System is the Warsay Ykealo Development campaign which was announced around the same time that the start of high school in Sawa was announced. The accent of the Warsay Ykealo development campaign was on agriculture and infastructure. Both areas require intensive labour. Having thousands of young people in centralised places, Sawa and the Colleges, which you could deploy anytime you want, through the tight administrative apparatuses significantly answered to the labour needs of the state in its ‘developmental campaigns.’

Mehret: Back then, I never understood why they would come up with such a hasty decision, but now I understand it was designed to control the youth.

5. What is the process like from you completing 11th grade to you being bussed to Sawa?  Where do the buses meet? At what time? Who co-ordinates it? Can you tell us more about the “ululating parents” who send off their 16-17 year olds to a remote place? How old were you at the time?

Mehret: I don’t really know the logistics, but regular buses were made available by the government in each High School. All we had to do was show up at our respective High schools at 6 in the morning.  I remember the night before we left, I was so nervous that I kept throwing up in the middle of the night. I finally felt better and by then it was time to get ready and report to my school. Our parents, siblings, friends, neighbours and teachers showed up to say farewell as well. My mom tried so hard not to cry in front of me and gave me a big hug and said “amlaK msaKi yKun AjoKi” [May God be with you] I went to the bus with my face covered in tears. Once inside I also saw my mom crying. She would then wave and do her best to give me a smile.

I was 16 years old.

Samuel: The time is always summer, even though the month varies. Students often depart from their schools. (I departed from Barka Secondary School). Departing time is usually between 6 and 8, even though you have to come earlier to put your stuff in the buses.

Our parents are like all parents; nervous, anxious and mortally worried about their children. The ululation should not be read as celebratory but as impulsive act of hiding/battling the gut-wrenching feeling they have seeing their kids go to a place where they know will face problems. Mothers, sisters and some fathers do cry. They do not show you that on Eri-TV though. Parents also pester government officials with questions and complaints whenever they can. I remember for instance, in 2005, Colonel Debessai Ghide interviewed by Mana Kidane on Eri-TV about the condition of the students in Sawa after widespread complaints and questions from parents about the horrible dietary and other problems students were facing. The point: Eritrean parents are not ignorant of the problems their children face in Sawa. They know and they care. Obviously, we are generalizing and one might cite counter facts. But, generally speaking, I do not subscribe to the idea of Eritrean parents as willing collaborators of this destructive policy.

I was 17 years old.

6. Are you escorted by military trucks?  Are the drivers civilians or military? What do you pack with you?

Samuel: No visible military escort and military trucks. The buses are HARAT buses (Harat is a parastatal transport company) and drivers are mostly civilians. Depending on the number of students, the government also enlists private buses and drivers.

Typically, students pack dry foods (Korosho, Thni), spices (ground pepper, shiro); clothes and shoes appropriate for a humid and warm weather. In my time, students did not pack a lot. But, nowadays students pack a lot and, on average, parents spend close to 6/7 thousand Nakfa buying their children food items, clothes, shoes etc. Given the horrible food the government provides students in Sawa, parents send money, food and clothes to Sawa whenever they can. The government also allows parents to visit their children in the term break at the end of December and the beginning of January.

Mehret: The drivers were civilians, the same drivers who transport people to and from cities in Eritrea. I packed, korensho, Tihni, Shiro/shro (lol), Tang (powdered juice), Grisini, sugar and water container covered with kisha (brasho-designed to keep the water cold)

7. Where does the bus stop before its final destination?

Mehret: I remember Akordet was extremely hot and we stopped there to eat and take a break. We also stopped once somewhere between Sawa and Akordet.

Samuel: There are two roads from Asmara to Sawa. Depending on which route they take you, they stop you in Keren, Aqordat, or Barentu and Haikota.

8. What was your, and your bus mates reaction when you first saw Sawa High School? What time was it when you arrived?

Samuel: We were overwhelmed, confused and intimidated. After travelling 300 kms, we reached Sawa. It is summer and the place is extremely warm. At the bus station in Sawa, we were received by fierce, baton-wielding and extremely serious military personnel who immediately started to divide us into different lines that we later understood were arranged according to the military structure (division, brigade, battalion, company, unit and squad). Shouting at the top their lungs and beating those of us who move slower than they wanted (imagine we are carrying our belongings, bags and stuff) the soldiers were really scary and intimidating. (obviously, there are some good soldiers as well).

Mehret: We first arrived at the military training center, not the school. We got there around 6 PM. When we first arrived, we were told to get in line to receive our “squadela” (plates) and plastic cups. For some reason, the commander who counted us and gave us the utensils looked scary. He told us AbruK (a combo of sit and squat) with a very loud and harsh voice and a scary gaze. When I did, I still remember how I felt at that very moment. I kept thinking to myself “what did I do? Why did I come here?” I kind of felt that I just committed the worst mistake of my life and that my life was never going to be the same again. By then it was getting darker and we’re exhausted and ready to sleep.

9. What happens on Day 1? Week 1?  What time do you wake up? What is life like from waking up to sleep?  (A Day in the Life of a Sawa Student)

Mehret: We did military training for a few weeks before we started the school. Typical activities throughout the first week looked like this:

  • Wake at 5
  • Run for 30 minutes
  • Collect wood and stones and other menial tasks. There was a time when we were made to move an avalanche of stones from one place to another and move it back againt to where it originally was. (I heard this is designed to keep new recruits’ mind busy so we don’t protest in the very first 10 days or so when we still had the vigor.)
  • Eat breakfast by 9
  • Fill endless forms
  • Attend endless political indoctrination sessions
  • Do more menial tasks
  • Eat lunch by 12
  • Break time until late afternoon (fall-ins in between)
  • Collect more stones/wood
  • Dinner time and more fall-ins.

Once school started, a typical day looked like this:

  • Wake up at 5 with a whistle
  • Breakfast at 6
  • Soldiers accompany you to/from classes
  • Extremely hot and uncomfortable classes
  • Line up again to go eat lunch
  • Break time until late afternoon
  • Mandatory exercise/cleaning in late afternoon
  • Dinner time

Samuel: We arrived in Sawa at dusk. They woke us up early in the morning on the next day and gave us jerrycans, metal washbasins, blankets, linens, military uniforms, grey overalls etc. We ate breakfast at around ten, cleaned our surroundings afterwards. We had meetings at company, battalion, brigade, division levels where officers introduced us into the dos and don’ts of the camp. We had dinner at six. The second day, they woke us earlier than the first and took us to Ruba Sawa to collect fire woods. We came back around eleven and we ate our first brunch (breakfast and lunch together…we call it ብምጥቅላል). I do not exactly remember after how many days we started the military training but I believe it was almost after a week of our arrival in Sawa.

When the military training starts, a typical day would look like this: you wake up at four, run for two hours, directly go to a particular place where they train you in drills. You return to your hangar around 11 and go to the mess around 11:30 to eat breakfast + lunch. After one hour break, you spend the entire afternoon either fetching firewoods, cleaning your surroundings, labouring in any construction sites within Sawa or some such activities.

School usually starts at the end of September or the beginning of October. When school starts, they stop the military training session except the daily morning running exercise. They wake you at around five. You run for one hour and also answer nature’s call (yes, that too is regimented). You go to the mess for breakfast at around 6 and then the military commander of your company make his daily body counts, lines you up and takes you to school and make another body count in front of your classes to make sure everybody is there.

Classes run between 7:00 and 12:30. When you finish your class, your company commander comes to your class, body counts everyone, lines you up and takes you home. Lunch is at 1:00. There is a little break after lunch. The entire afternoon, between 2 and 6, is often not yours. If you are not fetching firewoods, you are cleaning; if you are not cleaning, you are quarrying stones; if you are not quarrying stones, you are unloading logistics from trucks; if you are not unloading logistics, you are tending state farms in Molober …etc. Dinner is usually between 6 and 7. The only time you have to study is after dinner. But they turn the lights off at eleven. So, if you are extremely motivated individual, and if you are not physically exhausted, you continue studying using a candle light

10. How long is Sawa High School (academic: from which month to which month) and how often are military drills done?  Are parents allowed to visit you or call you?

Samuel: Academic classes start at the end of September or beginning of October, depending on whether teachers and administrative staff go to Sawa on time- they do not come on time and classes are often delayed. The end of academic year is the beginning of March. So, basically the length of the academic period is 5 to 6 months. Matriculation is in March. After matriculation, the military training restarts. Parents are allowed to visit their children during semester break. Students are usually strongly discouraged from having mobile phones but it is not easy to enforce this rule. So, some of them have mobile phones. But students also call their families using their teachers’ mobile phones.

Mehret: Normally, first part of military training is done before “school” starts, the remaining military training is done after school is done. I don’t really remember the specific times. I believe we matriculated in March. Parents are not allowed to visit except once during graduation, even then, at some point they stopped permitting parents to visit. During my time, phone calls were not allowed .

11. How are courses arranged? Are they like your 11th grade classes: different 60-minute or 90-minute subjects?  When are the breaks?  What does the classroom look like? What is the temperature like? Who are the teachers? Who is the school administrator?  What is the pedagogy like: are there syllabi, quizzes, tests, homework, assignments (individual or team) and exams?

Mehret: In some ways courses were like typical 11th grade classes with quizzes, tests, exams etc. But there are no people (family + community) senior to us that we can ask to tutor/mentor us. The environment was not conducive for many reasons including harsh weather (We always used to take meshrefet [home-made fans] with us to class), restricted movement and no opportunities to do extra curricular activities. Studying in groups was also not conducive due to the fatigue of being forced to be around a few, same people 24/7. Most of our teachers were fresh UoA graduates, most of them were highly demoralized. The school administrators were from the military, and clearly have no clue how to run schools.

Samuel: Classes are 60-minutes/subject long. There is a half-hour break at around ten. The hangars are converted into classrooms with moveable wooden partitions. Three students sit at a single desk. Except for December and January, the temperature in Sawa is very high and the classrooms are unbearably hot and as the result many students pass out. There are air-conditioners but they do not work. Teachers are a mix of experienced teachers reassigned to Sawa from different high schools and new College graduates who constitute the majority. The Warsay Ykealo Secondary School has had different directors. To name the directors until 2016/7: Mr. Ghirmay, Mr. Kiflay Andemichael, Mr. Kelit Ghrimai… Pedagogy: two major exams (mid-semester and semester exams), small tests, assignments. There are grade 12 textbooks for every subject.

12. What is the community support like? Is there entertainment? Are there churches/mosques?

Samuel: Prayer is not allowed. Reading religious books is not allowed. Religious gathering is not allowed. It is a big no and anyone caught doing any of these is severely punished. Recently, they have erected TV screens in every brigade and the PFDJ cadres assigned there teach political education, show documentaries and movies. The camp also invites singers from Asmara two or three times a year.

Mehret: Community support is having to be dragged to a place called “stage” to participate in whatever they have prepared for you. Most of us hated to go there, but it’s not like you had an option. Once there, you just had to sing and dance. Churches and mosques were totally unheard of. Bible, gospel songs and any spiritual pamphlets were considered illegal possessions. I remember at times they would randomly ask everyone to leave their rooms and search for these “illegal items”. I remember some of our friends hiding their stuff under closets or burying them in the sand if they heard of any search activities were happening in the neighbouring team (Hayli).

Another very humiliating kind of entertainment was a team leader would randomly ask a recruit to come in front of the team and start singing/performing. If you don’t want to do so, then you get punished for it. That’s about the only entertainment I remember. There were also physical exercise sessions, but I never enjoyed them as they were forced on us. It just felt as if it was part of the military training.

13. What happens after you take your school-leaving exam?  Do you go back home?

Mehret: You wait until you get your results. If you pass you go home, if not you stay there. It’s one of the worst feelings for the students who didn’t get a passing score.

Samuel: After we sat for matriculation, we resumed the military training session. We completed the military training in June 2005 and returned back to our families for two months. We were recalled to Sawa at the beginning of September 2005 (around the time Ali Said Abdella passed away). From there they bused us to Alighdr and assigned us with the regular military divisions. I was assigned to the 17th infantry division. From September 2005 to January 10, 2006, we, along with the regular soldiers, worked in various state farms around Alighrd, Tessenei, Fanko, Gerset picking cotton, harvesting millet and sesame (መሸላ ወ ስምስም)፣ and helping with the construction of Fanko and Gerset dams. We had no information when our Matriculation results would come in. There were rumours that war with Ethiopia was imminent and that was the reason why the government kept us with the regular army for close to six months without informing us what our fates would be.

14. When and where do you learn the results of the exam?

Samuel: January 2006, in May Nefhi.

15. Did you make the mark to go to college? Vocational school? None of the above?

Mehret: Yes, to college.

Samuel: Yes, to college.

16. What is your best memory of Sawa High School?

Samuel: I do not have a single moment that I might now retroactively cast as the best memorable event in Sawa. Reflecting on it now though, I would say it helped me directly confront my vulnerability and fragility, and compelled me to get out of my timid/sensitive introvert self. As intimidating as it could be, daily interactions with a big number of diverse fellow students also helped me improve, to a little extent, my social ineptness.

Do not blame me for a poetic flight of fancy, but I should say the direct encounter with the elemental forces of nature -the crazy dust storms, sudden torrents of rain, the towering mountains surrounding Sawa, the stars studded sky – gives you a little glimpse of the sublime and the beautiful. Perhaps, I am confabulating. But, as you know, memory is an imaginative act of re-membering bits and pieces and constructing them into a narrative/story which might or might not capture our experiential reality. But, again, there is no way of accessing reality except through this tricky imaginative act.

Mehret: My best memories were the friendships I made there plus the letters I received. It was always the best feeling to receive letters from my family and friends. It really meant the world!

17. What is your worst memory of Sawa High School?

Mehret: My worst memories were the collective and individual punishments which were very humiliating and degrading – just so much unfettered brutality towards young and innocent girls who thought they were there for school.

Samuel: It was in Sawa that I was physically beaten for the first time in my life. My parents were extra sensitive and protective of me and they never raised their hand to me even when I committed a mistake. I was physically beaten twice in Sawa; Once for reading a novel while a training session on how to dissemble and assemble AK-47 was going on. And the second time, when I committed a mistake in a foot drill session.

18. So far, we have focused on A Day In The Life of a Sawa Student. Let’s now talk about nights. Tell me about your dorms, hygiene, personal space, or anything that you think the readers should know.

Mehret: In my room there were around 8 bunk beds. 1 bed per student. We also had a locker each. Rooms were always kept clean. We were not allowed to bring food from cafeteria. Bathrooms had open shower system. Everyone had to line up to take a shower at the same time. It was so embarrassing and uncomfortable and it took us a lot of time to get used to the complete lack of privacy. I remember one of my friends refusing to take off her clothes while taking a shower and would just wash with her cloths on. This experience was particularly distressing to her, because she suffered from beqeT (heat rash) as a result of it.

Samuel: The experience is the same. And that should tell you everything that you want to know. The dormitory, the washrooms, and the mess for male and female trainees-students are the same. We had no private space. Normally Sawa does not have a shortage of water but during our time (2004-2005) there was a terrible shortage of water and we really suffered.

(Original Source: Eritrea Digest)