A Gorgeous Mass of Elation & Brown Camouflage in Sawa, Eritrea


Sawa, Eritrea 1

To the average American teenager, turning eighteen usually means one of a few things: you can legally buy cigarettes, get into 18+ clubs, and sign your own permission slips. In Eritrea, this coming of age is often dreaded. Eighteen-year-olds across the country are sent away for two years to undergo mandatory military training in a place called Sawa, unless they are continuing onto higher education. Every two years, these young men and women graduate from Sawa, and a large festival is held in their honor. Eritrean youth from around the world— from Seattle, to New York, to Norway, to Italy, to Australia – visit Eritrea in the summer to attend this festival and celebrate the graduation of their Eritrean peers. This year, I was in attendance and had the mutually difficult and extraordinary experience of witnessing the Sawa Festival.

Sawa, Eritrea 2

As we prepared to depart Asmara on the 12-hour journey to Sawa, over 3,000 Eritrean youth piled into buses organized by country of residence. My cousin from D.C. and I hopped onto a bus marked “U.S.” My cousins that live in Asmara, who all went through the two-year Sawa training, warned me that conditions would be terrible. They told me, with laughs threatening to escape their mouths, that it would be pretty hot and dusty, and I would probably hate it. This premonition came true before we even left the bus, as the heat escalated with every hour of travel. Our bus was one of the few without air conditioning. Windows were left open and the dust waltzed in ferociously. Yes, we were miserable. Upon arrival, we lugged our luggage to the army barracks we would call home for the next five days. At this point our bodies were begging for showers. To our astonishment, and frankly, despair, the water at the camp had been shut off until morning. We grudgingly took a mock shower with some water bottles and baby wipes then slept until 5 a.m. when we plotted to shower before everyone else.

Sawa, Eritrea 3

After the first day, a majority of visitors were ready to leave, and were not participating in few activities that were prepared. I dragged myself out of bed in the morning to attend the opening graduation ceremony, despite promise of scorching sun. I am extremely glad I went. When the women marched across desolate expanse in front of the crowd, they chanted “Ahhhh, hey!” I felt chills push through the heat on my back. We were shamelessly complaining after one day in this desolate place. They had been here for two years, seeing their family perhaps merely three times throughout the entire experience. It was striking to see and hear thousands of women my age, suited in uniform and moving in unison toward their liberation. Later, when I spoke with one of the girls, she told me in Tigrinya: “It’s awful, but you become so close with everyone in your division. At the end, you’re crying because you’re overjoyed seeing your old family but you’re sad leaving your new one.” After completion of the ceremony, everyone ran with Eritrean flags to the middle of the “stage.” It was a gorgeous mass of elation and brown camouflage, highlighted with red, blue, green and yellow of the flags. Immediately, everyone from the stands rushed down as well. Some people ran to greet their daughters and sons. And some of us, whose families’ years ago were able to leave the country to worldwide destinations, swarmed down to dance with our regathered people.

Sawa, Eritrea 4


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Categories: Travelers

Author:Jetset Times

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2 Comments on “A Gorgeous Mass of Elation & Brown Camouflage in Sawa, Eritrea”

  1. D
    September 1, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    Love the article!

  2. ND
    September 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    Great Article!

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