By M.B.

As someone who is intimately familiar with development “aid” doled out to countries for post-conflict reconstruction, I sometimes cannot help but drive around Eritrea with a big “what if…?” cloud hanging above my head.

What if it was business as usual?

  • Country signs declaration of independence at breakfast.
  • Country raises flag at lunch.
  • Country sings national anthem at dinner.
  • ….. and before the break of dawn of the next day, development partners swoop in and take over the rest of the nation-building process.

What if Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and International Organizations (IOs) were allowed to roam free all over Eritrea with ridiculously high overheads and projects that have nothing to do with stakeholders’ needs and realities?

What if the Government of Eritrea had handed over the design and implementation of the country’s national development plan to external forces in exchange for stale carrots?

What if everything was dictated to us – from which roads to build, to which companies to liberalize, to which subsidies to scrap, to which projects to finance?

What if Sawa and National Service did not exist?

Here is the short version of how the story would have likely ended up: instead of celebrating 25 years of honor, 25 years of pride, 25 years of ownership, 25 years of Sawa and National Service, we would be sitting in boardrooms in faraway lands begging for interest rates to be lowered or asking for refinancing plans on defaulted loans or, in worst case scenarios, handing over our dignity on a silver platter to our creditor “partners” to “save” us, once again, and again, and again.

Look around at countries of the Global South, particularly in Africa. Does that story not sound familiar? Sadly, it does.

Instead, however, Eritrea chose the road least traveled, which included a robust – not rosy, not easy, but certainly rewarding – National Service programme that begins in modestly built dorm rooms in a mysterious and magical place called Sawa, where even the water has its own power.

As Bereket Kidane, in a 2016 article titled Sawa: Eritrea’s Cultural Boot Camp, puts it:

“At Sawa, a young Eritrean meets fellow citizens that he/she would never normally come across in everyday life. Everyone knows about the military training part of boot camp at Sawa, however, what isn’t talked about enough is the “melting pot” role that Sawa plays in bringing Eritrea’s diverse youth from all nine ethnic groups to learn and study together, train together, get introduced to each other’s culture and languages, serve together in military units, compete in organized sports and form bonds of friendship that last a lifetime. In short, Sawa erases ignorance and offers young Eritreans from all ethnic backgrounds a shared experience at a young age.”

If we were to try and pinpoint the theory behind Sawa and Eritrea’s National Service programme, one word would most certainly stand out: awareness!

Awareness of Self and one’s role in society, awareness of power and responsibility, awareness of purpose and direction, awareness of the value of space and time, awareness of worth and ingenuity, awareness of a shared humanity, awareness of what it means to be Eritrean – and what it means to proudly melt into a pot where every single one is equal to her/his peer, with absolutely no regard for religion, gender, ethnic group, class, etc.

Could there ever have been anything more powerful in terms of building one’s Eritrean identity for the benefit of the peaceful country we have today? I doubt it.

Talk to anyone who has ever gone through the Sawa experience; they will tell you stories of consciously rushing through 11th grade of High School just so they can pack up and leave for Sawa. They will tell you how anyone who returned from Sawa was welcomed in almost the same manner Freedom Fighters were welcomed in 1991. They will tell you of how their young siblings would sit at their feet begging to hear all about being part of something huge, something beyond their familiar neighborhoods, something meaningful and everlasting: Sawa.

Today, as the country is gearing up to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of that remarkable place, it is worth examining the benefits of having such a center of excellence and reclaiming the narrative from those hell-bent on destroying the visionary and noble intent behind its establishment and the critical role those who served in Eritrea’s National Service programme played in ensuring Eritrea still stands.

We would obviously be doing a disservice to the country’s reputation if we try to mask hardships or paint a rosy picture – let us be honest, anyone who claims that nation building is cozy, straightforward and painless is either a jester or being deliberately ignorant. Having said that, however, any debate about Sawa and National Service must be situated within the larger African/Horn of Africa geopolitical context and the resource wars waged on the global south as well as a nuanced understanding of what it means for a country to give up its power to come up the development ladder relying first and foremost on its own capacity, which includes human resources.

One thing is certain, to understand the grand plan of the Sawa experience in general and the National Service plan in particular – to understand the pragmatic policy decisions that necessitated its extension beyond the original 18 months – to understand the history of this people and the envisioned future for this country one must (must!) venture out of the pristine and relatively comfortable capital city, Asmara.

Out there is the real Eritrea. Out there is where you see young and old, women and men, Muslim and Christian – hand in hand – pushing the development cart forward.

Out there is where you see the small, crucial, and meticulous pieces all come together.

Out there is where you see National Service – the noble programme so arrogantly and shamelessly labeled “slave labor” – at work.

Farmers and herders, students and teachers, engineers and surveyors, doctors and nurses, agriculturalists and environmentalists, accountants and economists, you name it – all working in sync.

It is not about praise or recognition. It is about living by principle, earning one’s rights, and leaving a legacy behind.

Out there is where you smell, feel and taste the real Eritrea – not the Eritrea that has so aggressively pushed down our throats through mainstream corporate media for the past 20 years – a media that would have us believe that this country is in deep crisis, caught in a downward spiral, and on the verge of collapse; a media that – without context and wisdom – regurgitated fabricated numbers and out-of-context anecdotes; a media that is understandably uncomfortable with a genuinely nuanced reporting of the country’s reality.

The reality is this: Sawa and National Serving empower young women and men in more than one way. From valuable hard skills (construction, mechanics, agriculture, teaching, etc) to key soft skills (leadership, teamwork, trust, community, etc), young people gain a heightened sense of belonging and civic consciousness, which leads to responsible and committed citizens.

Here is to 25 years of looking at youth as implementers and stakeholders rather than recipients. Here is to 25 more years of empowered future generations that make more meaningful contributions and have a greater sense of responsibility and satisfaction.