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A Taste of… Ethiopian Notes

Ian O’Donnell

Ian O’Donnell’s chapter in “Sensory Penalities” describes the assault on his senses that characterised a series of visits to a prison in southern Ethiopia. Foregrounding facets of the research experience that are seldom given the benefit of sustained academic attention it addresses themes of going, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, being, reflecting and comparing. What follows is a collection of excerpts from the chapter, with the addition of photographs which are not included in the book (full citation at the end of the piece).

Going

In 2016, Paddy Moran, a missionary priest, invited me to accompany him to a prison in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State of Ethiopia, where he had been working for many years. The brief was fairly loose. I was to make a visit, see what struck me and prepare a short report in conclusion. These were unusually unspecific instructions (but none the less welcome for that) for one who is used to being trammelled by the bureaucratic demands of grant-making bodies. I updated my travel insurance, arranged for the necessary vaccinations and set off.

I had visited prisons in Europe, the United States and Australia but never in Africa, and it was difficult to prepare in advance by reading – a particular disadvantage for a bibliophile – as the pertinent literature was virtually non-existent. In short, I had no sense of potential pitfalls or pratfalls. For someone who had been studying prisons for almost 30 years, this was a reminder of early days in the field when uncertainty reigned.

Seeing

The prison that I visited (for a week in 2016 and for a few days in each of the two following years) resembled a small and bustling village with a population of around 2,000 men and 100 women. It was located in a large town, a short drive from the main thoroughfare with its traffic honking and braking, drivers shouting and waving, livestock wandering, in a weirdly crash-free synchrony. There was a steep and potholed hill up to the prison where progress was slow and pedestrians waved and greeted Fr Moran and myself as we progressed – swervingly – towards the prison gate in a battered jeep.

The immediate vicinity was busy with traders touting for business, the ubiquitous three-wheeled, blue-liveried, bajaj taxis whizzing around collecting and delivering passengers, sometimes perilously overloaded, children walking to school and playing. A metal sign had been erected just inside the gate upon which one of the prisoners had painted an almost life-size representation of a member of staff in camouflage-style uniform. The sign requested visitors to stop and cooperate with any security checks. The figure in the painting offered a respectful salute, suggesting an ethos of cooperation rather than coercion. Not being able to read the official language, Amharic, was a challenge that I had neither the time nor the talent to overcome. It was impossible for me to make sense of the written word, its mystery adding to its elegance in this stranger’s eyes.

Touching and being

The heat and humidity were bearable but whenever I sat down with my interpreter to speak to prisoners in a dormitory a crowd soon gathered, sitting, standing and crouching around us. They were curious, never menacing; always keen to listen to the discussion and to offer their own observations. There was little in the way of natural light and when the group in attendance grew large the atmosphere could be somewhat stifling. I was an object of some curiosity in a place where Irish professors were seldom, if ever, encountered. There were some challenges for my kinaesthetic sense. Sitting on impossibly small stools conducting interviews was not conducive to comfort for a gangly researcher with a notebook on his knee. I needed to watch my step walking on the compound’s uneven mud paths; they were dry during my visits which made them less hazardous than they would otherwise have been. A sense of always being in a racial minority was a novelty for me – I was told that I was the first white man to visit the prison farm – but this difference was not denigrated. I had a sense of being out of place linguistically, culturally, geographically and also temporally

Not long before going to Ethiopia I visited a supermax prison in the United States. It is difficult to imagine a wider sensory gulf than that existing between the sterility and stimulus-poor environment of the supermax and the vibrancy and all-out assault on the senses that was the Ethiopian prison compound.

O’Donnell, I. (2021) “Ethiopian Notes” in Herrity, K., Schmidt, B.E., Warr, J. (eds) Sensory Penalities: Exploring the Senses in Spaces of Punishment and Social Control, pp. 203–216. Sensory Penalities is now available here: https://books.emeraldinsight.com/page/detail/Sensory-Penalities/?K=9781839097270

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‘Feeling’ feelings

Kate Herrity

Privileging the sensory has implications for how we understand how we know as well as what we know. The process of working with our patient, pioneering contributors has been a lesson (as we hope to discuss elsewhere) in the kind of editors we want to be as well as how significant a departure this presents from academic convention. As the most junior and least experienced of the three of us this was particularly valuable for me. I have contributed to edited and reviewed works but never before assumed this role. For me it has been formative; an intimate process of collaborative and supportive exploration rather than distanced and dictatorial. I hope this is reflected in people’s engagement with the book. I am not about to reflect in depth on the editorial process here but rather a particular, recurring, issue that prompted further interrogation.  I have spoken about the distinction between feeling and feelings before[1]. I may well do so again as I try to better understand the role of the sensory in prison social spaces, though there are broader implications here for epistemology and emotion in criminal justice and criminology.

Foregrounding the sensory brought the distinction between senses and emotion, as well as between privileging the sensory and reflexivity in to stark relief. Prompting academics to reflect on this more sharply demarcated the distinctions between these facets of knowledge and experience, and in so doing added clarity to both. There are linguistic obstacles as well as cultural ones that must be vaulted or circumvented when asking of someone “what did that ‘feel’ like?” but reaching further than whether they were happy or sad, safe or unsettled to what was mediating those emotions in the social world they sought to understand, and what reflecting on ‘feeling’ those ‘feelings’ taught them about those spaces. Rather than drawing on research on the complex relationship between emotion and sensory perception[2], I want to reflect on rather more direct demonstrations of this relationship by using a couple of examples of the surprising ways this has manifested.

I was in the second year of my PhD when I presented at the carceral geography conference in snowy Birmingham:[3] https://carceralgeography.com/conferences/2nd-international-conference-for-carceral-geography-11-12-dec-2017-university-of-birmingham/conference-programme-2017/1b-health-and-wellbeing/. I was nervous at finding myself in such illustrious company. This was one of few presentations I had given at that point, and, I think, the first time I attempted to illustrate the significance of a focus on sound by banging on furniture. I had pillaged our kitchen for suitable tools – a pestle and a souvenir bottle opener – for makeshift percussion. I reached the appropriate point in my talk and dutifully banged out the different rhythms of cell-door banging as a means of exploring the meanings they signified. Sound, I argued was a site both of symbolic violence and power contestations, a means of expressing dissent or warning from those captive and invisible (though not inaudible) behind the door. I had failed to appreciate quite what potency this might have for someone in the audience suddenly transported back to prison by my amateur banging on the table. He taught me a valuable lesson that day about how sound can traverse time[4]. He also taught me about my insensitivity. I was torn between trying to offer comfort and carve him space to process his visible emotion. He was keen to impress upon me that he was not in a negative place, but rather that the banging had “taken him back there” with a forcefulness he had not anticipated any more than I. What I interpreted as distress was, rather, a man fielding a sudden deluge of memories, smells, textures, sounds, of a time he had left behind but was with him still.

Approaching the end of my fieldwork I attended a conference (the Crime and Control ethnography symposia are always worth it if you can[5]). Many of my friends were there and one in particular, a year behind me, was struggling with her fieldwork. She felt uncomfortable in the prison space but couldn’t work out why. She felt guilty when it came time to leave and struggled to reconcile that with the genuine relationships she had forged throughout her time as both researcher and volunteer. Others speak far more eloquently than I about the contradictions of drawing on your stranger status and humanity to equal if conflicting degree as researcher. In the context of prisons where emotions of all in the community run so very high, this can be painfully intense. If ethnography is about stories then the doing of it is surely about the relationships and meanings they serve to underscore. I wanted to offer her comfort. I do not think it is incidental that I drew on sensory experience, the feeling, in an attempt to offer comfort and support to her emotional state, her feelings, as a way of telling her she was not alone:

https://leicester.figshare.com/articles/Rhythms_and_routines_Sounding_order_and_survival_in_a_local_men_s_prison_using_aural_ethnography/762884 [6]

Leaving (for M)

Emerging from the airlock
Metallic clunk; The freedom signal
Ringing in my ears
Quickening pace
My nostrils hungry for that biting burst of evening air
I speed to slough that lingering scent
The burning afterimage of this place
That clings beneath the skin I vainly scrub
With soap and wine.
Is this enough?

I stand in shitty remnants of your rage
I walk your vale of cries and shouts
Your bangs and crashes
Laugh too loud
My pleasure in your company clear
I hope for better futures for you
Far from here
And yet I fear
This isn’t going to be enough

Wandering aimless through the streets
I see your face on cardboard-cloistered,
Doorway bundles
Watch your ghostly presence weave amongst
The living
As they mindless tread
My memories scar those grubby pavement beds
And now you haunt my fitful sleep
I know

This cannot ever be enough

The sensory is both source and conduit for an array of knowledge, as well as a powerful medium of emotion. Sound – and the sensory more broadly – offers a means of collapsing distance in time, space and between people, evoking shared memories and experience. Privileging the sensory creates a site for scrutinising the social function of shared emotions summoned by it. The relationship between sensory and emotional realms is intimately intertwined but closer interrogation demands we expand our vocabulary to recognise they are nevertheless distinct. Only in so doing are we able to get within, amongst and underneath these facets of our social world, to develop our ability to interrogate the ‘feel’ of our ‘feelings’.


[1] Herrity, K. (2020) “Some people can’t hear, so they have to feel”: exploring sensory experience and collapsing distance in prisons research” Early Career Academics Network Bulletin, Howard League for Penal Reform January 2020, No. 43 https://howardleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/ECAN-Autumn-2019-final-draft-2.pdf

[2] E.g. Kelley, N.J.,Schmeichal, B.J. (2014) “The effects of negative emotions on sensory perception: fear, but not anger decreases tactile sensitivity” Frontiers in Psychology, Vol.5, Pp942. Goodman, S. (2010) Sonic Warfare: Sound, affect and the ecology of fear. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press

[3] This is an audio recording of a talk given at the Second Carceral geography conference (Herrity, K. (2017) “Sound, Space and Time: A rhythmanalysis of prison life” 2nd Carceral Geography Conference, University of Birmingham, December 2017.

[4] David Toop (2010) speaks explores this in Sinister resonance: the mediumship of the listener. London Bloomsbury. Sound, he argues, is a haunting.

[5] https://crimeandcontrolethnography.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/crime-and-control-ethnography-symposium-2018-call-for-participants/ Here’s a link to the 2018 call in Glasgow which was class.

[6] Soundfiles accompanying my thesis (within the thesis the reader is directed to listen at specific points of the discussion. I include them here for those who have not heard a prison soundscape: Herrity, Katherine Zoe (2019): Rhythms and routines: Sounding order and survival in a local men’s prison using aural ethnography. University of Leicester. Dataset. https://doi.org/10.25392/leicester.data.7628846.v1