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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