I went on my last Ethiopian field trip a few weeks ago. Our objective was to inspect a
bazillion culverts and one bridge construction site. Joining me on the trip were
Bedada (surveyor), Dawit (engineer) and Kasu (driver). As always, this trip was an
excellent chance for me to explore rural Ethiopia and spend some quality time with my colleagues.
Midway through the trip, we stopped in the town of Sodo to visit Petros, a senior manager from
the Planning Department in my office. As it happens, he was recently convicted on corruption
charges and had just started to serve his three year sentence at the Sodo prison. This is not
entirely uncommon in Ethiopia - a charge of corruption seems to be a catch-all accusation,
sometimes legitimate but often used as a political tool by local governments. My impression
of Petrosís situation was that he had been a victim of such manipulation, an opinion I had
formed through chatting with several of my colleagues. My only certainty however, was that
Petros had always been very kind and welcoming to me and a visit seemed the least I could do.
The thought of an Ethiopian prison had my imagination running wild. I was quite surprised,
therefore, to find the conditions much better than I expected. I was later told that the
International Red Cross is involved in monitoring Ethiopian prisons and ensuring that
inmates are provided with basic living conditions. This is a striking notion when one
considers how so many "free" Ethiopians live.
Petros met with us for fifteen minutes, simply sitting on the opposite side of a knee-high
concrete barrier under a light shelter. We were able to greet him with the Ethiopian man-hug
and hand him small gifts of oranges and a book. He reported that he had access to fresh
water and a shower every second day. Food was available but not all that good so his family
would bring him meals each day. There was a health clinic in the compound that would provide
treatment for minor ailments. As we chatted, I could see through the gaps in the fence behind
him and catch glimpses of the prison compound. The place was teeming with people
(1500 inmates Petros reported), most just hanging around, a few playing volleyball and ping pong.
I should, however, be careful not to paint too rosy a picture. Petros shares a room with
fifteen others, has little to do and no privacy. While optimistic of an appeal for his
case, he was clearly frustrated by his injustice and lack of freedom.
As you might expect, I was not allowed to take photos while at the prison. I did, however, take a
few other photos on our field trip. Please see the attachments for a few trip highlights.