Return to Ethiopia: Free spirits

On our travels through the Omo Valley, we stopped for a quick stay in Jinka – a market town nestled in the hills north of the Tama Plains in southern Ethiopia that is home to 16 indigenous ethnic groups. After several arduous hours of rough road travel, most of our travel tribe wanted nothing more than to chill for the afternoon. But when our friend and guide Teddy asked us if we’d like to accompany him on an errand to Jinka’s prison, three of us quickly agreed – myself, Gabe, and Hope. How often does one have an opportunity to observe prison life in real life, much less in a third-world country?

I’ll admit to being slightly apprehensive. Ethiopia fills your heart, but it also has the power to break it. Ours did break that day. But more importantly, our eyes were opened to a need that we, for all our worldly travels, hadn’t considered. In Ethiopia, when a parent goes to jail, there’s often no family to take in the children, so the children go too.

At the time of our visit, Jinka’s prison was home to 97 prisoners – 47 of them female convicts who share a 24-bed space with 27 children, many of whom were born there. As we discovered, many of the women were incarcerated for murdering their abusive husbands, some of them pregnant at the time of their arrest.

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A 10-day-old baby born in Jinka’s prison. Photo Credit: Gabe Mandel

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The women’s living quarters. Photo Credit: Morning Tears

The government funds rations (meals of injera 3x daily – no fruits or vegetables) to feed the prisoners, but does not provide extra to feed their children. The women must share their allotment – and their bed or floor space – with their children.  There is no running water, and sanitary provisions are very poor. Nothing is provided for the children: no toys, education, medical care, beds, or clothes.

Once they reach the age of 14, the children are free to leave. At 14, boys are no longer allowed to stay with their mothers on the women’s side of the prison. But what chances does a child of 14 have in the outside world – a world they’ve likely never known – with no family, no money, and no education? It’s unfathomable to a Westerner, but in Ethiopia, staying in prison is often a more palatable choice over freedom. For children who have committed no crime.

That is a crime – a crime against humanity. One NGO, Morning Tears,  is working to raise awareness with the Ethiopian government of its responsibility to the children of prisoners, to provide them with basic rights, and a fighting chance at a life. The key? Education. Teddy works with NGOs all over Ethiopia, including Morning Tears, and imagine1day, the Canadian organization we built our school in Gobele with. Morning Tears had sent him on a mission to deliver school supplies for the children in Jinka’s prison, which the NGO has supplied with a teacher. Now, Morning Tears is looking to build a school well away from prison grounds so the children can experience walking to school, and get a taste of the outside world; so they can be free for a portion of their day, and be equipped for a life of freedom past age 14.

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Photo Credit: Gabe Mandel

When we entered the prison yard on the women’s side, I expected to see guarded expressions or even open hostility on the faces of the female prisoners, and broken spirits in the children. I braced myself for it. I tried to fix an open and friendly expression on my face, and not allow it to show the pity I was certain I would feel.

Perhaps that’s why the welcome we received hit me as hard as it did, leaving me breathless and speechless. Women and children came running from all over the yard, thrilled at the unexpected novelty of visitors – ferengi (foreigners) at that. One by one, they shook our hands, flashing us wide grins full of friendship and mischief. We took their photos, and the simple delight they took in seeing their own faces – many for the first time – brought smiles to ours. These women and children may not know physical freedom, but that yard was full of free spirits.

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Photo Credit: Gabe Mandel

On the drive back, I stared out from the window of our truck at some spectacular scenery passing by without really seeing it. My mind was full of images from that life-altering experience and scattered thoughts that richocheted through it like bullets. I wrote down the facts that Teddy had shared with us, and some of my feelings so I could revisit them later. This blog post was already writing itself in a quiet corner of my mind.

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Photo Credit: Gabe Mandel

In that dirt yard, I saw resilience. I saw strength. I saw a community of women looking out for one another, and for their children. Children who knew no other life beyond prison, but who were happy to be alive. It took the sharper edges off the hurt in my heart. And it made me resolve to share the story – and Morning Tears’ mission – with as many people as I can.

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This little one stole my heart. Photo Credit: Gabe Mandel

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