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"Crossing the Terrible Years": The School Activity of Political Prisoners during the Ethiopian Revolution (1979-1986)

Interview with Hiwot Teffera
Pierre Guidi
This article is a translation of:
« Traverser ces années terribles » : l’activité scolaire des détenu·e·s politiques pendant la révolution éthiopienne (1979-1986)

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1Hiwot Teffera was a member of the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party (EPRP) during the Ethiopian revolution and is now a novelist. She took part in her first demonstrations against Haile Selassie's regime in 1972 when she was a secondary school student in her hometown of Harar. As soon as she arrived at Addis Ababa University in 1973, aged 17, she joined a clandestine Marxist studies group – the main recruiting channel for revolutionary activists – before becoming a member of Abyot (“Revolution”), one of the groups behind the EPRP. Hiwot Teffera progressively held important positions in that party, notably as a member of the leadership committee of the Youth League, which counted several thousand activists. She went underground at the time of the repression of the civil opposition by the military regime that emerged from the revolution, and was one of the last EPRP cadres captured in the Sidamo region at the beginning of 1978. After being moved to different prisons, she was finally incarcerated in Kerchele prison from 1979 to 1986. There, she witnessed and acted in the school experiment implemented by the political prisoners. In 2013, she published Tower in the Sky, an autobiographical novel about her experience during the revolution. The great success of this book marked the beginning of her literary career.

2In order to measure the significance of the information Hiwot Teffera reveals in this interview, it is necessary to place it in a double context: that of the Ethiopian revolution, the student movement and the repression it suffered; and that of Kerchele prison, where the survivors of the repression implemented the educational activities discussed here.

The student movement and the Ethiopian revolution

3In 1974, an initially peaceful revolution overthrew the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and with him a dynasty that claimed 2000 years of existence. Haile Selassie was an autocrat at the head of a system described as feudal (Crummey, 1980), the apex of an unproductive aristocratic class that dominated an exploited and miserable peasant population (Gebru, 1991). At the time of the revolution, 90 per cent of the population was peasant. The centralization of taxation during the twentieth century had impoverished a peasant world living on subsistence agriculture. The new levies created by tax centralization were added to the levies of the aristocracy and the clergy, while the mode of agricultural production, characterized by very low productivity, remained unchanged. While in the cities, the growth of the state fostered the emergence of a new bureaucratic class to compete with the former feudal elites, in the countryside, centralization consolidated social stratification (Gebru 1991: 10). Since the late 1950s, members of the political elite and, more importantly, an increasingly radical student movement, had been calling for agrarian and constitutional reforms. All of them came up against an unresponsive or repressive Hailé Selassié, claiming that his power and the social order over which he ruled came from God.

4A series of cyclical crises then triggered the revolution. In 1973, the consequences of the rise in the oil price on the cost of living had put cities under stress and strikes multiplied. Large segments of the urban population took to the streets in huge demonstrations. Civil servants, taxi drivers, petty traders, low clergy, Christians, Muslims, the petty bourgeoisie and the impoverished masses, women and men, all generations combined, put forward their own demands while jointly demanding an end to privileges and the opening up of the system (Lefort, 1981). Events took a more radical turn because of the government’s hesistations and the discovery of a hidden famine responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths during 1972-73, when Hailé Selassié celebrated his 80th birthday with great pomp and circumstance. The emperor was then overthrown, assassinated in troubled circumstances, and the Derg, a military committee composed mainly of non-commissioned officers, gradually took over all the workings of power (Bahru, 2001). The Derg regime, dominated by the bleak figure of Mengestu Haile-Mariam, ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist until 1991.

  • 1 Amharic acronym for All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement.

5The revolution was carried out against the backdrop of the introduction of Marxism-Leninism in Ethiopia in the 1960s by the student movement. While many sectors of the population mobilized in 1974, the student movement was a key player. Structured, with a decade of struggle and political maturation, it provided the ideological and organizational weapons for the revolution (Bahru, 2014). However, as the Derg seized power, the student movement was divided over the position to be taken. This division took shape through two main parties: the EPRP, which rejected any idea of military government, and the Me'ison,1which opted for 'critical collaboration'. The years 1976 and 1977 were then the scene of extreme violence, known in Ethiopia as the “Red Terror”. The Derg simply eliminated all opposition through mass murder, torture and imprisonment. First allied with the Me'ison, it destroyed the EPRP before eliminating the Me'ison in turn. In August 1977, the civilian Marxist left was totally annihilated. Meanwhile, under the influence of the Me'ison, the Derg had adopted Marxism-Leninism. It then implemented a military dictatorship claiming to be scientific socialism.

6At the end of the Red Terror, those who had survived the massacres and torture – tens of thousands of people were murdered –, who had not managed to leave the country and who had not pledged allegiance to the Derg, were imprisoned in Kerchele prison. In 1979, out of 5,128 detainees, 4,063 were political prisoners (Simeneh, 2004).

Kerchele Prison2

  • 2 All information in this sub-section is taken from Simeneh Ayalew Asfaw, 2004, A History of Kerch (...)

7The name “Kerchele” comes from the Amharic deformation of the Italian term carcere. The prison, built in 1923, has been so named since the Italian occupation (1936-1941). In 1974, at the time of the revolution, it was the largest prison in the country, located in the heart of the capital Addis Ababa. Closed in 2004, it was destroyed in 2007.

8Although the National Prison Regulations ordered strict separation of prisoners on the basis of the nature of the offense, health, sex and religion, this was not the case at Kerchele, where only separation by sex was practiced. Similarly, while the State, for fear of possible bad influence, advocated isolating political prisoners, the prison administration preferred to mix them with other prisoners. This choice was based on a desire to have them spied on and a mistrust of their sense of cohesion and solidarity. The political prisoners arrived in Kerchele after more or less long stays in the kebelé (neighborhood administrative unit) and keftegna (administrative unit comprising several neighborhoods) prisons, which were centers for torture and summary executions. Paradoxically, as Hiwot Teffera points out in the interview, being transferred to Kerchele meant being saved. This feeling of relief, to be put into perspective with the extreme violence of the Red Terror, was however accompanied by strong trauma due to the hardships endured, to which had to be added psychological disorders – loss of temporal reference points, anxiety, etc. – due notably to the non-definition of the length of sentences. In 1984-1985, 3,601 prisoners out of 6,061 had undefined terms of imprisonment.

9Kerchele had five quarters, including a women's quarter. Only one of these had cells and running water. The others were large halls where inmates were housed loosely and used wells. The buildings were made of sheet metal, cinder blocks or earth, with cement floors. Between 200 and 400 people (at times as many as 700) were crammed into buildings built to hold 150 to 180 people. The people placed in cells (the “luckiest”) had 50 centimeters each. The women's quarter consisted of four large rooms with 50 to 80 inmates each. The buildings were old, worn and dangerous. The inmates had no beds and many slept on the floor. There were not enough mattresses, blankets and clothes, mostly provided by the Red Cross. During the rainy season, they were soaked and the ground was icy. In the men’s quarters, some of the detainees had no clothes and slept outside in makeshift shelters made of pieces of wood and plastic.

10The daily food intake was estimated at 1,492 calories, just over half of the intake needed for proper health. Families were allowed to bring food during weekly visits. Detainees who had no contact with the outside world were undernourished, weak and sick. These housing and hygienic conditions were a logical cause of diseases such as typhus, bacterial diseases, diarrhea, rheumatism, tuberculosis and asthma. In 1984, a major cholera epidemic caused several dozen deaths. It was only stopped after a week thanks to the intervention of the Red Cross. Psychiatric problems, including depression and paranoia, were common. Health services were minimal in the face of this situation. The general medicine department and those for tuberculosis, psychiatry, ophthalmology and dentistry were only equipped for routine examinations and staffed by under-trained personnel. The Government has left the situation unchanged despite constant calls from the prison administration.

11Surveillance of male prisoners was relatively lax. They had to be present in the halls between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. During the day, they were allowed to move freely between the different wards. This was not the case for women, who had to be accompanied on all their movements by a female guard, who was often reluctant to do so. A daily count took place at 5 p.m., carried out by officials among the detainees. Apart from that, the administration had no way of knowing who was or was not in the prison. Due to the architecture and the lack of means, the main task of the guards, who were posted in different corners of the prison compound, was to prevent escapes. Temporary exits were allowed for health reasons. However, there were not enough guards to take care of escapes; out of hundreds of sick prisoners, about ten went to hospital every day. Finally, the administration allowed the detainees to receive books, magazines and newspapers. Radio sets were theoretically allowed but in practice were most often confiscated, especially from political prisoners.

12The interview given by Hiwot Teffera shows from the inside how prisoners reconfigured prison space and time through school activity. It reveals, firstly, the introduction of literacy courses, a complete academic school curriculum up to the end of secondary school and technical education, all based on the educational policy of the State but organized independently of it. Secondly, it highlights the reactivation of the “progressive” ethos of the student movement, of which “education for all” was, along with “land to the tiller”, one of the main slogans. Finally, it shows how education, as a collective activity among prisoners, but also between prisoners and prison staff, generated social ties that impacted on power relations within the prison.

Interview with Hiwot Teffera

Pierre Guidi: In your book Tower in the Sky, you briefly mention the schools set up in Kerchele by the political prisoners. Could you say more about this?

  • 3 The Ethiopian school curriculum is organized in "grades" from 1 to 12. Broadly speaking, grades (...)

Hiwot Teffera: School started before I came to Kerchele, maybe two years earlier. I'm not sure, but I don't think there was a building for classes at that time. Literacy classes were held under trees. Then a school was built. Initially, women didn't go there. Then women and men went to school separately. It seems to me that the men learned in the afternoon and the women in the morning. We, the political prisoners, had different committees for education, health and so on. The school committee fought for coeducation to be allowed. So men and women could learn in the same classes. A female prison guard sat outside to keep watch. The first room was a large hall, with different classes held at the same time: here literacy, there a grade 12 class3, there a chemistry class and so on. Later, several rooms were built for different types of classes. There was an academic section and a professional section. In the beginning, the students were mainly political prisoners, members of the EPRP and Me'ison, but not only. When the government launched the literacy campaign, being literate was compulsory for everyone. Teaching literacy was even an obligation for us. Whoever was in Kerchele had to teach literacy for a few months.

P. G.: The national literacy campaign was also carried out in prison...

H. T.: Yes, the literacy campaign also took place in prison. Many people came from all the provinces. Common law prisoners and political prisoners were mixed together. In primary and secondary school classes, the students were generally political prisoners. For vocational training, this was not necessarily the case. Many common law prisoners, especially those accused of murder who had been in prison for years, could not return to the community where they had committed the murder. They had to start a new life somewhere else. So they were studying animal husbandry, horticulture, things like that. We had community stores in the prison, in the women's and men's quarters. These community stores would give money to these prisoners when they were released so they could start their lives again. I do not think the government was aware of that. It was the prisoners' idea. So the vocational education students were mostly common law prisoners, but not only. I myself learned industrial design and building construction (laughs). But I never used it and never remembered what I learned. There were loads of different types of courses, so you went from course to course. That's pretty much who the students were.

P. G.: Which means that the prisoners organized everything independently of the administration?

H. T.: Everything! The administration had nothing to do with it. It simply made the buildings available. Otherwise, the schools were organized by the prisoners. All sorts of people were in prison at that time: economists, accountants, chemists, doctors, etc., and they taught. There was also the teaching of languages: French, Italian, Arabic and also German to a lesser extent. I learned Italian and French.

P. G.: You mentioned a school committee earlier. Were the members of this committee only prisoners or were there also members of the administration?

H. T.: Education was managed solely by the prisoners. The only relationship with the administration was that the guards attended classes in the evenings.

P. G.: The guards?

H. T.: Yes! They did their humanities (laughs), up to grade 6, to grade 8, taking night classes. The prisoners gave the lessons.

P. G.: Was the school recognized by the government? Were the national exams held in the prison?

H. T.: Yes, and for seven years in a row, from 1979 to 1986, it was the best school in the country, the one with the best results.

P. G.: How did the inmates manage to obtain such results? What school materials were used? Did you have access to the textbooks produced by the Ministry of Education?

H. T.: Books were available. We also had a library. At the beginning, it was a small library, then, with money from the community store, we built a large one (and also a rather modern bakery for that time). Most of the books we had were confiscated from the inmates. When they arrested you, they took the books. But I also think that the school bought some, I don't have a clear idea about that anymore. But I remember that families also brought books that had to go through censorship first. Most of the books in the library were Marxist books as well as literature. I remember English literature and novels. In the beginning, novels were banned because they were considered harmful literature, but we still read them. We smuggled them in. But the library was relatively well stocked. There wasn't much variety, but it was a fairly acceptable library! The families of the students provided the rest of the material, notebooks etc. The families of the students provided the rest of the material. I don't think the Department of Education gave anything away.

P. G.: So there were no textbooks?

H. T.: I don't think so. The organization of the school was only the result of the efforts of the students, the teachers and the school committee.

P. G.: This means that the people who taught gave their lessons remembering what they had learned as students, without teaching materials?

H. T.: Sort of. And we also had contacts with the outside world. A lot of the men would go out, either to the hospital or to work. So they knew what was going on in the schools, they probably brought in books.

P. G.: Permission to go out was granted for a few days?

H. T.: Not for a few days, for one day. You'd go out in the morning and come back at night. That was possible because the prisoners fought for that. You know, imprisoning so many people was not justified. Prisoners had committed nothing but were there for five years, nobody knew...

P. G.: Were there schools in prisons other than Kerchele?

H. T.: I don't think so. It was only in Kerchele. Kerchele had the largest number of prisoners. When I was there, there were nearly 7,000 of us.

P. G.: Did the students, or prisoners in general, volunteer to study?

H. T.: Yes, completely! Nobody was forcing you. As long as they were healthy, most of them went to school. Because, first of all, you want to go to school. Second, it's your only link with the outside world. I don't mean the outside world as such, but the world outside the women's quarter. Saturday and Sunday, we went to watch football. It was one way out. The other was family visits on Sunday. Other than that, where else could you go? Nowhere. Once a week, the women would go to the library. The men could go at any time they wanted. But the women just for one day... Thursday. The only day we could go to the library... So the best thing was to go to school, whether you liked to study or not. But most wanted to because many of the young people were high school or university students who had interrupted their studies during the revolution. The former wanted to finish high school and the latter wanted to take extra-curricular lessons. As for the common law detainees in primary schools... I remember one girl who came from Asmara. She had killed a woman she worked for when she was 15 years old. She finished her secondary school studies in prison. She arrived illiterate and finally finished high school with excellent results. There have been stories like this.

P. G.: Do you have other examples like this one?

H. T.: I'm sure there were a lot of men in this case, and also women. But she's the only one I remember, who had never been to school before Kerchele and who finished high school. But I'm sure there were a lot of them, especially men. At the very least, the common law prisoners finished primary school. They learned to read and write. But not only that, they became aware of their rights thanks to the political prisoners. Thanks to the political prisoners, the guards could no longer treat them like animals as before. The committees enforced our decisions and our rights.

P. G.: Does this mean that education was used as a means of raising awareness among prisoners?

H. T.: Yes, and to know their rights and responsibilities. You know, it opened up a different world for them. Kerchele was beyond what the Derg was aware of. The government didn't know what was going on. We were doing it our own way, according to our own strategies. Kerchele wasn't like other prisons, where you could get caught and killed. Sometimes we would think of Kerchele and go so far as to say, “You're in Kerchele now, there will be no more killing”. It was like being set free. You could be there for eight years but... (laughs). There was a lot of freedom.

P. G.: I told you about this man who told me: “Fortunately, I was at Kerchele”. It's amazing to hear someone say: “Fortunately I was in prison”...

H. T.: Yes! You know, police stations, kebelés and keftegnas were places of summary executions. So, when you arrived at Kerchele, you didn't expect to be killed or tortured, at least temporarily. It was completely different. It was a life that no one could expect in a prison context, and all this happened because of the political prisoners.

P. G.: You said that it was not possible for guards to treat inmates like animals as before. Could you give a few examples?

H. T.: Yes, beatings used to be common. You did something and a guard could beat you to death, no matter what. Or a guard could bring his gabi (cotton garment) or whatever, and ask you to wash it, or grind grain for example. They would bring their household chores and ask the prisoners to do them. And the prisoners had no choice and probably thought it was normal. The guards had the right to demand all kinds of chores from the prisoners. But when the political prisoners arrived, the guards couldn't go on like that. A lot of the guards didn't like us. They said that the government would let us do what we wanted. So the political prisoners brought about profound changes in the prison. It changed the relationship between the guards and the prisoners.

P. G.: So that means that the contact between political and common law prisoners through the school made it possible to resist the violence of the guards?

H. T.: Yes, it completely changed the way the prisoners thought, and also the way the guards thought. Whether they liked it or not, the guards had to accept the situation.

P. G. : Because there were many of you...

H. T.: There were many of us and we were vocal. We were organized in committees and if a problem arose, the committee would present it to the administration and say, “That can't happen, our rights must be recognized”.

P. G.: You were able to create like a prisoners' union... these young activists continued their struggle in prison, in another way...

H. T.: Yes! That's why I said that the Derg had absolutely no idea what was going on in Kerchele. He knew that there were schools, but the profound transformations within the prison went beyond what it could imagine.

P. G.: In interviews about the literacy campaign, I observed that women seemed to be more willing to study than men. Former teachers told me that women outnumbered men in their classes, and that women were more active. What was the situation at Kerchele?

H. T.: In Kerchele, literacy classes were compulsory. You would arrive one day and, if you were illiterate, you would be in class the next day. Only the other prisoners, the primary, secondary or university students had a choice. But for the literacy campaign, it was compulsory. Whether you wanted to or not, you had to go to class unless you were physically or mentally ill.

P. G.: What courses have you taken?

H. T.: I took first aid courses. I was working in a clinic and I started classes for a few weeks. Then I had to stop because the guards complained that they had to come with me. A female guard had to accompany me to the class that was in the men's ward. I'm sure a lot of men have taken this course. I also learned about criminal law and football refereeing (laughs). I don't know how many people it has helped, but I still have the certificate. We took many courses, it wasn't just one school, there were many extra courses.

P. G.: You said you learned many things, languages, football refereeing, health care, criminal law...

H. T.: French and Italian! (laughs). There were also music classes.

P. G.: Did you use what you learned at Kerchele after your release?

H. T.: Yes. The little bit of Italian that I learned was useful when I went to Italy. And as I say in the book [Tower in the Sky], I also had a passion for French culture. So I learned French at Kerchele, and when I went to Canada, I went to university to study French literature. Then I changed my mind to study anthropology. My interest in French culture, which came to me when I was a high school student in Harar, was rekindled in Kerchele, because during the revolution, we used to say it was bourgeois culture (laughs). In short, I don't quite realize but it certainly served me in many ways.

P. G.: And criminal law...

H. T.: And football! (laughs). Many people have completed high school, taken this or that course, and used that knowledge or skill after their release. But the existence of the school was not only significant for that. In the prison, it was a coping or adjustment mechanism. Because when you go to school, you do something, your life is not lost, right? I got a sentence, but maybe 90% didn't get a sentence for eight years. They were just wasting away there. The school gave meaning to life in Kerchele. Without it, some of them could have died of illness and depression. School is the best thing that happened to us in prison. It opened up a lot of new horizons for us. Not only when we got out, but when we were still there. Our life was better because of the school and the committees. School was possible because of the committees. Asking this and that, about living conditions, about bread, about the treatment of prisoners by the guards and... all these issues were raised. School life kept us sane. Yes, life had meaning, goals, you go to school, you do something. You know, it was totally different to come to Kerchele when you were just waiting to die in the kebele and keftegna prisons, where you didn't know whether you were going to be executed tonight, this morning, this afternoon or next day, or who was going to die tomorrow. At Kerchele, it was different, you went to school. That gave meaning to life. The school made that possible. It got us through those terrible years.

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Bahru Zewde, 2001, A History of Modern Ethiopia, Oxford, James Currey.

Bahru Zewde, 2014, The Quest for Socialist Utopia : The Ethiopian Student Movement, c. 1960–1974, Oxford, James Currey.

Crummey Donald, 1980, "Abyssinian Feudalism", Past and Present, No. 89, pp. 115-138.

Gebru Tareke, 1991, Ethiopia : Power and Protest. Peasants Revolts in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Gebru Tareke, 2009, The Ethiopian Revolution. War in the Horn of Africa, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Lefort René, 1981, Éthiopie : la révolution hérétique, Paris, Maspéro.

Simeneh Ayalew Asfaw, 2004, A History of Kerchele (1974-1991), MA thesis (advisor : Bahru Zewde), Addis Ababa University School of Graduate Studies.

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1 Amharic acronym for All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement.

2 All information in this sub-section is taken from Simeneh Ayalew Asfaw, 2004, A History of Kerchele (1974-1991), MA thesis (advisor: BahruZewde), Addis Ababa University.

3 The Ethiopian school curriculum is organized in "grades" from 1 to 12. Broadly speaking, grades 1 to 8 correspond to primary education, and grades 9 to 12 to secondary education.

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Electronic reference

Pierre Guidi, « "Crossing the Terrible Years": The School Activity of Political Prisoners during the Ethiopian Revolution (1979-1986) », Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs [Online], 18 | 2019, Online since 06 June 2020, connection on 19 September 2020. URL :

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About the author

Pierre Guidi

Historien, CEPED-IRD

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