Notes from the Hyena's Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood
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Notes from the Hyena's Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood

by Nega Mezlekia
     
 

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Winner of the Governor General's Award
A Library Journal Best Book of 2001

Part autobiography and part social history, Notes from the Hyena's Belly offers an unforgettable portrait of Ethiopia, and of Africa, during the 1970s and '80s, an era of civil war, widespread famine, and mass execution. "We children lived like the donkey,"

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Overview

Winner of the Governor General's Award
A Library Journal Best Book of 2001

Part autobiography and part social history, Notes from the Hyena's Belly offers an unforgettable portrait of Ethiopia, and of Africa, during the 1970s and '80s, an era of civil war, widespread famine, and mass execution. "We children lived like the donkey," Mezlekia remembers, "careful not to wander off the beaten trail and end up in the hyena's belly." His memoir sheds light not only on the violence and disorder that beset his native country, but on the rich spiritual and cultural life of Ethiopia itself. Throughout, he portrays the careful divisions in dress, language, and culture between the Muslims and Christians of the Ethiopian landscape. Mezlekia also explores the struggle between western European interests and communist influences that caused the collapse of Ethiopia's social and political structure—and that forced him, at age 18, to join a guerrilla army. Through droughts, floods, imprisonment, and killing sprees at the hands of military juntas, Mezlekia survived, eventually emigrating to Canada. In Notes from the Hyena's Belly he bears witness to a time and place that few Westerners have understood.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[A] powerful memoir . . . By skillfully interweaving personal history, politics, and Amhara fables . . . [Mezlekia] has produced the most riveting book about Ethiopia since Ryszard Kapuscinski's literary allegory The Emperor and the most distinguished African literary memoir since Soyinka's Ake appeared 20 years ago . . . Mezlekia has summoned with imaginative directness and impressive tonal range, a world of uncertainty in which politics is never just background but permeates ordinary life.” —Rob Nixon, The New York Times Book Review

“[Mezlekia] describes his experience as a member of a revolutionary student cell, his naive enlistment as a teen-age guerilla with the Somalis, and his survival of imprisonment, famine and near-death by firing squad with the vivid swiftness of a Stephen Crane story.” —The New Yorker

“Nega Mezlekia's noteworthy memoir of growing up in Ethiopia is likely to tell readers far more than they previously knew about that embattled country . . . His book is as much a survivor's tale as it is a painstaking record of a country devouring itself.” —Washington Post

Notes From the Hyena's Belly is not only a memoir, it is also a vital political and social commentary about the state of affairs in Ethiopia.” —African Sun Times

“His memoir tells us much about Ethiopia and much more about the human capacity to survive, even to thrive, in the midst of calamity.” —Boston Sunday Herald

“Spirited . . . A very welcome and much-needed contribution to the literature of the continent.” —Newsday

“Topical, moving, and fascinating. Nega Mezlekia concentrates his mind on his nation's history as he tells his own tale in prose imbued with a sense of commitment to truth. It is the best memoir by an Ethiopian that I've ever read.” —Nuruddin Farah, author of Maps and Secrets

Notes from the Hyena's Belly is a lyrical memoir and a guide to the troubled recent history of Ethiopia. Growing up in Ethiopia during the fall of the Emperor Haile Selassie (whose reign Ryszard Kapuscinski chronicled in The Emperor), Mezlekia's formative years were filled with famine, war, and tremendous social and political upheaval. Despite such troubles Mezlekia's memoir is most engaging--it sheds light not only on the violence and disorder that beset his native country, but also on the rich spiritual and cultural life of Ethiopia. Through droughts, floods, imprisonment, and unfathomable killing sprees at the hands of military juntas, Mezlekia perseveres, and his lyrical tale bears witness to a world few Westerners have come to know. Part coming-of-age story and part front-lines reportage, Notes from the Hyena's Belly is a swift-moving journey that's never less than gripping.” —BookSense.com

“A glimpse into Hell. By some feat of alchemy, Mezlekia has transformed the nightmare that was his life in Ethiopia into a gripping story. Mandatory reading for anyone trying to understand Africa today.” —Eric McCormack, author of First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women

“A masterful narrative that steeps the reader in Ethiopian folklore, myth, theology, and philosophy, blurring the boundaries between the spiritual and material worlds. Rich in wisdom, humor, and poetry, this is not simply the story of a boy coming of age, it is a portrait of a nation and its people.” —George Makana Clark, author of The Small Bees' Honey

“Magical . . . What makes Nega Mezlekia's memoir such a delight is the wonderment, at crazy life and crazier fate, that informs every page.” —Charles Foran, author of The Story of My Life (So Far)

“Mezlekia has a born storyteller's knack for pacing, and in his musical voice he manages to convey the helter-skelter of his existence . . . A story of high drama told with aplomb.” —Kirkus Reviews

“In telling his life story, Mezlekia describes in rich detail the turmoil and upheaval of Ethiopia after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie and the rise of a communist junta and its 'Red Terror.' He recalls an early childhood full of stories and myths, with which he salts his accounting of biographical and historical specifics. As he matured and realized the injustices of Ethiopia's feudalism, he joined youth rebellions seeking reform. At 18 he was forced to join a guerrilla army as the social and political structure of Ethiopia collapsed in a struggle between western European interests and communist influence. Hungry for reform, he was disillusioned with a communist rhetoric that was accompanied by only slight change in the status of the downtrodden. Corruption was rampant, even as the general population faced famine, political 20unrest, economic chaos, and terrorism. Mezlekia left Ethiopia in 1983 and eventually emigrated to Canada. A stunning depiction of Ethiopia's current culture and conflict.” —Vanessa Bush, Booklist

“Born in 1958, the year he calls 'the year of paradox,' Mezlekia has written an intriguing book about growing up in Jigiga, Ethiopia. Full of adventure, political struggle, and intrigue, his memoir works as a coming-of-age story as well as a glimpse into a world of political corruption and change that Westerners rarely get to know so intimately. Mezlekia writes, 'We children lived like the donkey, careful not to wander off the beaten trail and end up in the hyena's belly.' He describes the careful divisions in dress, language, and culture between Muslims and Christians and brings them to life through vivid portraits of the people who populated his landscape. Mustafa and Ms. Yetaferu, two permanent houseguests, provide beautiful insight into these two religious and cultural stances in life. Mustafa's business adventures and Ms. Yetaferu's religious ceremonies stand in contrast to each other, creating a dynamic household. Mezlekia's tales of the spiritual and religious beliefs are some of the most fascinating parts of his life. He honors us with the telling of this rich story.” —Barbara O'Hara, Free Library of Philadelphia, Library Journal

“He treats the chaos and famine that enveloped his country with seriousness and style--even while recounting famine and war, he never loses the wit that no doubt helped him to survive some of the worst humanity has to offer.” —Publishers Weekly

author of First Blast of the Trumpet Against the M Eric McCormack
A glimpse into Hell. By some feat of alchemy, Mezlekia has transformed the nightmare that was his life in Ethiopia into a gripping story. Mandatory reading for anyone trying to understand Africa today.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Hyenas are the most common, notorious predators in Ethiopia," notes Mezlekia, thus their power in local myth and as a metaphor for the forces that have torn Ethiopia apart in recent decades. This lyrical memoir of an Ethiopian childhood echoes both the myth and the violence of the hyena. In the first third of his literary debut, Mezlekia intersperses accounts of his mischievous, rebellious childhood with the magical tales told by his family to interpret various experiences: magic and spirits were part of everyday life for young Mezlekia. He also carefully delineates the customs of and relations between the Christian and Muslim communities in his hometown of Jijiga. (Mezlekia's mother, though a Christian, took her son to a Muslim medicine man to cleanse him following a series of boyish escapades.) But a third of the way through the text, the material world supplants the world of the spirit and innocence that governed Mezlekia's early childhood--social and political upheaval ruled Ethiopian life in the late 1970s and '80s. At times, Mezlekia, who now lives in Canada, does not clearly describe the various factions that wrestled for power when he was a teenager and college student. But he treats the chaos and famine that enveloped his country with seriousness and style--"The revolution was eating Ethiopian children at an alarming rate"--and even while recounting famine and war, he never loses the wit that no doubt helped him to survive some of the worst humanity has to offer. (Jan.) Forecast: This lovely and terrible memoir will undoubtedly be well reviewed and thus reach readers interested not only in the fate of Africa but also in a lyrical account of a foreign childhood. There is an author tour planned. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Born in 1958, the year he calls "the year of paradox," Mezlekia has written an intriguing book about growing up in Jigiga, Ethiopia. Full of adventure, political struggle, and intrigue, his memoir works as a coming-of-age story as well as a glimpse into a world of political corruption and change that Westerners rarely get to know so intimately. Mezlekia writes, "We children lived like the donkey, careful not to wander off the beaten trail and end up in the hyena's belly." He describes the careful divisions in dress, language, and culture between Muslims and Christians and brings them to life through vivid portraits of the people who populated his landscape. Mustafa and Ms. Yetaferu, two permanent houseguests, provide beautiful insight into these two religious and cultural stances in life. Mustafa's business adventures and Ms. Yetaferu's religious ceremonies stand in contrast to each other, creating a dynamic household. Mezlekia's tales of the spiritual and religious beliefs are some of the most fascinating parts of his life. He honors us with the telling of this rich story. Highly recommended for all libraries.--Barbara O'Hara, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312289140
Publisher:
Picador
Publication date:
01/28/2002
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
368
Sales rank:
890,115
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.82(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

I was born in the year of the paradox, in the labyrinthine city of Jijiga. After a three-year absence, the rains had come, swelling the rivers and streams. The clay desert, as dry as the skin of a drum, became green once more. Queen Menen, wife of King Haile Selassie, lay dying. She was as reluctant to leave this world as I was to leave the womb.

My father sent for the neighbour, a nun who also practised as a midwife, to assist my mother in this difficult birth. Queen Menen, far off in her palace, sent for fortune-tellers and Deviltamers-modern medicine was failing to cure her. In our small home, lost somewhere in the tangled paths of domestic Jijiga, the midwife pronounced her certainty that there was not one child, but two—with golden crowns on their heads—fighting against their own birth. This nun could interpret the language of the unborn and the dreams of the dead, and had heard the twins whisper their belief that they had been delivered to the wrong universe.

The nun needed help. She asked for the assistance of another midwife, Mrs. Tsege Kebede, who was found at a local bar celebrating the deliveries of six children just the day before. Tsege was already quite drunk when she walked in, and bragged about her legendary success in delivering the unexpected. Tsege had once helped a passing angel, caught between the two worlds, with the agony of childbirth, successfully delivering her young with wings intact.

Now, as the two women bickered over how to convince the twins to be born, how to assure them that they had, indeed, been sent to the right universe and that, though this world might be tarnished, violent and rife with pestilence, it was nothing one couldn't get used to, in time, my father stubbed out his last cigarette and came indoors to announce the dawn of a new day. As he pronounced his sentence, I slipped into this strange bickering world that smelt of incense and ood.

"The sun has risen," my father said. I was named for his words: Nega.

With sunrise the farmers' market on the other side of the city came alive. Somali women balanced fragile pots of milk and butter on the crowns of their heads-each vase a necessary and natural extension of the bearer, as if a second head had appeared over each woman at dawn. On their backs they carried sacks of grain to sell at the market. The Somali men led caravans of camels into the city, loaded with sacks of sorghum, corn or charcoal. Some camels bore stacks of firewood that reached far into the sky-each camel dragged forward savagely by a rope tied to its upper lip, splitting it in two.

In our home, my mother's eyes reflected the two bickering midwives as they peered down at my emerging head and fell strangely silent. Shaking their heads in disappointment, they told my mother that her new son had a head big enough to give the illusion of twins. They told her that her son would lead the life of a rebel, as he had refused to be born wearing his golden crown. Tsege went back to the tavern to have another drink. The nun went home to her morning prayers. Looking back, I am relieved that my father came in when he did. Had it not been for his announcement of dawn, the two disappointed midwives might have convinced my exhausted mother to name me for the size of my head.

Meanwhile, somewhere far away, the Devil-tamer pronounced his cure for Queen Menen: the sacrifice of the young. "Candidates must be free of any form of body piercing; they must have no wounds or scars that would compromise the quality of the blood," he announced. Countless messengers were dispatched from the palace to scour the countryside looking for children who had neither bruises nor scars.

In 1958, the year of the paradox, I was born in Ethiopia, in a hot and dusty city called Jijiga, which destroyed its young.

Jijiga is built on a vast, unmitigated plain, with no greenery in sight except for the occasional cactus bush used as shelter by the wandering hyena, and the inevitable sacred tree in every compound. The city is surrounded by rocky mountains on all sides save the north, which is open as far as the eye can see. The northern horizon is curtailed only by the sun's mirages and the eternal dusty winds of the dry season. Jijiga is in an arid part of Ethiopia, a dry, sandless desert where even the smallest wind creates devilswhirlwinds of dust that rise high into the heavens and are visible from miles away.

By day we children chased wind devils, poking holes in their bellies with knives. By night we, huddled in bed, remembering our mothers' warning to tell all strangers that our ears were pierced so that we would not be snatched up and sacrificed for the ever-dying Queen. We could hear the wild howls of hyenas from the desolate mountains and knew that any cow or donkey left outside the gates of the compounds would spend its night in the hyena's belly.

There is a story about the donkey and the hyena called "The Donkey Who Sinned."

The other animals looked at the leopard, whose skill at hunting they all admired, and protested:

"No, no, that is not a sin! In fact, if you hadn't eaten that goat, God would have been angry with you."

The hyena then spoke:

"Well, I think I am the sinner. I once snuck into a village, caught a chicken by surprise, and ate it all at once."

"No, no," the animals protested, "that isn't a sin. God would have liked it if you ate two of them."

Then the donkey spoke:

"Once, when my master was driving me along a trail, he met a friend and stopped to talk. While they were talking, I went to the edge of the trail and nibbled at a few blades of grass."

The other animals looked at the donkey, whom no one feared or admired. After a moment of silence, they shook their heads sadly and said:

"That is a sin! A very terrible sin! You are the cause of all our misery!"

And so the lion, the leopard and the hyena jumped on the donkey, cut him up into pieces and devoured him.

We children lived like the donkey, careful not to wander off the beaten trail and end up in the hyena's belly.

Jijiga is a divided city-by common, though unspoken, consent. The northern half is inhabited by Christians, mostly Amharas, and the southern by Muslims, mainly Somalis.

The Somali man is easy to identify: he is almost always dressed in a sherit, a long multicoloured garment stitched like a sack, which is tied about the waist, hanging loose at the bottom. Most carry a cane in one hand, and a piece of twig in their mouth, with which they brush their teeth if they happen to have nothing better to do. The nomads who venture into town may wear huge daggers at their waists. They are usually barefoot, though they may carry sandals to wear in town balanced carefully over the shoulder, hanging from the end of their canes.

Somali part of town that sold kitchen supplies: sugar, cooking oil, flour, pots and pans, readymade clothes, fragrances and the like. When Mustafa was in need of money, he would send me, note in hand, to his brother. I never knew what was written on the note, as it was scribbled in Arabic, but knew that my arrival signalled terrible news to Mustafa's brother. He would grumble the moment I walked in, but usually gave me some money in an envelope to deliver to Mustafa. Good news to Mustafa meant a quarter to me.

Sometimes his brother would refuse to send any money to Mustafa, which signalled sibling warfare. Mustafa had various options in his arsenal, but his favoured weapon was the mansion the two of them had inherited from their parents. A huge building with many rooms on its two floors, it was fenced in by stone walls and located in a lively part of downtown. Mustafa owned the whole ground floor, which he rented out to a renowned contraband smuggler, who I suspected was Mustafa's accomplice in his various schemes. The upper half of the house was the residence of Mustafa's brother and his family.

The day after he had been snubbed by his brother, Mustafa would dispatch a team of masons, carpenters and hauliers to his house before the break of dawn, with orders to disassemble each room, brick by brick, stone by stone, so that it could be moved and readily reassembled for an unnamed purchaser. But, before the demolition started, he would alert his brother to the sale, advising him to prop up his rooms and avoid expensive losses. His brother had never been able to buy Mustafa out, because no matter what price Mustafa set there was always someone, somewhere, who doubled his brother's bid. Building materials were not expensive in Jijiga, and nobody knew who would pay such an insane price for something so worthless, but in the end a settlement was always reached in which Mustafa got some money in return for promising not to sell the building for another few months.

A few years passed before this perpetual circus finally folded tent. Dad intervened: Mustafa was cajoled into selling his half of the property to his beloved brother, and was forced to concentrate his resources on original schemes.

Property tax is one of the most unpredictable expenses in the life of an Ethiopian landowner. No one knows for sure what the rate will be and when, if ever, someone will be dispatched to collect it. Some people live and die without ever hearing from the taxman, while others may get a surprise call decades after they register their land.

The tax collector in Jijiga was a rather eccentric man, about the same height as Mustafa but much older. He wore an eye patch and carried a huge leather bag and a cane with a retractable knife. As he walked from door to door, collecting taxes, he was escorted by a man in uniform who carried a rifle. He was said to be a wealthy man, with money buried in various places in his backyard. The money had been wrapped in antelope skin, sanctified by three sorcerers, two medicine men and a renowned curser-a treatment that would render completely blind anyone who tried to open the bag, except the taxman. This, however, did not deter some desperate souls from attempting to share in the loot. In fact, not a single month passed without someone perforating the dark soil in his backyard under the cover of darkness. In the morning light, it looked as if the gods had turned up his backyard with a diabolical ferocity.

Mustafa did not dig in the taxman's backyard. He merely tried to look like him and act like him. He bought himself an eye patch and clothes that might have come from the taxman's own wardrobe, and sprinkled some wet ash on his hair to close the age gap. He hired himself an escort, whom he dressed like the taxman's guard, and armed him with a borrowed rifle. He then dispatched two respected burglars to buy him old tax receipts, if they could, or retrieve them from their hiding places, if they could not. The landowners on the new taxman's list were, like most Ethiopians, illiterate. They would only look for the familiar insignias on the receipts, not the words that were written on them.

Ms. Yetaferu was, in many ways, a sad foil for Mustafa. She was somewhat deficient in her sense of humour, quite predictable in her manner, and she walked about with a nervous and suspicious look on her face, as though the world around her was conspiring to pull the ground out from under her feet. She was no relation to us, nor had anyone in town ever come to visit her, and yet she had been around for as long as I could remember. Mother gave her shelter because she and Ms. Yetaferu happened to be from the same home town.

Ms. Yetaferu was an Orthodox Christian, like us. She believed in the sanctity of the Orthodox Christian Church, and in its superiority over all the other churches that had followed in its footsteps. But most of all, she believed in the saints and their ability to mediate or intervene on behalf of parishioners who found themselves at odds with Christ. If one needed any kind of help, she was convinced, one could always appeal directly to the saint-for rains, say, or a good harvestand the saint would deliver, unbeknownst to Christ. After all, there were far too many saints for Christ to keep track of.

Like us, she also worshipped the Adbar-the traditional sacred tree of the family. The huge tree rooted in our front yard was like no other tree in the compound: its roots needed frequent watering, and incense and ood needed to be burned under its huge trunk. She made sacrifices before the Adbar at the beginning of each month, and knew to make only small requests of the Adbar, for the sake of expediency.

What annoyed Dad most was how she worshipped, with equal fervour, the spirits of her ancestors. The old woman burned incense and ood behind her door and invited the spirits to sneak in, camouflaged by the smoke. Her Wukabi, or personal spirits, required three days of uninterrupted blessing each month and endless festivities. So Dad tried to get rid of her by wedding her to a solo barroom entertainer and then chasing him out of town, with his new wife and his violin in tow. It didn't work. What Dad failed to understand was that the woman was married already, to her Wukabi.

Ms. Yetaferu never worked a day in her lifethough, unlike Mustafa, it wasn't because she was lazy or loathed work. Everyone knew that she was the first to get out of bed in the morning; that she was the one who prepared the household's first of three coffee ceremonies each day, waking the neighbours and inviting them to join her; that she read each individual's daily fortune from the dregs in the mugs, before sending them off to work; and that she never went to bed before the hyenas had reclaimed the town, descending in droves from the mountains like an army of ants tracking sugar grains. The reason Ms. Yetaferu never worked at all was because there was not a single day in the year that was not sacred to her.

The Ethiopian calendar is divided into thirteen months, each thirty days long except the last, which is only five or six days (depending on whether it is a leap year). Every day of the month is assigned to a saint or two: day one is dedicated to St. Raguel and the Adbar, day two is St. Samuel's, day three is St. Libanos's, and so on. Of course, not all saints are created equal. Indeed, only a few of them are considered saintly enough to warrant an official holiday, preventing the farmer from tilling his land and the carpenter from felling a tree. No fisherman, for instance, can fish on the nineteenth day of any month, because it is St. Gabriel's day; nor on the twenty-third day, as he has to pay his respects to St. George; nor on any one of the other nine days throughout the year assigned to the saintliest of saints. Other individuals have their own favoured saints throughout the year, further reducing the number of days they are allowed to work.

Compounding Ms. Yetaferu's scheduling problem was the fact that some of the saints' days coincided with spirit days, forcing her to make a grave decision, choosing one over the other. She always placed her Wukabi ahead of any saint, though in some cases she was able to go to church in the morning and return home early enough to reconcile with her spirits. On such days she would close the door and windows of her room and use pieces of rag to plug any crevice that might let in light, to avoid detection by the saints while she communicated with her spirits.

All told, Ms. Yetaferu's holidays, each of which demanded prayers and sacrifices and prohibited doing any form of work, consisted of 263 saints' days, 52 Sundays, 9 other Christian holidays, i3 Adbar days, 36 Wukabi days (some of which coincided with saint's days) and 12 days to worship her ancestors' spirits. Altogether in an average year there were 368 consecutive days on which she was not able to work. Alas, the calendar was three days too short for her to complete her prayers.

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Meet the Author

Nega Mezlekia is the author of Notes from the Hyena's Belly, winner of the Governor General's Award, and a novel, The God Who Begat a Jackal. He left Ethiopia in 1983 and is now an engineer living in Toronto.

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