Notes from the Hyena's Belly

by Nega Mezlekia. Picador USA, 2001.

Notes from the Hyena's Belly is the memoir of an Ethiopian, from his birth in the provincial town of Jijiga to the day he leaves the country as a penniless young man. The sardonic voice with which Nega Mezlekia tells his story brings alive the years in which Ethiopia was wrenched away from its ancient traditions and the rule of its seemingly immortal Emperor and thrust into a world of revolutionary violence and crazily shifting allegiances.

Ethiopia would seem to be too subtle a country to be drawn into the crudely polarized ideologies of revolution. A country that had escaped colonial rule and developed a distinctive culture for thousands of years, it existed on an everyday plane and a mythic plane at the same time. When Mezlekia was born -- at the same time that Haile Selassie's queen was dying -- the nun who assisted with the birth announced that there were actually two children in the womb, wearing golden crowns. She called in a second midwife who, though she arrived drunk, had an impressive reputation. "Tsege had once helped a passing angel, caught between the two worlds, with the agony of childbirth, successfully delivering her young with wings intact."

As a young boy, Mezlekia was taught by a legless instructor in a shack made of twigs. The classes covered nothing but Amharic language and poetry, but the children were exposed to a literature of amazing sophistication. The Amharic alphabet contains 268 characters -- some of them duplicates for the same sound, because the characters used to spell "celestial" or "imperial" people or objects must be distinct from those used to spell ordinary things. A form of poetry called a kinae carries both a "bronze" or obvious meaning and a "gold" or hidden one, and there is even a puzzlelike form called a "stranded" poem. "One can draw a jagged line through a stranded poem, from top to bottom, breaking it into two independent pieces. Each of these halves rhymes and has its own meaning; put together, the two pieces form a body that gives a third and entirely different meaning."

As he grew older, Mezlekia became conscious of the corruption and brutality in Ethiopian society. His friendship with a boy from the west of the country opened his eyes to a medieval system of serfs and feudal lords that persisted into the twentieth century. He took part in demonstrations for land reform and was repeatedly jailed, whipped, and tortured. He was shocked to learn how the Emperor's regime tried to cover up the massive famine of 1973 -- even to the extent of hiding starving people in camps where they could die in secret.

The military junta that overthrew the Emperor soon showed that it had its own methods of repression. Mezlekia's father, a former clerk who had risen through the ranks of government service, was summarily executed as an official of the old regime. Two new parties emerged: the EPRP, which wanted power turned over immediately to a civilian government, and the Meison, which preferred to have the junta stay in charge until the people were educated politically. Both parties turned to rape, torture, and even death squads to strengthen their influence.

Although many students and the intelligentsia supported the EPRP, and although the party opposed the junta as he did, Mezlekia had no illusions about them. "These intellectual gangsters," he writes, "would prove to be a far more horrific threat to dissenters than the enemy in uniform." Simply to avoid being killed by one faction or another, Mezlekia and his childhood friend Wondwossen finally left Ethiopia for Somalia, where they joined a rebel movement that was fighting for control of the Ogaden desert.

This brief summary covers barely half -- and the least traumatic half -- of Mezlekia's adventures and sufferings. Remarkably, he tells his story without self-pity, though not without feeling. Throughout his book, Mezlekia's dry narrative voice finds the interest and even the humor in what might otherwise seem an unrelenting tale of misery. The folk tales interspersed with the narrative -- stories in which clever peasants get the best of kings, and monkeys find a way to defeat a lion -- hint that his grounding in Ethiopian tradition may have helped provide the courage and flexibility he drew on to survive.

From Notes from the Hyena's Belly:

Mr. Alula proceeded to shed light on the morality of wandering hyenas. He explained not only why it was moral to permit the hyenas to reclaim the town at night, but why we should encourage them to do so by throwing discarded bones into the streets after the compounds were locked. He persuasively argued that without hyenas, the city would be forced to hire street sweepers to remove the carcasses of goats run down by speeding trucks, or the remains of street dogs hacked by angry butchers, or the vultures killed in battle over decaying meat. Without timely intervention by the hyenas, the city might even have a homelessness problem.

Sleeping outdoors in Jijiga was the ultimate suicide. It was a vanishing act. The hyenas would cut you up into pieces quicker than the gods could put you together. They would devour you, your shoes, bracelets, linen and anything else you had touched. Beggars know this; they might go hungry, but they always had shelter. They would pull together their slim resources with ten or more of their colleagues and rent a room with a strong door and eighteen latches. Mr. Alula did not enjoy the spectacle of people being eaten by hyenas; but he was a moral man, and had to make tough decisions. He was willing to sacrifice a few individuals so that the rest would have homes. Homelessness, concluded Mr. Alula, is a vivid indication of a shortage of hyenas.

Published in QBR: The Black Book Review, Sept./Oct. 2001.