Notes from the Hyena's Belly: Memories of My Ethiopian Boyhood
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.
Novice author Nega Mezlekia—who came to Canada in 1985 as a political refugee—has made some noise with his first published book, a blend of autobiography, history, and mythology. Growing up in Jijiga, a city in the arid and largely Muslim eastern part of Ethiopia, Mezlekia lived a boyhood filled with mischief, magic, and violence. His childhood pranks result in frequent whippings with the teacher’s weapon of choice, a bull’s penis, and a visit to the local medicine man who declares that the boy is possessed by evil spirits. The “cure” almost kills him. As he grows up, he also gets a vivid lesson in Ethiopia’s tumultuous recent history, which reached its nadir with the “Red Terror” imposed by a communist junta that seized power following the assassination of Emperor Haile Selassie. Miraculously, Mezlekia survives guerrilla warfare, arbitrary detention, and the senseless slaughter of 100,000 of his fellow citizens.
This memoir is understandably harsh in its unflinching descriptions of the seemingly infinite varieties of human cruelty that surround and threaten to consume him. But it’s also packed with love, courage, and occasionally even humour about growing up in a land where sometimes even the hyenas run scared. The book is also mired in controversy. After it won the 2000 Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction, questions about its authorship arose. Writer Anne Stone says she penned much of it and should be acknowledged as co-author, while Mezlekia maintains she merely copyedited his manuscript prior to its submission to the publisher. While such claims are serious and deserve answers (especially for the prize jury), it would be a shame if they distracted readers from this never less than compelling story. —Nigel Hunt