A Young Life: without sentimentality or cynicism (Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia)

“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.”

Nega Mezlekia tells a tale that spell-binds, and he does it with dark humour – an extraordinary feat for the story of Ethiopia’s coup and counter-coup history. The first paragraph sets a tone Mezlekia maintains. In Notes from the Hyena’s Belly we journey into a child’s world of paradox, a world in which innocence and awareness, love and cruelty co-mingle. We glimpse the roots that nourish a precocious, curious and stubbornly confident boy as well as the socio-economic-political reality of Ethiopia – accomplished with lightness (even through life-threatening situations). Mezlekia shows us how deep this complex duality runs: “In Ethiopia,” he writes, “poetry is second only to the achievements of kings. Poets are sought after and treated with great reverence by the ruling class. …The most popular form of poetry, known as the kinae, offers one message to the untrained ear and another to cultured listeners.” Notes carries on the tradition.

Mezlekia is a skilled, insightful poetic writer, one who has mastered nuance and the twist that both informs and surprises. His language and rhythm, his lack of sentimentality and cynicism carry us through Ethiopia’s sad history as we keep turning pages. Mezlekia provides insight into his journey from boyhood shenanigans into manhood within a revolutionary and war-torn context. He has written a powerful story of lost innocence and of survival.

Notes from the Hyena’s Belly goes beyond the personal story; it offers insight into what it is to be human, a connection and an awakening for each reader. On the one hand, this biography is specific to Mezlekia, but it also tells a story that is far too common across the post-colonial African continent and, I’m afraid, even beyond. We can draw parallels to what is happening in the world today.

Given the skilful writing and master storytelling, it is little wonder that Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s award for literature (2000). (It was published in the U.S. simply as Notes from the Hyena’s Belly.) Highly recommended.

19 Notes From the Hyena's Belly

Available through your local bookstore or online: Notes From the Hyena’s Belly

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