Notes from the Hyena’s Belly

Nega Mezlekia was born in 1958 in the village of Jijiga in eastern Ethiopia. His family were not rich but apparently comfortable, and his tales of his youthful school pranks are often hilarious. Tormented by the oppressive Mr. Alula in a course deceptively called “Morality,” Mezlekia and Wondwossen, the friend from whom he was inseparable, used a water pistol to administer enemas laced with chili peppers to Mr. Alula’s four cows. The energizing effects on the cows were remarkable.

But there was little mirth in Mezlekia’s adolescence until 1983, when, after graduation from Addis Ababa University, he received a full scholarship to the University of Wageningen, in the Netherlands. Mezlekia went on to earn engineering degrees from the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, and McGill University before taking up residence in Toronto.

Much of Mezlekia’s memoir details his youthful experiences first as a revolutionary and later as a student struggling to keep a low profile under a brutal regime. With a military junta in place in the mid- 1970’s, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement Party (Meison) contested for power. The EPRP quickly adopted the Soviets’ “Scientific Socialism” and the Meison teamed up with the junta to terrorize civilians, and Mezlekia fled south with Wondwossen to join the rebels of the “Western Somali (Ogaden) Liberation Movement,” an adventure even more disillusioning than their brief flirtation with EPRP Communism.

In the aftermath of these events, Mezlekia followed his beloved Mam through the famine-stricken land to her home in Asebe Teferi, which he soon left for the university in Addis Ababa. Before Mezlekia left for Wageningen, Mam and Wondwossen were both dead, victims of the brutal, anarchic regime.

Mezlekia proved himself one who carried through and has written a moving account, full of wit, disgust at history, and love for those who loved him. The superb prose bodes well for his novel-in-progress.