American Friends Service Committee
Sara Burke, Managing Editor
Sam Diener, Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
A review of Nega Mezlekia's Notes from
the Hyena's Belly: Memories of My Ethiopian Childhood.
lives in Cambridge and recently graduated from Harvard's Graduate
School of Education. He looks forward to teaching English at Belmont
High School in the fall.
In Notes from the Hyena's Belly, Nega Mezlekia describes how life transforms fundamentally when day passes into night. The streets of Jijiga, the author's Ethiopian hometown, bustle during the day with market vendors, children, and domestic animals. At sunset, all life deserts the streets as the city awaits its nightly invasion of hyenas. In howling packs, hyenas devour everything they encounter in Jijiga's streets and alleyways before retreating to the mountains at dawn.
Invoking images of day and night, hunts and escapes, sunbursts and storm clouds, Mezlekia portrays Ethiopia as a nation in flux. Interwoven with tales of his coming of age, Mezlekia narrates his country's passage through three decades of political instability, hunger and violence. As Jijiga transitions from a peaceful town into the site of police roundups and army massacres, Mezlekia transforms himself from student to activist to guerrilla to refugee and back again. With ironic language that balances comedy with tragedy, Mezlekia depicts both the harmony and discord in contemporary Ethiopia.
Mezlekia's sensitivity to dualities enables him to paint a rich picture of inter-ethnic relations in Ethiopia. He vividly describes not only Orthodox Christian life in the northern section of Jijiga but also Muslim life on Jijiga's southern side. By juxtaposing the myths of rival ethnic groups, Mezlekia illustrates the ironies of cultural misunderstandings: Amharas teach their children that the Devil speaks Oromo and that Lalibelas carry leprosy, but Somali children grow up believing that Amharas have "tails between their legs." Mezlekia relates that Christians and Muslims in Jijiga believe their respective prayers alter the taste and texture of meat, making it impossible for one group to share meat with another, but he playfully contradicts this theory by confessing to having dined on meat with Muslim friends.
When discussing violent conflicts, Mezlekia remains painfully aware of the common humanity of the participants on both sides. In a political climate where male teens feel safer as soldiers than as civilians, Mezlekia becomes a "reluctant guerrilla" who fights alongside Somali rebels against the army of Ethiopia's junta.
He describes the terrible silence hanging over the village of Chinaksen after his guerrilla band massacres half-dressed boys in an Ethiopian Army training camp. In counterpoint, there's a gruesome account of an ambush in which an Ethiopian unit slaughters Mezlekia's Somali companions. Even when describing the brutal tactics riot police used to disrupt peaceful student protests in which the author marched as a boy, Mezlekia pauses to consider his assailants: the Ethiopian government recruited the police from a rival tribe hundreds of miles away. Mezlekia portrays the riot squad members, culturally isolated and uninformed of the students' political goals, as both violators and victims, predators and prey.
As Mezlekia matures, he realizes that human beings can be crueler than the hyenas he feared as a child. When describing the mass executions of youth suspected of disloyalty to the ruling Meison party, Mezlekia remarks that the revolution "was eating Ethiopia's children at an alarming rate." If the memoir reaches its climax of despair when describing the deaths of Ethiopian youths, however, it inspires the most hope when discussing the redeeming power of education. Despite the overbearing punishments his teachers sometimes inflict, school provides Mezlekia with opportunities to establish common ground with peers even as the nation around them disintegrates. In secondary school, a classmate from western Ethiopia educates Mezlekia and other students about the plight of Ethiopian sharecroppers; subsequently, students organize sympathy protests to support the peasant land reform movement. As a university student, Mezlekia finds respite from the violence engulfing the nation and, ultimately, a chance to leave Ethiopia and share his story with the world.
Notes from the Hyena's Belly offers lessons
on Ethiopia's history, religion, and culture. It provides a personal
context for understanding the panic of politically divided cities,
the resolve of refugees, the drive of young guerillas, and the
hope of students in a nation fraught with war. To appreciate the
current relevance of Mezlekia's reflections, one need look no
further than Ethiopia's western neighbor Sudan, where strife between
nomads and farmers from rival ethnic groups recalls struggles
from Ethiopia's recent past. More broadly, Mezlekia's humorous
and tragic tales provide insight into the challenge of enduring
chaotic nights long enough to see a new day.