Posted by: koolwine | July 18, 2010

Ethiopia: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly

Country: Ethiopia

Local Name: Ityop’iya

Title: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly

Author: Nega Mezlekia (Ethiopian)

Published: 2000 Pages:351

Acclaim: Winner of the Governor General’s Award; a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice

Time Period: 1958-1983

Summary: Mezlekia recounts his childhood in the half-Christian, half-Muslim city of  Jijiga, his  participation in demonstrations on the behalf of tenant farmers, his secret membership in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), his enlistment in the Western Somali Liberation Movement, his family’s flight from the invading Somali army, his college education at Addis Ababa University during the Red Terror assassinations, and his eventual emigration to Canada.

My opinion: Mezlekia’s autobiography is packed full of historical information, folk tales and (often horrifying) aspects of life in Ethiopia, but I had a difficult time connecting with him; his writing was more of a report than a sharing of emotion.  For the first time when reading about a foreign country I thought – Whoa! This is a frightening place.

In my book (or, how Ethiopia has affected me and maybe you, too)

Empty bellies
My need for food has always been met within hours.  I have never, for even a quarter of a second in my life, ever doubted that either I or my family would be able to pay for and obtain my next meal.  In the mid-1980s, I found out that it’s not like that everybody.

In 1984-85, famine in Ethiopia killed one million people and affected eight million more.  Photos of the starving – children in particular – were all over the television news.  BBC journalist Michael Buerk reported from the city of Korem that “Every 20 minutes, an adult or child dies.”

Despite the grimness of the situation, Ethiopian famine jokes made the rounds in junior high.  I made the mistake of repeating one to my mother. Holding a long black comb teeth-side down, I asked her what it was.  “A comb,” she said.  “No,”  I said.  My punchline – a hundred Ethiopians carrying a canoe – was not well received.  Suffice it to say I never cracked another joke about Ethiopia.

What could better draw my teenage attention to the Ethiopians’ plight than a hit charity single?  “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid, a group of 44 major recording artists organized by Bob Geldof, hit the airwaves during the 1984 holiday season to solicit donations for famine relief.

My friends and I thought it was cool that Bono, Simon Le Bon, Sting and Phil Collins were all getting together to end hunger, and when we heard the song on the radio we argued over who was singing what lines, but none of us liked the song enough to actually pony up and buy a copy.  Lots of other people did, and the song and two subsequent Live Aid concerts raised over £150 million.  Unfortunately, the BBC just published evidence in March 2010 that the contributions were diverted to buy weapons  instead of food.

Lucy & Ardi
When it comes to paleoanthropology, I feel like a Cro-magnon.   Or maybe even downright Neanderthal-ish.  It’s just not a subject that I’m interested in.  But I do know that some of our oldest ancestors have been dug out of the Ethiopian ground, the most famous being 3.2 million year old  “Lucy.”  Lucy  was named after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson played in celebration of his 1974 find.

4.4 million-year-old “Ardi” eclipsed Lucy as the oldest known hominid by over a million years when her skeleton was discovered near Ethiopia’s Awash River in 1992.

Hominids have lived in the Middle Awash Valley of Ethiopia for nearly six million years, which makes the place one of the oldest sites of human existence.

Notes from my belly
One of the most unique meals I’ve ever had was at an Ethiopian restaurant, where custom decreed that my boyfriend and I tear off pieces of spongy pancake-shaped bread called injera to scoop up our food.  Usually I only eat with my fingers when I’m at home alone;  it was a fun taboo-breaker to dip up goopy stuff like lentils in sauce out in public (and to watch everyone else).

The emperor of reggae
For having listened to more than my fair share of reggae music, I never realized its connection to Ethiopia.  Many reggae musicians, including Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, were Rasta, or followers of the Rastafari movement -a spiritual ideology that views Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974, as a reincarnation of Jesus Christ who will lead the African people to freedom (Rasta do not believe that Selassie died in 1975).

I had always assumed that the lyrics of Bob Marley’s hit song “War” were the reggae superstar’s own, but Marley had actually turned a section of Selassie’s 1963 United Nations address into one of the most popular reggae songs of all time.  Here is the excerpt from Selassie’s speech:

“That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned: That until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained; And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.”


Keep Reading!



  1. Hi Koolwine
    Thanks for posting positive words about Ethiopia. Unfortunately as you have stated it from the outset , the name Ethiopia is attached to empty bellies and this left behind big scar unlike any other country in the world with various negative and unfavourable happenings at any given time or another. The irony is there are many things to talk about the country in terms of civilization, culture , natural and historic landmarks but none of them are well represented and they are overshadowed by the negative traits.We always say that the name became vitim of media but as citizens of the land each Ethiopian has to contribute in promoting its land than playing a blame game. Ethiopians shoul say and boast “Proud to be Ethiopian” than bowing their heads down or hide themselves away in the dresses of politics and complain over any party that comes or leaves…The order of the game is Proud to be oneself and contribute positively.

    Neddless to quote JFK’s words “Ask not what your contry can do for you ………….”


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