Notes from the Hyena’s Belly is the memoir of a man who grew up in an Ethiopian city near the border with Somalia. The town of Jijiga was split between the Amhara Christian north and the Somali Muslim south, but the two sides coexisted peacefully at the time of his birth in 1958.
The story that develops is much the same as what we saw in Cutting for Stone. The revolution creeps in to begin destroying lives, but in this memoir, it happens much more quickly. Mezlekia finds himself involved in revolutionary politics before he knew they were revolutionary, and this gets him in trouble repeatedly throughout his early life, even after he ceases to be an active participant in the struggle. His family becomes part of a sea of refugees escaping the volatile eastern part of the country, and set out to find the rest of his mother’s family further west.
Mezlekia peppers his story with various folktales told to him throughout his life that help illustrate the culture and thinking of the people who raised him. What’s more, his anecdotes about growing up are colorful, funny, and enlightening about a culture most people don’t know much about. The way he writes about the superstitions of his mother, teacher, and others shows the absurdity of what they believed, but also sometimes endears the reader to those who hold the beliefs. For example, he writes about a woman who lived in his family home as he was growing up. She prays to both the Christian saints and to her ancestors; however, when she prays to the latter she closes herself in her room and stops up all light that could filter in so that the saints won’t see her, of course.
A small criticism of Mezlekia is that often he makes it seem that he was always better than or had greater morals than the people around him. Certainly he was better than those that slaughtered children, but I doubt he had the western mindset (as he seems to imply) until he had lived in the west for several years. It was a little exasperating and not credible.
Notes from the Hyena’s Belly is detailed in ways that Cutting for Stone is not, but that’s natural in a memoir. It combines important historical information about Ethiopia with personal anecdotes to create a well-rounded piece of literature.