Out of Ethiopia: An Interview With Nega Mezlekia

Therese Eiben
From the January/February 2002 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In the days immediately after the World Trade Center attack and in between my news vigils with CNN and NPR, I read Ethiopian exile Nega Mezlekia's memoir and novel. Probably I would have found uncanny parallels to current events in almost any book I picked up then, so urgently did I need to begin to comprehend what had just befallen my fellow New Yorkers and—yes, I can finally say this without Saturday Night Live irony—my fellow Americans. Given my state of mind, I admit I was susceptible to finding meaning in coincidence. But regardless of whether it was cosmic intervention or just the random luck of his being the author of the next two works in my submission pile, I found Mezlekia to be a wise guide through the chaos of those dark days.

Mezlekia's memoir, Notes From the Hyena's Belly, details his remarkable boyhood in Jijiga, a city in the eastern part of the Horn of Africa built on a "dry, sandless desert where even the smallest wind creates devils—whirlwinds of dust that rise high into the heavens and are visible from miles away." The townspeople were "Christians, mostly Amharas," and "Muslims, mainly Somalis," whose religious rituals intermingled freely with ancient pagan traditions and a prevailing culture shaped by myth, folklore, and an imperial dynasty dating back to the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. For much of his youth Mezlekia's largest concerns were enduring the "cures" prescribed by the medicine man whom his mother consulted whenever his youthful high jinks made her think he was possessed by an evil spirit, and getting home before dark, when the hyenas began their nightly prowl to fill their bellies. Everyone, old and young, feared the hyenas. It was widely known that they were the reason there were no homeless people in Jijiga.

The Ethiopia Mezlekia left in 1983 when he was 26 was radically changed from the one he'd known as a boy. For years a childlike faith in Emperor Haile Selassie had kept the mostly middle-class residents of Jijiga from acknowledging the darker aspects of imperial rule. But once Mezlekia advanced to secondary school and made friends with the children of sharecroppers and other less fortunate fellow students, he could no longer ignore the unremitting poverty that afflicted much of his country, and the drought, famine, and feudal injustices that perpetuated it. He and his classmates eventually came to believe that communism held the answers to overcoming feudalism, and they initially supported the revolutionaries who deposed the emperor in 1974.

But different factions emerged, and the prevailing military junta grew strong and turned against anyone it deemed a dissenter. In 1977 alone more than 100,000 people, mostly youths, were executed in a junta-organized undertaking known as the Red Terror. The revolution Mezlekia initially had so believed in was "eating Ethiopia's children at an alarming rate"—faster than the packs of hungry hyenas that roamed Jijiga at night. He had to readjust his worldview once again. By the time he left—on engineering scholarships, first in The Netherlands and then, after he applied for political asylum, in Canada—he had lost his mother and father, casualties of the revolution. Everyone he knew and loved who had not been killed had been uprooted, their lives reduced to subsistence and fear.

When Mezlekia's memoir was published in Canada in 2000, it won the Governor General's Award, that country's highest literary honor. It's not just a remarkable story—it's a remarkable story well told. With a novelist's understanding of pacing and an enviable, arresting narrative voice, he recounts in the same measured tone boyhood pranks (he turned a vindictive teacher's four cows into manic, vaulting furies—with the help of chili-pepper enemas) and junta atrocities (relatives had to stand in line at a city morgue to pay twenty-five birr to cover the expense of the bullet that had been used to execute a loved one before they could collect the remains). It's the voice of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm, a voice that gently but not reluctantly informs the reader that good exists side by side with evil in this world and probably in the next, and that only a naif (or maybe an American) would think otherwise.

This same voice narrates Mezlekia's novel, The God Who Begat a Jackal, which Picador publishes this month. Once again Mezlekia focuses on a significant era in his country's history, 1750–1880, a time of decentralized rule during which Ethiopia was overrun with warlords and religious factionalism. And once again Mezlekia portrays a world where magic and natural wonders are indistinguishable, where children walk through walls until they are taught that it is inappropriate to do so, where rulers and slaves are equally subject to the laws of nature and the humors of man. The God Who Begat a Jackal is a love story, a historical document, an anthropological exploration of the power of myth, and a warning by example of what might await a world that ignores the foreshadowing of religious war.

The novel is narrated by Teferi, the son of a tax collector who works for one of the warlords. Teferi seems to accept at face value whatever he observes—splendor, horror, magic, domestic ritual—describing it all in a matter-of-fact tone, simply as the next event of his day. Initially, I believed Teferi was an innocent who, over the course of the novel, would be disabused of his predilection to give equal weight to all things, good or evil, mundane or rare. But later I came to understand that his was a wise voice, one that acknowledged how little understanding and control we have. And I came to this realization at the same time the talking heads on television and the chattering voices of radio were unifying in their assessment that in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, America had lost its innocence. I compared my horror, my disbelief, with Teferi's calm description of the torture and war that befell those he had loved, and I realized I was the naif, not he.

P&W: Storytelling is an integral part of Ethiopian culture.
Nega Mezlekia: Very true. Storytelling is not a bedtime confection only, but it's something that was used, and is still used, as a vehicle for communicating wisdom and history. So it's a part of our culture.

More so in Ethiopia than the West?
Yes, it is. Not just in Ethiopia, but also in Africa in general. I remember someone saying, "When an old man dies in Africa, a whole library is burned down." People carry their history and their fables with them. They move around, passing them on to the next generation in installments.
Monarchs had their own storytellers, called court entertainers. Not just the kings and princes, but the feudal lords as well. There also were public entertainers. The public entertainers were like a barometer of public opinion. They would recite poems in public. The ones at the helm of power paid special attention to the verse because there was a hidden message in it, which was communicated by the poet.

This double-meaning poem is what you describe in your memoir as a kinae, a poetic form that contains an obvious meaning and a hidden meaning, the bronze and the gold?
Yes, the purpose of kinae was political. It was a way to communicate public opinion and grievances to the ones in power.

When you and your schoolmates organized a march and carried placards that read Land to the Tiller to protest the feudal oppression of sharecroppers in your country, was that too overt a statement of political dissent?
Oh yes, you might say that was the start of the revolution.

When was the last time you were in Ethiopia?
August 3, 1983.

You haven't been back?
No, I haven't. I was asked a while ago by an editor from The New Yorker if I wanted to go back to do some stories for them, and my immediate response was no. Because I haven't really recovered from the trauma, though it has been eighteen, nineteen years now. But I know someday I have to go back. Hopefully it will be in the next couple years.

Do you have any family left?
Yes, I have some siblings.

And how are they faring?
Well, they're managing. I send them some money now and then. They're managing.

You've written a memoir, Notes From the Hyena's Belly, and a novel, The God Who Begat a Jackal. That isn't always an easy transition to make. Did you figure out how to do both genres yourself? Did you have a mentor?
One of my favorite writers has always been Gabriel García Márquez. I like Isabel Allende. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as well, primarily because when I was back at home those were the books we used to get to read. I don't know that many Western writers. I have always considered myself very well read. When I read books I read them very critically. I've always wanted storytelling to be very much like a fable or an anecdote, very much entertaining. So for me it wasn't hard to switch from nonfiction to fiction. If you read them both you will see they are written in a similar style.

That was your intent?
That was my intent.

Did you write them in English?

Is English your second language?
Yes. English is the medium of instruction in Ethiopia, high school as well as university. It has been the language that I've used the last eighteen, nineteen years. My first language is Amharic, a very ancient language with more than two hundred letters in its alphabet.

Both your novel and your memoir are set in defining eras in the history of Ethiopia: your memoir during the fall of Haile Selassie and the rise of the communist junta, and your novel in the mid-eighteenth to late-nineteenth century, which I've seen referred to as the Era of Princes.
It was an era of many kings. Whoever reigned over all was the King of Kings. There were different kingdoms. They acted more like a federation, and that went on until Menelik II assumed the reins of power [in 1889]. He got rid of all his competition, and from then on there was only one king.

The time of your novel seemed a very chaotic time. There wasn't a center.
Yes, and if you went a century or two prior to that it was even worse, because that's when that particular region was very much affected by the Islamic crusades. One of the reasons I wrote this book was the resurgence of that religious fanaticism. That's not just the Muslims—it's the Christians as well. When I was growing up, communism was like religion to us. People were dying for it. It was the highest cause. Since the collapse of communism, religion has filled in that void. Now people are looking to religion for solutions to everyday problems. The type of fanaticism that I hadn't seen when I was growing up in Ethiopia is taking hold. After much research of historical documents, I decided to base The God Who Begat a Jackal on the European Crusades to show the downside of fanaticism. So people could see what to expect if these things are unchecked.

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about a writer's responsibility to his subject.
Writing shouldn't be entertaining only. It should be informative as well. Particularly for a person like me who has lived under very, very terrible regimes, he or she has an obligation to bring this to light. And I can say with a very high degree of certainty that there will be a flare-up of huge conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and part of the Middle East and what have you within the next decade or so, something that hasn't been seen for generations. And this is awful. And this can be checked by introducing a number of measures. I don't want to get into that right now, but the West first of all should recognize there is a problem and should try and address these issues, help that part of the world address these issues.

And you feel a literary writer should use his or her tools to bring these issues to light?
That's what I feel.

It's impossible today to see or say or read anything without putting it in the context of what happened on September 11.
The danger of this religious movement hadn't registered itself before the September 11 crisis. Europeans knew about it—every now and then you'd see headlines in France or Britain—but very rarely in the American media, because this happened in a different focus. But now the world is paying attention.
Human beings really have to undergo some crisis before we learn, before we pick up some lessons, you know. It happened to me. I believed in communism very, very…I can't even put in words how much I believed in it. But now looking back I say, What a folly it was. Communism sounded very well in books. But it was something you couldn't implement in society because the human element was entirely missing. Because there's the human element, there's ambition, individualism, what have you. That was never addressed in communist literature or ideology. Now religious fundamentalism has its roots once again in local problems, because when individuals have certain problems and the government is not in a position to address those problems, they resort to what's accessible to them. And that happens to be the religious institutions. Religious fanatics exploit that issue. Now we need to bring this out, first in a form of language, as entertaining as possible and as informative as possible. I just want to open up their eyes: This is what happened in the previous crusades, and we don't want to relive this.

Talk to me a little bit about myth.
In parts of the world where I come from and also in Asia, and all those ancient, ancient cultures, myth is still a mover and shaker. When I was growing up, for example, my mother would say to me, when she sent me out to the market, "Go buy a pound of sugar, but when you pass by this kind of bush, if you hear your name mentioned recite the name of the Virgin Mary three times, and when you pass by this empty well throw this pinch of salt into the hole, and when you do this, do that." To you this sounds like, What a life to live! There are so many instructions on going from home to the market! But that's the power of myth. And in a way it was the glue to that society and culture. It forms your view of the world and your father's, and your prejudices.

Did you believe if you didn't throw the salt down the well a devil would get you?
I did believe. You couldn't help believing in those sorts of things, it was so prevalent. For example, when I was a kid and I would go to school, dust devils would rise up everywhere. I used to carry—we used to carry—razor blades, and I remember distinctly I used to stab at the heart of the dust devil, attempting to dice the devil that was tearing up the dirt.

Teferi, the narrator of your novel, reports all the myth imagery—such as the princess becoming transparent, her eyeballs rolling in space, or the woman whose fingernails and toenails grew one foot every minute—as if it all were actually happening. Is that how you intended us to read his narration?
Yes, because Teferi sees these things as normal, as the way we see the sun rise as a natural occurrence. So, he reports them as a normal course of events.

What is your current relation to these things? Do you still carry salt in your pocket?
I don't really believe in these myths today. But there are still things that I wonder about. I can't think of one right now, but things happen and I can't quite put my finger on the reason behind it. Strange things happen in the world now and then, and once in a while I see on TV people trying to attribute things to the supernatural.

The myth that you present in your work is a stew of different religions and pagan practices and superstition, isn't it?
That's quite true. Because although Christianity made its way into Ethiopia in the seventh century, it didn't entirely get rid of the ancient pagan practices. As I mentioned in my memoir, people still make sacrifices to the adbar [the traditional sacred tree of the family], and people believe in the spirits of their ancestors and many other spirits, so you do find those things. Just recently I came across some article about religious practice in Indonesia. These are people who subscribe to Islam, yet they still practice the animist tradition of their ancestors. And I say, "Wow, so that's not entirely confined to Africa."

In your novel there are characters called the abettors, who are expert in the art of war. They help the rebels who are fighting the oppressive rule of the church hierarchy. Just as they are about to win, the abettors switch sides. Is the "gold" meaning of the abettors—and your novel in general—a denouncement of the war games played by the superpowers in your country?
That's very true; that's what I had in mind when I considered that character. You know, having read my memoir, the roles that the superpowers played in the seventies and eighties—they didn't care who they were supporting as long as they were supporting somebody and they were fighting against each other's interest. We have this saying in Africa: "When two elephants fight it's the grass that suffers most." And that's what happened to us.

Is your whole novel a kinae?
[Laughs.] To be honest with you, I don't really know.

Do you think that poverty fuels religious fanaticism?
Yes, it does, and not just poverty but also injustice in the form of prejudice against different ethnic groups. Whoever is in power is always advancing his own agenda. In that part of the world, even with a form of democracy—as you can see for example now in Kenya, a neighboring country to Ethiopia—the ones in power immediately start putting their own ethnic groups in higher places, and also people of their own faith, even though there have been Muslims and Christians in that part of the world for centuries. In Ethiopia, the ones in power have always been Christians. Now about forty percent of the population subscribes to Islam. So there's poverty and there's also social injustice. Getting rid of poverty is a huge order, but that's one way of tackling this fundamentalism. That's one of the fronts. But the other one is the way the government is run. How could you claim to represent, let's say, sixty million people in Ethiopia, for example, while about forty percent of that population is not represented in high places? So there's got to be some change in that.

In your household, as described in your memoir, there was a Muslim living with your family, which was Christian, and there was another woman living there who followed an odd mixture of religious practices. Was that a time of religious tolerance?
Very much so. Selassie recognized the problem. With forty percent of the population subscribing to a different religion, he had no choice. When I was growing up I never saw any of the religious fundamentalism that I hear about nowadays. Women covering their faces! You would see some Arab women back then who covered their faces, but those were married women, and it was more tradition than faith. Nowadays there is so much uncertainty. Since the collapse of communism. So people want something to hang on to.

You've lived a remarkable life full of challenge and heartbreak. What is it that you hang on to?
I want to try to effect some sort of change in Africa. When I arrived here I read about a fellow who tortured a cat and was sentenced to three years in jail. I thought it was a joke! The rights that animals have in this country are much greater than I had in Ethiopia. I know the purse strings are in the West. The money the West sent used to go to dictators in Africa. There was a reluctance on the part of the West to truly see what was happening in Africa. Expatriates are hoping to raise a ruckus and shame the West into taking the right course.
There is a huge void in me. There is no clear ideal I can hang on to. But writing this novel is something. I hope it conveys some kind of truth. I hope readers in the West will see this as an exotic work and that it will stir their consciousness. There have been a few individuals in America, members of the Peace Corps, for example, who have made a difference to the plight of my people. Individuals can make a difference. I hold on to that.

Can you tell me what you are going to work on next?
Well, I already know what my next two projects are. One will be another novel set in nineteenth-century Africa; it's an Africa you Americans don't know much about. And the one after that is set in North America.

You've lived in Canada for nineteen years. Do you feel a part of Canada's rich literary community?
No, I'm more of a recluse.

By choice?
By nature.

Therese Eiben is the editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.