Today I’ll finally keep my promise and tell you about my favorite book on the Horn of Africa. Remember a couple columns back, I promised to tell you about a great book on the Ethiopian/Somali wars? Of course I promised to post my book report “tomorrow,” and it’s weeks later. Hey, “tomorrow” is a flexible concept, like “manana.”
Besides, there was this election thing…and not to get distracted all over again, but I got just one thing to say about that election: my fellow Americans, have you-all got something against soldiers? I swear, you really do. It’s not even a Left vs. Right thing, because last time it was Kerry, a total pinko but at least he served in Nam, vs. Dubya, a guy who went AWOL from the Alabama National Guard. And it was the guy who put the “W” in AWOL who ended up winning. 2008 rolls around and we’ve got McCain who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison vs. Obama who, I don’t know, might’ve been in Indonesian cub scouts, probably didn’t make Webelos though…and Obama wins. What, you don’t like war heroes? Cause that’s how it’s starting to look.
Well, it’s none of my business. I just live here. So I’m back on the job, talking about parts of the world where war still gets a little respect. Yeah, the Horn of Africa. I’ve written about the Horn lots of times, but one thing I’ve noticed myself is that when you describe the pure warrior tribes there, it’s hard to believe. It’s what office people call “OTT.” When office jerks use that word, or abbreviation or whatever, it means “too serious for me.” And that’s how the people of the Horn are: too serious to believe.
That’s where this book comes in: to understand how these people got so serious you need to study more than their wars. You need to hear how they live, how they grow up. What it’s actually like to have grown up in Ethiopia when the Emperor’s regime was deposed, when the Marxist officer corps took over and the country dissolved into a half dozen wars going all at once.
And this book will take you to that world. It’s called In the Hyena’s Belly: A Memoir of My Ethiopian Boyhood by Nega Mezlekia, who grew up in a mixed Amharic/Somali part of Ethiopia just in time to fight in the Ethiopian vs. Somali war in the Ogaden Desert. Mezlekia is a good storyteller, like most Africans. The rougher the life, the better the stories, which puts Africans right at the top. But most of the stories you hear from Africans come from the better-known parts of the continent, like Nigeria or Kenya or S’thfr’ca, as the locals call Mandelaland (formerly Apartheidburg). I’ve read memoirs from all those places, but never anything by a boy growing up in an isolated town at the edge of the Ethiopian empire just as it was falling apart. It’s an amazing story, weirder than any other African life story I’ve ever read.
Nega is an Amhara boy, meaning he’s from the dominant tribe, the “Ethiopians” of Ethiopia. Like I said in that other column, the Amhara are a highland tribe, who expanded outward from their plateau into the jungle south and the Somali deserts to the east. And keep in mind, he’s not some street kid; all the violence his parents used on him was not just normal but upmarket stuff, like he says himself:
“As a child of the Amhara community, I was brought up according to time-honored aristocratic moral codes.” And what wacko codes they are!
Being an African, Nega tells his childhood stories real cheerfully, but they’re way creepier and weirder than you’d expect. That’s why these stories are worth reading: to understand bush wars you need to understand that violence doesn’t “come to” these places like the bleedingheart reporters say. Violence is a daily fact for everyone, from toddler-hood on up. The way Nega tells it, growing up Amhara means being thrown into a horrible stew of weird Christian superstitions and ultra-violence from the moment you’re born. If you want to make warriors, the child-rearing theories they work with in the Horn are perfect. Oprah might not approve, though, because this is definitely not “positive-reinforcement stuff.”
Every part of Africa has some weird magic goin’ on, but the Amhara diagnoses in this book take the juju cake. When Nega’s uppity sister Almaz beats up a local drunk for abusing his wife, a friend of hers, the medicine men reach total consensus on the medical basis for the problem: “Your daughter has crossed the path of the devil at the garbage dump during the high sun.” You can’t argue with science.
But diagnosis is small-time stuff. It’s in the cures that the Amhara genius for mixing insane superstition and horrible pain really comes into its own. For example, say you’re a worried parent and your lively little son has done something naughty. Little Nega gets mad at his teacher and says he’ll burn down the teacher’s barn. Of course he didn’t mean it, but you have to teach the brat a little manners, right? So instead of just beating the crap out of him, which is what Nega’s teacher, an insane blind monk, does when anybody forgets his lessons, Nega’s mom and dad decide to invest in their child’s future in a way that’s pure Amhara craziness: they buy a goat, hire a couple of off-duty soldiers to kill and skin it—carefully saving up all the bile and piss and shit from the goat’s guts. Then the soldiers pour all those nice smelly juices from the goats’ bowels into the skin. Then they grab little Nega, and stuff him inside the skin, and sew the skin shut, with Nega marinating inside the raw fresh goat skin along with all that shit and piss and bile. I’ll let Nega himself take it from there:
“I was too shocked to put up much of a fight. Once inside…I tried to keep myself from suffocating by poking my head up for air. But the soldiers pushed me down, adding water to the unsightly mix until I was completely drowned….Millenia passed and I was still inside that goat skin.”
Nega thinks this is such a great story that he does a lot of comedy riffs on it, talking about all the hallucinations he had while he was sewn into the goat skin. It’s light comedy to him. That’s how you toughen up a warrior of the Horn.
Every time Nega describes some straight-outta-Hell torture or murder ritual, he reminds you that it’s one of those “time-honored traditions.” For instance, guess how a young fella from the Adal tribe has to prove he’s a good marriage prospect, a real Bachelor #1. He doesn’t have to buy a Boxster or flash his pecs. He just has to kill a man from another tribe, any other tribe, and come home with the dude’s penis on a stick. Seriously. The bigger the penis, the better the eager little date-bait’s prospects. And those Adal girls are real sticklers, apparently:
“Not every penis is the right candidate. The victim has to be an adult from a different tribe, and the penis has to be of a convincing size. In cases where the penis could be mistaken for that of a boy, the bridegroom must skin the part of the pelvis attached to the pelvis….” What Nega is getting at here is what Ali G. said kinda more concisely about da age of consent: “If there’s grass on the pitch, let’s play.” Except it’s kind of for all the marbles when the Adal play. One game is your career, like those Aztec ball-players who ended up served on corn tortillas if they lost.
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