Gary Brecher (War Nerd) reviews Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood, explaining that to understand bush wars you need to understand that violence doesn’t “come to” these places:
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.
As Brecher notes, when you grow up in a place like that, you’re ready for war, but not for Canada:
So at the end of the book when Nega talks about what happened when he finally immigrated to Canada, he had some adjusting to do. My favorite example of Canuck culture-shock comes when he reads a a newspaper clipping about a guy getting jail for torturing his cat. He’s not falling for that! He actually cuts out the story to show his friends he gets the joke. Jail? For a little good clean cat-torture! Very funny! He describes his shock when his killjoy Canuck friends told him it wasn’t a joke at all, and was in fact a very serious crime in the Canadian Criminal Code. Nega tries to be a good animal-rights greenie in his new squeamish homeland but it’s not easy — not when you’ve been raised Amhara-style.