The God Who Begat a Jackal
By Nega Mezlekia

Deep within the conquering blue sky, far beyond the feathered patrols and their scouts, lives the all-seeing Mawu-Lisa, God of my people. With two faces on one head, Mawu-Lisa is both man and woman. Mawu, the woman, is in charge of the night; Lisa, the male, directs the day.

Long before men organized their caves and went hunting for antelopes, warthogs, gazelles, and oryxes; even longer before there was any game to hunt, before there were any of the creatures that we would recognize today, a pair of twins roamed the African steppe: a male child named Da Zodji, and a female, Ananu. They were the first to be born to Mawu-Lisa and were sent to populate the earth.

Sagbata was the most disobedient of Ananu's children, and those of us who descended from him are considered a bad omen to the family. One cannot identify us at birth, but as we grow older our makeup becomes unmistakably clear to those around us. Persistent mischief, disobedience, and the accompanying misfortunes are some of the identifying traits. Often, a name change is enough to tame Sagbata's rebellious blood in us; occasionally exorcising may be required. I had been renamed twice, in vain, before a passing diviner read my signature in the stars and I became at last Teferi, ìthe feared one.î I have since lost faith in the infallibility of the stars, for I have never in my life done anything menacing enough to earn the reward of such a fearsome tag.

The privileged in our midst are recognized as descendants of Legba, the ninth and last child to be born to Mawu-Lisa. Legba was the spoiled one. Delegated to oversee the realms ruled by his siblings and report his findings to Mawu-Lisa, Legba was never to see a day of hard work. His offspring expected the same degree of deference from us. I didn't realize this myself until, at the age of seven, I was called upon, as a rite of passage, to accompany Dad in his work, and I was thrust into the ever-widening reaches of Count Ashenafiís realm.

As an overseer of the count's estate, Dad made frequent trips far from home. As his only son, I was being groomed to follow in his footsteps, thus continuing the family tradition of elevating ourselves a notch above the lowly status and grinding life of a common vassal.

Our first journey together took us to the isolated village of Kersa, a three-day ride on a swift horse. No sooner had we left the familiar security of the mountains than my enthusiasm for the adventure waned. Ahead of us lay an endless steppe, punctuated at enormous distances by acacia trees. Sun-bleached bones of elephants, wildebeests, giraffes, and zebras carpeted the landscape. Near a dried-up water hole, we came across the remains of a large hippopotamus, whose insides had been carefully picked out by hyenas and vultures; the tough and dull hide stood oddly aslant like a hastily erected tent.

Nothing moved. Even the all-embracing sky, which is seldom without an itinerant or two, was ominously deserted. The sun glared at us with distilled anger, intent, it seemed to me, on sapping our souls. Not until we drifted into the middle of a dried-up riverbed did some sign of life stir from the ground: tiny columns of whirlwinds rose all around us. The budding twisters quickly linked arms, forming a huge pillar of dust that rose high into the heavens.

As we galloped to avoid falling prey to the dust devil, we came upon a pack of wild dogs. Dad's agitation grew, for a wild dog crossing the path of a pilgrim is ominous indeed. His concern was well-founded: within moments we were in the midst of another dust devil. And though Father was quick to stab the ground at the heart of the twister, wounding the devil stirring up the dirt, the damage was already done. We had lost our only horse along with its precious cargo: sleeping mats, gabbi cloth, food supplies, and water canteen. Walking away with our lives hardly felt like a blessing.

With no villages in sight and no human company on the horizon, the world suddenly seemed like a very solitary place. I began to cry, even more so when Dad told me our horse had been lost to an ergum. Wandering souls, suspended between the dead and the breathing, ergums are responsible for much of the danger that befalls pilgrims. Many a traveler has been lost without leaving a trace of his worldly existence, not even a trail of bones and skull, after being kidnapped by an ergum.

Ergums are more ominous than the most loathed spirits, for, unlike spirits that content themselves in their invisible world, ergums readily slip between the different realms. Often, they pose as pilgrims. Only a trained eye can catch one before it does a menacing deed. The remedy lies in the powers of markesha, a concoction that, when sprayed onto the face and eyes of a known ergum, will turn the creature into a pile of dust. Every family has its own brand of markesha, the ingredients of which are kept secret, passed from generation to generation under the strictest confidence. Not all markesha is effective, of course, which explains why some pilgrims remain lost.

Dad told me the secret ingredients of his markesha: gallstones taken from a striped giraffe, ground antelope horns, powdered cobra skin, droppings of a hyena, dried testicles of a lion, musk from the pouch of a spotted civet, and the ripened urine of a verifiable virginóa boy or girl, it did not matter.

The dusk quickly settled in the wilderness. We scrambled to set up camp for the night. Gathering a small pile of wood, we started a fire sheltered between two giant baobabsóthe only trees in the area. The dry tinder laughed and crackled, disseminating tiny sparkles all around. I wondered if that was how the stars in heaven came to be born, but Dad said it took a bit more effort than that. In his own words, Mawu-Lisa had often been depressed by the blank and gloomy sky, and in a surge of creation one night decided to adorn it. The Supreme God placed four cosmic signs in a flat disc, together with seeds of plants and crops, and set the disc revolving. As the disc gathered speed, it threw out water, which formed clouds and rain; the dry seed dispersed, becoming stars.

"What were the four cosmic signs?" I asked Dad, but before he could give me the answer an intruder startled us.

From the formless shadows emerged what looked like a lone giraffe. But, since our tallest neighbor was not known for seeking human company, we were on guard until the beast changed form, becoming a pilgrim on horseback. It was an old man with an overflowing beard, and eyes that had never been taught to see as oneóone of them was trained on me while the other followed Dad. After unsaddling his horse, the monk walked toward me, with a sleeping mat rolled under one arm and a food basket hanging over the other, and demanded that I relinquish my seat. I asked him why, and he said it was because the spot I had chosen faced east. I moved only because Dad asked me to.

My eyes were trained on the food basket. I watched as the old man untied the leather straps and laid it open. The aroma of the sunbaked food stirred my stomach, and I felt something bitter well up in my throat. The stranger was in no hurry to feast. Pushing the basket aside, he fell into conversation with Dad, keeping one eye on me. I shuffled in my seat. A light breeze shifted, and I caught a conspiracy of the night.

"A stinkbug has its eyes on your food," I interrupted the holy man.

"Where is it?" "I donít know." "How did you see it?"

"I didnít."

"Maybe you are the bug," he mocked, and moved the basket closer to himself. But not soon enough. Before he could pick up the thread of his conversation, a large and resolute bug dived out of the darkness and landed in the food basket. Angrily, the monk snatched the insect and tossed it into the blazing fire. The excitement nudged his eyes into focus. For once, he stared at me with both pupils. Grumbling in a foreign tongue, he began to dip into the basket.

After eating his fill and drinking water from his canteen, the monk sealed the basket tightly and pushed it under the saddle next to him. Then he verified that we shared the true religion, Mawusa, before inviting us to join him in prayer. I was hungry and tearful and refused to pray, but Dad said that I must, so I knelt next to my father as the holy man delivered his petition:

Mawu-Lisa my father;

Mawu-Lisa my mother;

I killed two warthogs for you;

I killed a male wildebeest as well;

One day, I will catch twenty fish for you.

May I avoid hard things on my way;

May I come back safely.Ohee!

And we followed after him: Ohee!

The monk removed a small pouch from his saddlebag and emptied strips of dried beef onto the end of his gabbi cloth. I could see that the meat had been dipped in red chili pepper before being hung to dry. The holy man picked a long strip and struggled with it, twisting it one way then the other. The meat was not completely cured, I said to myself, and it reminded me of the days when I used to pinch strips of beef from the drying line that Mam had strung. Suddenly, it seemed to me an eternity since I had last seen Mam, and I cried.

"What is wrong with the boy?" the monk asked.

"It is his first day out," Dad fumbled.

"Cheer up," the monk said to me. "You are becoming a man."

"I am hungry," I told him.

"That is one way of becoming a man," he concluded.

Dad resumed his lecture on astronomy. Pointing at four bright stars following three dimmer ones, he said they were called The Widows and were chasing The Three Old Men. Indicating a diffuse band of light overhead, he said it was the backbone of night, without which the darkness would come crushing down on us. He hesitated a moment longer as he puzzled over the identity of a row of blinking stars, uncertain if they were the harbinger of rain.

"Are those stars gokwa?" he grudgingly asked the monk. "Sorry, I canít help you," the monk mumbled, while munching a mouthful of dried beef. "I am not from this part of the country."

Still gazing at the sky, Dad suddenly reached for the pouch at his waist, and with a swift movement of his hand he tossed handfuls of markesha at the monk, yelling: "Go and don't return!"

Bits of dried beef flew all over. Darkness engulfed the campground as the piece of cloth the monk had sat upon landed on the fire, extinguishing it. Dad and I retreated a good distance away. As our eyes grew accustomed to the dark, we saw the holy man rise to his full height and a bit more, sneeze, and buckle. He remained holding both hands on his eyes. Then, like a wounded warthog trapped in the open, he let out a loud and piercing howl before turning to us. The holy man heaped choice insults on Dad.

"You son of a blind mule, do you think I am an ergum? Is that what you think I am?" he cried.

Dad was crestfallen; his eyes rolled out of their sockets as he tried to weigh the inexplicable continued presence of the monk against the unmistakable traces of markesha on his palm. The holy man was unstoppable in his tirade. Spittle flew all over as he sprayed us with curses, words that I had never heard before. Lost in his own world, Dad was not in a position to respond to the abuse, so I raised my voice.

"Donít curse us!" I reproved the monk. "Maybe you are the ergum," he snarled at me, focusing his anger. "I knew you were a strange boy the moment I laid eyes on you."

I yanked the pouch from Dad and readied to toss what little markesha I had at his mountóclearly a four-legged ergumówhich would leave the monk stranded like us in the open, when Father intervened.

"Don't insult my son!" Dad snapped back as he came out of his daze and readied himself for any battle the monk might have in mind. The effect was immediate. The monk quieted, but he remained undecided as to whether to stay with us. Not until Dad told him of the incident that morning, how we had lost our horse and its cargo to an ergum, did he relax a little. "One can't be too careful these days," Dad emphasized sagely. The monk nodded his agreement. I was disappointed that Dad's markesha didnít always work.

Before the crack of dawn, the monk took his leave quietly, without bidding farewell. Had it not been for his foul scent, which lingered in the campsite, on my shirttails and hair, I would have thought that we had been visited by an angry ghost. There was, however, no time to dwell on what had happened, for the morning brought us new faces, merchants on a long journey east. Dad knew some of them, and after a drawn-out greeting that confirmed the health of the family, the cattle, and the crop, and the existence of unanswered prayers, we set out again on our travels. It would be another four days before the village of Kersa came into view. When the merchants proceeded to markets farther afield, Dad and I waited under the shade of a tree for the rising sun to lift the curtain that lay between us and the village. The Death Valley that ran the length of the settlement spewed toxic fumes, fumes originating from the volcanic mountains; the gas dissipated with a midday blast.

The village of Kersa and its listless inhabitants provided my first true glimpse of stark poverty. Many of the hovels leaned dangerously askew; where there was a door, it hung off its hinges. Children under the age of five ran around totally naked. Those old enough to have been awarded clothing were only half-dressed. Even the adults were in want of footwear. My patchless attire and matching sandals attracted the attention of two boys, who followed me around as though I was the most noble being to ever descend upon them.

Passing by a half-finished hut, I saw a woman delousing a child. She peered into the boy's hair as she gathered the lice, which she pressed between her thumbnails. Another boy sat on an upturned grindstone, his feet in a basin of water. At every other doorstep there seemed to be a figure or two observing the same ritual of soaking their feet in water. Years of walking barefoot had ravaged their feet; jigger-fleas gathered under the skin of their toes. Hot water laced with salt made it easier not only to remove the hatched jiggers, but also to drain the accumulated pus. The prolonged drought and the subsequent lack of chores to fill the downcast days had induced the villagers to bring out into the open a practice that had previously been observed only behind closed doors, before bedtime.

I thought Dad had picked the wrong time of year to make the trip, for there was no sign of any harvest that would enable him to collect the count's due. The emaciated shadows of the vassals and the bloated stomachs of their children betrayed that they had barely enough food to feed even their own families.

Dad saluted each passing shadow, but few of them answered his greetings. The tenantsí hostility, their aversion to our visit, was clearly written on their faces. A meeting was hastily called, and, standing before a gathering of angry tenants, Dad made a fiery speech. He began with the vassal-feudal lord relationship, highlighting the fact that such a partnership was initiated when Mawu-Lisa delegated one of the First Children, Legba, to oversee the activities of his siblings. It was a divine wish, Dad maintained, that a mere 10 percent of the multitude, those who could trace their bloodline to Legba, should own all of the arable land in the kingdom, engaging the landless masses to toil from dawn till dusk for the rare privilege of going to bed with a full stomach; it was in the stars, he said, that the landless masses should be called upon to spill blood in a battlefield in order to defend this sacred partnership.

Dad cautioned that, in times of hardship such as the two-year drought that the tenants of Kersa had endured, it was easy to overlook such subtle realities. He urged the serfs to consider themselves fortunate for having a kind and considerate master in Count Ashenafi. He made further attempts to lay their minds at rest when he made it known that his current visit had nothing to do with collecting what was due.

"You can't claim a share of a harvest when there has been none," he joked.

I was surprised and disappointed that the feudal tenants should sit stone cold, regarding Dad with distilled hatred after he had traveled for five grueling days in the wilderness to deliver the good tidings. The clarity of his mind and the profundity of his message were completely lost on them.

Dad concluded the meeting by announcing his departure date and reminding the feudal tenants of the small gesture of goodwill that was expected of them. That turned out to be the finale they had all been waiting for. The shrine hall pulsated with the noise of angry vassals. Insults were heaped upon Dad. Fists shot up high in the air. And when I thought that Dad and I were doomed, that we would be trampled to death like a snake found defiling a temple, the high priest of Kersa stepped in.

The priest unveiled a rare and refined breeding in his person when he reminded the tenants that one should never send a visitor home empty-handed. Though the vassals had gone above and beyond their legal obligations to Count Ashenafi when they delivered four cows and a bull three months before, and a herd of sheep six months before that, the animals in question had all been destined for religious sacrifice. "Is there even one among you who would not stand to benefit from that selfless act?" the priest argued. The holy man made further references to the Scriptures, before passing his judgment.

Alas, the high priest blundered when he recommended that leftovers of salted beef and mutton stashed away by the farmers be sent to their lord. It might have been disrespectful to send a visitor home empty-handed, but, surely, this was an incitement to pack an ill-fitting gift. Many a battle had been waged and many a life spent after a reckless prince had deliberately insulted his peer by sending him the most inappropriate present. It took a bit of haggling before Dad wrested five handsome goats and three woolly sheep from the farmers. On our way home, Dad must have read the sympathy for the barefoot serfs that was written so clearly on my face, the anguish that I felt for the robbery visited on them, for he ruffled my hair playfully, saying: "Son, if there were no greedy people in our midst, even a poor dog would be warmly clothed."

Copyright (c) 2002 by Nega Mezlekia. Reprinted with permission from St.Martin's Press and available wherever books are sold.



Nega Mezlekia

About the Author

Nega Mezlekia is a professional engineer with degrees from Addis Ababa University, the University of Wagenigen in the Netherlands, the University of Waterloo, and McGill University. His memoir 'Notes from the Hyena's Belly' won the 2000 Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction. He received international praise for his novel, 'The God Who Begat a Jackal (excerpted in this issue of Tadias Magazine). Nega Mezlekia left Ethiopia in 1983 and now resides in Toronto.

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Notes from the Hyena's Belly