The author, giving a hyena a little nighttime snack.
For much of my life, despite hours of Animal Planet, my primary conception of hyenas came from The Lion King. Shenzi, Banzai and Ed made hyenas out to be creepy but ultimately gawky, weak and comedic characters (it’s hard to be frightened by villains voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin) who occasionally burst out into choreographed song. But now, as I try to keep still, kneeling on the ground while a full-grown spotted hyena locks eyes with me and paces back and forth, its teeth about a foot away from my face, I begin to think Disney has lied to me yet again.
Hyenas, contrary to popular belief, are active hunters rather than scavengers. They’re quite muscular as well, with the bulk of their mass loaded into their shoulders and stocky necks, giving the impression that they’re always a second away from lunging, latching and effortlessly ripping away whatever flesh is in front of them. A small part of me is afraid that this creature, emboldened by its cackling brothers and sisters pacing around the brush behind us, might be less interested in the half-rotted slab of meat suspended from a stick between my teeth, and more interested in my face. But I push that thought to the back of my mind, because feeding hyenas mouth to mouth is just what one does when one comes to Harar, Ethiopia.
Anywhere else in the world, this would be an absolutely terrible idea. Just a few dozen miles away, across the border in Somaliland, hyenas are a dire threat. They rule the countryside there, preying on livestock and driving men off the roads and out of their territory when spotted in the dusklight. In Somaliland, only the fiercest of men are nicknamed warabi (“hyena” in Somali). Attacks do occur in the region around Harar as well, most often against children. But Harar, ever a bastion of singular traditions and ideas, has developed a unique symbiosis with its hyena population, transforming a regional villain first into a carrier of prophecy and then into a cultural institution and cash cow.
The tomb of Nur ibn Mujahid
Harar’s relationship with its hyenas began almost five centuries ago, just as it was developing the walls that gave the city its current shape. Around that time, Harar, a capital of regional trade and the centre of Islam in East Africa, had witnessed the defeat of the Islamic Adal Sultanate by Christian Ethiopia and the subjugation of many Muslim cities and statelets by the Christian power. In response, Harar’s emir at the time, Nur ibn Mujahid, ordered the construction of a wall to insulate the city from the outside world.
A hyena hole
Against humans, the walls worked so well that Harar remained an independent city-state and fostered the creation of a unique language, culture and ethnicity until its conquest by Egypt and then Ethiopia in 1875 (thereafter the city lost its trade edge and became slowly more and more marginal and impoverished). Against hyenas, though, the wall failed miserably within its first days, when the creatures discovered that they could sneak into the city by night through sewage drainage ditches in the base of the wall to scavenge for food before returning to life in the hills just outside the city. However, rather than going after humans or livestock, the hyenas contented themselves with offal and animal waste building up outside the butchers’ shops. Given that this solved a major urban-planning problem – what to do with a bunch of rotting scrap meat – for a medieval, isolationist walled city, the citizens of Harar just went with it.
Eventually, this hygienic symbiosis spun off into ritual. Some say that every year on Ashura (the tenth of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar), one of the sheikhs of four rotating shrines would call out to the hyenas and feed them a bowl of wheat porridge to divine the city’s future in the coming year. If the hyena ate deeply, it would be a year of plenty. If not, then not. Others say that the feeding ceremonies were more pragmatic – attempts to placate hyenas in years of drought and scarcity to keep them from harassing the juicy, plump livestock. However it started, the tradition has carried on to the present day.
Harar's Old City
Then, around 60 years ago, a member of one of the families that used to feed the hyenas to keep them satiated and away from the livestock took a shining to his scrappy flock. He began feeding them more regularly, developed a coaxing hyena language, and gave them all unique names.
Soon enough, the farmer turned hyena tamer’s antics became a nightly show attended by many Hararis. The townspeople would gather under the sycamore just beyond the gate at the end of Makina Gargir Street to watch as he let a pack of the beasts cluster around his body in the dark and gingerly pick meat from his fingers and climb on top of him like happy dogs. He passed the skill along to his nephew, Youssef Mume Saleh, who continues to bond with and feed one of the several families of hyenas (each about a couple of dozen strong) that live around the city. Inevitably, foreign tourists eventually caught on to the fun.
In 2006 Harar was added to the World Heritage List, giving the walled city a boost in tourism and professionalisation of city guides (the latter being necessary to navigate the 368 streets, 82 mosques, over 100 shrines and 40,000 people squeezed into about one square kilometre). If you’re in the Harar region and looking to find other foreigners, attending a hyena feeding is a good place to start. Although, at least on the occasions I’ve attended, the bulk of the foreigners can’t get up the guts to squat down in the dark field and rassle with a bush carnivore. That would be understandable if there were any reason to suspect that the hyenas were only friendly to the shrine keepers they’ve known all their lives. But, aside from a random attack here and there, centuries of porridge and prophecy have made the local hyena population so docile that small Harari children breezily wander out to the field to hand-feed scraps to the city’s spirit animals.
Just like in The Lion King.
That doesn’t mean the process is gentle, though. Not by any means. On the night of my feeding the hyenas approach with caution. When one of them decides he is hungry, he warily comes up to me; seemingly suspicious that at the last minute the meat might be pulled away. He steps forward, pulls back, stalks and paces in the dark. Then, finally, after minutes of scenting the air and watching for any startling movements, the beast thrusts himself forward with the full strength and speed of his battering-ram neck, chomping so hard that he pulls the stick out from between my teeth, leaving me with a mouthful of stripped bark and splinters. Then, as soon as he has the food, he slinks off into the brush rather than waiting for more.
The hyenas of Harar are getting fat. Compared with the gaunt, maniacally howling fiends I’ve encountered in the field, those inside the walled city have developed a healthy tourist gut. For them, the feeds have become a matter of course. But for some Hararis the hyenas still maintain selective prophetic significance, and by the rules of the Ashura divinations, packs of blissed-out and bloated hyenas can only be signs of good times to come. Even if it’s not a sign of God’s grace and favour in the coming years, the feedings are a heartening sign that, commodified or not, the unique culture of Harar has weathered conquest, marginalisation and crushing poverty to make it into the modern day, still eager to french kiss a hyena.
Previously by Mark Hay - Inside Somaliland's Pirate Rehab