The Hyena Men of Harar

Three weeks ago I was in Harar.

Harar? 

Where is that, you ask.

Harar is an ancient walled city 500 km east of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, near its border with Djibouti and Somalia. Its off the beaten track, facilities for tourists are very basic and there a some security issues being here. So it’s not a destination for Jetsetters and those with faint hearts and weak stomachs, but its certainly a destination for Gypsetters. Some say its the 4th holiest city for Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, but that is arguable. It used to be a center for Muslim trade and learning a few hundred years ago, but today it is just an old walled city with dozens of old mosques, many dating back hundreds of years. Some of the mosques have been converted into churches when Menelik, the king of Asmaadin and later Emperor of Ethiopia, conquered the walled city, and seized it from the Egyptians in 1887. Since then Harar has been integrated as a part of Ethiopia. It is now a UNESCO listed, world Heritage site, and a typical destination for one of our unique PhotoSafaris.

One of the 5 Gates opening into the Walled City of Harar

One of the 5 Gates opening into the Walled City of Harar

Harar’s streets are so narrow that in places, only one person can pass through at a time. The heart of the city is a walled fortress just one square kilometer in size. Within the walled  area, there are 368 alleyways, countless mosques and shrines, animated markets, crumbling walls and 50,000 really charming people living there, so its a great place for street photography.  Squeezing through the narrow alleyways will make you feel as if you’ve floated right out of the 21st century into an ancient caravanserai. 

The Streets of Harar are delightfully quaint and narrow … a must visit place for Gypsetters

The Streets of Harar are delightfully quaint and narrow … a must visit place for Gypsetters

But I came to Harar to see holy men feeding wild and vicious Hyenas. Not just feeding them with pieces of meat, but actually feeding them mouth to mouth. The Hararis believe Hyenas are spirits of the departed and they are helpful in chasing away Djinns and evil spirits,. The Hararis even believe that Hyenas can foretell if its going to be a good or bad year for crops. Every night, the Hyena men of Harar call out to wild Hyenas living in the bushland around the city, and they are fed with meat and offal . They are so well fed that they were the fattest and biggest Hyenas I’ve  ever seen, and I’ve seen many hyenas during my  numerous drives through Africa.

Once a 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 hyenas ate all of the wheat porridge, the priests  are happy, because  that foretold it was going to be a good year, and a year of plenty. If not, then not. Not very Islamic, but these priests have been doing this for years. The feeding of Hyenas probably began initially as a practice to placate Hyenas from attacking livestock and people, but it eventually developed into a regular ritual related to spirits and prophecies. The Hyenas are fed every night, even if there are no tourists bringing meat.

The ritual of feeding the Hyenas is usually done at night, outside the city walls, under a large Sycamore tree. It is said that the Hyena men can speak to the wild Hyenas. They  even give them names. We arranged our vehicles in a semi-circle such that  our  headlights are pointed to the space under the tree. And sure enough, after the Hyena Man made some strange calls, as if by magic more than a dozen hyenas  appeared  from the shadows and hesitantly approached the Hyena man sitting with a basket of meat under the tree. He called them out by name, and the leader of the pack came forward. A piece of meat was put on a stick held between the Hyena man’s own teeth. The Hyenas came up one by one, to pluck the meat inches away from the Hyena man’s  face. Really bizarre.

The Hyena Man fed the Hyenas with meat on a short stick held by his own teeth.

The Hyena Man fed the Hyenas with meat on a short stick held by his own teeth.

Sometimes the meat is simply given by hand to the Hyenas … which is not really advisable, because hyenas have teeth and jaws which are very powerful, which can easily crush bones. Some years ago, while camping out in the Serengeti in Tanzania, I heard a lot of noise outside my tent. Peeking out through my tent flap, I saw hyenas rummaging through our camping cooking stuff. I knew it was perfectly safe, as long as I stayed inside the tent and not go out, because the tent is perceived as a solid object, and animals usually couldn’t comprehend that there were edible morsels inside. Anyway, next morning, upon checking our mess tins and empty food cans, we saw some puncture marks made by hyena teeth …. so you really don’t want to mess around with hyenas.

Although I was a bit wary about getting close, the Hyena Man seemed quite at ease among the Hyenas.

Although I was a bit wary about getting close, the Hyena Man seemed quite at ease among the Hyenas.

I was shooting them hyenas from a respectable distance away when I saw this crazy lady wearing a tudung making her way towards the hyena man ….. she just went and sat next to the man ….. and I almost dropped my camera when I recognised her. It was Sally, one of the participants of our PhotoSafari to Ethiopia.

Sally, one of the participants of our PhotoSafari to Ethiopia, was brave enough to go up and sit next to the Hyena Man as he fed the wild Hyenas.

Sally, one of the participants of our PhotoSafari to Ethiopia, was brave enough to go up and sit next to the Hyena Man as he fed the wild Hyenas.

I fired off a series of shots but I knew it was (quite) safe because in the years and years that they’ve been feeding the hyenas here, I haven’t heard of anybody being mauled here…. yet. All the same. It was a risk I wouldn’t take. These are wild animals and unlike  lions and leopards which kill their prey  by strangulation before eating them, Hyenas eat their prey while they are still alive.

Here is another shot of brave Sally. One of the Hyenas even stood on Sally’s shoulder to get a piece of meat from the Hyena man on the other side.

A Hyena propped himself on sally’s shoulders to get at a piece of meat offered by the Hyena Man …

A Hyena propped himself on sally’s shoulders to get at a piece of meat offered by the Hyena Man …

A very relaxed Hyena Man

A very relaxed Hyena Man

This photo shows you how  large the Hyenas are relative to the man.

This photo shows you how large the Hyenas are relative to the man.

This photo should give you an impression of how huge these Hyenas are. The Hyena’s neck is easily the size of a man’s chest. If they should decide to wrap those powerful jaws around a human head, they could easily crush our puny skulls. Now you can see why I was scared to fool around with these wild animals. So Sally is very brave.

Hyenas are wild animals. They hunt in packs and can be very vicious. If you are over 18, and if you have the stomach for it, click this link to watch a video of a hyena eating a wildebeest while its still alive. It’s not my video so be warned. Its gory and its not for everybody. Even tough old me watched only a short part of the video ….http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqbuBeSfA84

We’ll be going to Harar and Ethiopia again, probably in January 2015. If you’d like to come, check out our PhotoSafari program on this website.

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