The hyena man of Harar: a unique relationship between beast and man

Harar, harar, hyena, hyena man
The hyenas come just after dusk. We’ve been sitting in Yusuf’s modest farmhouse on the outskirts of Harar talking about them when we hear their familiar yipping laugh. Yusuf picks up a big bucket of mule and camel meat, shoos away his well-fed cat, and strolls outside to meet them.

Yusuf is Harar’s biggest celebrity, the famous “hyena man” whom everyone who has heard anything about Harar has heard about. He’s not Harari, though, his parents were Oromo and Somali, and he lives outside Harar’s medieval walls next to the town dump, a favorite hangout for hyenas.

Yusuf calls out into the darkness, and I spot a few hulking, dark shapes beyond the clearing in front of his house. He sets the meat down and whistles, like you’d do with a pet dog. One by one, the hyenas emerge from the shadows, giant canine shapes like Rottweilers on steroids. At first they seem uncertain, creeping closer and backing away again as Yusuf pulls out ribbons of raw flesh from the bucket.

I sit down to watch.

I’ve come with Marcus Baynes-Rock, an Australian graduate student who’s doing his Ph.D. thesis on the interaction between people and hyenas in Harar, and keeps a fascinating blog about Harar hyenas. As Yusuf puts a strip of meat on the end of a stick and holds it out to the lead hyena, Marcus tells me about the strange and unique coexistence that’s sprung up between humans and hyenas in this region of East Africa.

%Gallery-120767%Hyenas are deeply rooted in Harari and Ethiopian folklore. Blacksmiths and the Argobba people and supposed to be werehyenas, turning into the animals at night. The Jews do too, but most of them left for Israel during the last civil war. Hyenas are also supposed to gobble up djinn, evil spirits, and so are useful to have around.

“I met one young guy from Djibouti who had been possessed by djinn and came all the way to Harar to feed the hyenas and have them take the djinn away,” Marcus tells me.

It’s not just the Hararis who have stories about hyenas. The Somalis tell a tale of the Habercha’alow clan, which tried to drive the hyenas out of their territory by killing a bunch of them. The hyenas took revenge, picking off lone Habercha’alow.

“If a Habercha’alow and two men from other clans were sleeping by a fire, they’d take the Habercha’alow and leave the others untouched,” a Somali friend told me.

After suffering heavy losses, the Habercha’alow wanted to make peace. As mediators they hired the Idagalle, a clan well-known for their ability to talk with hyenas. They met in the desert. Delegates from the Habercha’alow sat to one side, delegates from the hyenas sat to the other, and the Idagalle mediators sat in the middle. They communicated, so I’m told, by mental telepathy. The Habercha’alow agreed to pay blood money to the hyenas in the form of a large number of slaughtered camels. And thus the war stopped.

Despite their size, hyenas are timid creatures, as I can see by the amount of coaxing Yusuf has to do to get the first hyenas of the evening to feed from his hand.

“They’re really scared of people,” Marcus says, “Dogs too. They don’t realize their jaws can break us in two.”

As if to emphasize his point a loud snap cuts through the night. A hyena has taken some meat. Yusuf fishes in his bucket for another piece as the hyenas, more confident now, crowd around.

Yusuf tells me he learned from his uncle, a farmer who started feeding the hyenas back in the 1950s. His uncle started feeding the hyenas partially to keep them away from his livestock, and partially because he liked them. While many cultures hate the hyenas and try to kill them, or shut their doors in fear, the Hararis are at peace with them. Low doorways in the city wall allow them to come and go at night, eating garbage and taking away djinn. When a Harari passes one in an alleyway, he’ll often greet it by saying darmasheikh (“young wise man”). I tried this myself one night and the hyena looked at me curiously for a moment before padding into the darkness.

But it’s not all peaceful. Yusuf’s feeding is not just out of friendliness, but also to placate the hyenas. As scavengers, they’ll sometimes root out freshly buried corpses and even snatch away small children. A beggar woman sleeping outside Selassie church had her baby taken from her one night a couple of years ago, and there have been other incidents too. When this happens the Hararis say the hyena was rabid or not from Harar. Yusuf himself was bitten by one when he was two years old.

“At that time I didn’t know the difference between a hyena and a dog so I never developed a fear,” he explains.

Yusuf has a large group of hyenas around him now. More come out of the shadows. Fights break out between the powerful beasts for the best scraps, and Yusuf shouts at them and even shoves one away like a misbehaving dog. One wanders into his compound to look around his house.

“Yusuf feeds them inside sometimes,” Marcus says.

Yusuf hands me the stick with a strip of meat hanging from the end. A moment later it’s nearly torn from my grasp as powerful jaws clamp down on it.

By now some tourists have shown up. Yusuf is a celebrity, after all. These are Ethiopian tourists, a middle-class family from Addis Ababa. One man holds his toddler son and I eye them nervously. Yusuf greets them and hands the stick to the most nervous one in the group. As a hyena hurries forward to get the meat this guy literally falls on his ass trying to get away. I think I catch a mischievous gleam in Yusuf’s eye. The man’s wife, unimpressed by her husband’s performance, offers to go next. She feeds it several times and even pets it.

“Not bad,” I say to Marcus, “Maybe you can use her as an assistant.”

Marcus likes to pet the hyenas, even though it means all the dogs in town can smell hyena on him and bark as he passes by. Not that’s he’s out in the daytime much. Usually he only comes out at night to follow the hyenas around town to see where they go.

We’re sitting on a low step in front of a Muslim shrine. Yusuf is next to me, the stick in his teeth as he feeds the hyenas from mouth to mouth. Suddenly a big furry form pushes between us. A hyena has gotten onto the platform behind us and reaches over our shoulders. He grabs a strip of camel meat and jerks it off the stick, slapping me across the face with it as he runs off.

“Would you like some toilet paper?” Yusuf asks, again with that gleam in his eye.

“No thanks, I brought some,” I say as I wipe my face.

It’s just another night feeding the hyenas.

To see the hyena man in action, check out the video below. It’s not mine, unfortunately. Upload a video on Ethiopian dialup? Yeah, right!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints.

Coming up next: The worst zoo I’ve ever seen!

Exploring Harar, a medieval city in Ethiopia

In my last post I wrote about how Harar is an alluring walled city that made me throw away my travel plans and stay for three weeks. A serene atmosphere and an ever-widening circle of knowledgeable, hospitable acquaintances were what kept me there, but what is there to actually see?

Plenty.

The main attraction, of course, is the city itself, with its crowded markets, quiet back alleys, and mixture of Ethiopian, Egyptian, Arab, and Italian architecture. A long wander in the Jegol, as locals call the old city, will give you a feel for life in this unique place. Don’t worry about getting lost. While the winding little alleyways make it inevitable, the city is so small you won’t stay lost for long. Walking at night is safe and very romantic with the right company and a full moon.

Harar’s most famous attraction is the hyena man. Yusuf Mumé Salih is a local farmer who lives just outside the walls. He sits out every night feeding the hyenas with raw donkey meat just like his uncle did before him. The Hararis and the hyenas have an unusual relationship. The city wall has small gates to allow the hyenas in at night and one Harari told me he was more afraid of dogs than hyenas! Hyenas are useful for eating garbage left on the streets and also take away djinn, harmful spirits that sometimes possess people. The hyena man will allow you to feed the animals yourself, and they’re surprisingly gentle. Walking in Harar at night one will occasionally slip by you and disappear down an alley. After visiting the hyena man, I didn’t worry about it.

%Gallery-91953%There are also a few museums. The Harar Museum and Cultural Center has a reconstructed traditional home that should not be missed. Harari homes consist of several rooms, including a common room with different platforms for sitting and colorful basketry hanging from the walls. If you stay in Harar for any length of time you’ll be invited into a real home, but it’s nice to poke about here because you can see the private quarters that are otherwise off-limits. Another excellent museum is the Abdullahi Sherif Private Museum, run by a descendant of the prophet Muhammad who has devoted his life to collecting, preserving, and studying artifacts from Harar’s past. The museum is housed in the palace that Emperor Haile Selassie grew up in. Examining the various coins, swords, dresses, and medieval manuscripts will show just how eventful Harar’s history was, and how it was a nexus of influences from all over the world.

Admirers of literature will want to see Rimbaud’s House, an elegant mansion that, in a surprising display of honesty, the curator told me was never Rimbaud’s. Be that as it may, it is now devoted to the memory of the poet, with many of his photos of old Harar and information about his life and work. Rimbaud introduced photography to Harar when he moved here in 1880 and his photos are priceless documents of life in the city more than a hundred years ago.

And there’s much more to explore. I’m planning to go back for two months next year to do an in-depth research project on some aspect of Harari culture. Exactly what aspect I’m not sure. As one Harari friend advised, “Don’t come here with an idea in your head. Let the city give you the subject.” Harar is that kind of place.

An excellent introduction to the city and its people is Harar: A Cultural Guide (Shama Books, 2007) by David Vô Vân and Mohammed Jami Guleid, with beautiful photographs by Alain Zorzutti.

Don’t forget to read the rest of my series on travel in Ethiopia.

Next time: some final thoughts on travel in Ethiopia.