The hyena is a feared predator across Sub-Saharan Africa. With jaws strong enough to devour bones and an evil cackle to send chills up your spine. Although, while the others live in fear, a village in Eastern Ethiopia has, for 500 years, followed the saying “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. After dark, hyenas roam the ancient walled city of Harar, but not on the hunt for the residents, but the left-over scraps and bones.
Hyena Gates of Harar
The light is fading as dusk is setting in. The bustling streets of the daytime have relaxed to reveal the colourful facades lining the numerous alleyways. I continue towards one of five historic gates in the fortified old town. A buzz of energy suddenly echoes from around me. The call to prayer. This atmospheric hymn is projected from the 82 mosques within the one-kilometer squared radius of the old town’s walls. The melody creates an ambience for my thoughts as I pass a small gap placed purposely into the white-washed wall surrounding the city. “The hyena gates”. I imagine how many hyenas over the past several hundred years, have used this entrance into the city.
I stand outside the walls, adjusting my eyes to the darkness of the dimly lit surroundings. There’s a dirt road running away from the walls and on the corner is a simple brick building. The house of the Hyena Man. A man comes to the door and signals me to wait, I am in the right place. An old plane, perched leaning on its wing occupies the barren space across the dusty road.
Some more foreigners arrive, each looking as unsure and confused as myself. We nervously survey our surroundings. The hyena man comes out. Slices of meat in a large woven basket in his right hand. Putting the basket down, he turns to face away from the city’s walls and cries out. Keeping his eyes focused down the dirt road, he continues to call, a high-pitched wail he has adopted to attract these feared predators. Suddenly, some movement from behind makes us turn towards the old walls. It is a false alert. Just a few young school children returning home, hands in hands. Happily chatting away as they head down the dark dirt road to which we are awaiting a pack of hyenas to descend.
I have memories flash through my mind of a village I visited in Uganda, located inside a national park. I recall a woman telling me of the hardships they face since their village has become entrenched within a national park. The fear in the woman’s face as she tells of a neighbour who was stolen from his bed at night by a pack of hyenas. Gone in minutes. In other African nations, these predators are feared. Rightly, and sadly, so.
In Harar, the harmonious relationship between predator and prey was born partly out of fear, and partly out of poor sanitation hundreds of years ago. The residents left food scraps for the creatures in a bid to deter them from their livestock and the citizens of the ancient town. The ability of these creatures to dispose of the city’s organic waste, down to the bones, was noted. The ‘hyena gates’ were cut out of the white-washed walls to allow these creatures to clean up the city during the night. It was in the 1960’s that a farmer in Harar started to feed the Hyena to deter the hyenas away from his livestock. His decendents have since continued the tradition and others have joined. A symbiotic relationship between man and one of the most feared predators in Africa was born.
Hyena Man of Harar
The hyena man lets out another call. Some eerie minutes later, sharp eyes light up the darkness. I notice the pair of shining eyes, then another. Suddenly five, now six. The longer I look into the darkness the more pairs of shining eyes emerge. Like stars becoming visible in the night sky. There’s a pack of hyenas slowly creeping towards our group. The high pitched “giggles” becoming evident as they communicate. They circle the hyena man as he holds out a slice of meat on a stick. That’s when you see these fear-inducing predators in a way you never thought possible. One at a time they come forward to gently take the meat.
They jump on his back, they stand on hind legs, they take the meat from in his mouth. Then he ushers to the crowd. It’s our turn to feed these wild hyenas. The trust with these creatures is built on generations of acceptance and mutual benefits. But they are still wild. As my turn comes, I kneel down next to the Hyena Man and hold the meat-laden stick out in front of me. One of the hyena slowly approaches. His spotted fur and mohawk-lined back closer than ever before. His beady little eyes watching me, his seemingly oversized ears listening intently. He creeps up, his front legs towering over his smaller back legs creating the characteristic gait. Gently, the wild hyena takes the meat and dashes back into the darkness until only his beady eyes are evident, shining from the torchlight.
I take the most direct passage through the 13th century streets on route to my guesthouse, jumping as the wind howls through the alleys. My gentle encounter has not made the feeling of Hyenas wandering the dimly-lit streets any less eerie. Once again, I have experienced something that a few days ago I would never have believed was possible. For all the feared stories I had heard across Africa, one city has turned their fear into a relationship. One that benefits both the citizens of Harar and the predators that roam the lands. A symbiotic relationship between man and one of Africa’s most feared predators.
Written by: Emma Townsin
With a background in healthcare, Emma Townsin left her career “for a year or two” to explore the world. That was four and a half years ago. She still has not returned.
Emma has traveled, volunteered and worked among many different cultures and environments. She's met many inspiring people, developed a passion for culture and the environment, and hopes to share her experiences with people all over the world to create interest and acceptance of people, societies and nature. She now works between clinical dietetics and freelance writing, focusing on nutrition and travel articles.
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