The Hyena Man of Harar




While browsing through the BBC’s online news magazine the other day, I happened across the following article about the nuisance increasingly posed by hyenas in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.  Apparently, the spotted, scavenging and sometimes predatory beasties are crossing the city boundaries and venturing into the city’s night-time streets, just as foxes once did when they were colonising the urban spaces of London.  The difference between hyenas and foxes, however, is that the former have jaws powerful enough to splinter bones – and they aren’t terribly particular about what they bite hold of.


Actually, the article didn’t come as a big surprise to me.  I worked in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001 with the organisation Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and from time to time I heard scary tales about hapless drunkards in the capital city who, on their way home, had keeled over and passed out and then woken up later to find themselves minus a hand or a foot or even an arm or a leg.  (In the most extreme versions of these stories, they didn’t wake up at all because they’d become minus a head.)  At the time, though, I suspected these were urban myths, perhaps told as warnings against the evils of consuming copious amounts of beer, tej and arake and enjoying the company of saucy bar-girls in the drinking holes of Addis.  From the information in the BBC article, however, it seems that the hyenas are no longer an urban myth, if they ever were one.  They’re now presenting a real threat to Addis Ababa’s population of rough-sleeping beggars and homeless people (as well as, presumably, to its drunkards.)


Reading the BBC article made me remember one of my most interesting experiences in Ethiopia.  This happened when, in the company of some friends, I visited the city of Harar in the country’s east.  There we encountered the Hyena Man.


For my money, Harar is – or at least was, because I went there in 2001 and a lot can change in a dozen years – the pleasantest and most interesting city in Ethiopia, pleasant and interesting though some other Ethiopian cities are too.  Harar is the geographical centre for Ethiopia’s Muslim population and it’s ranked by many as the fourth holiest city in the Islamic world, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.  Indeed, the square mile of Harar’s old city – a labyrinth of alleys and passageways ringed by a medieval wall – is said to contain about a hundred mosques.  (I heard conflicting figures about the number of mosques there and it seemed that nobody had ever managed to do a final, authoritative count of them all.)  An extensive modern district has sprung up on the western side of the old walled city but, when I visited, there wasn’t much standing on its eastern side.  When you walked along the outside of the eastern section of the wall, there were places where you had unobstructed views across fields of sorghum.


Harar has several good markets and museums and inside the old city it boasts a couple of historical landmarks.  These include an ornate, rather oriental-looking mansion that was allegedly inhabited by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud when he lived in Ethiopia during the 1880s – the trades by which Rimbaud supported himself there included gun-running, coffee and photography – and another, now very dilapidated house that was allegedly inhabited by the young Ras Tefari, later to become Emperor Haile Selassie.  (I write ‘allegedly’ because the claims about who lived in each house have been disputed.)


Despite its religious significance, I got the impression that the city was, paradoxically, quite the place for living things up.  It was well endowed with pubs and restaurants and there was even a brewery on the city’s edge, responsible for producing a lager called Harar and a stout called Hakim.  Mind you, when I returned to Ethiopia in 2009, I didn’t see its wares on sale in any of the bars and off-licences, which suggests the brewery may be no more now.


In 2001, however, the city’s most unusual attraction was the Hyena Man, an eccentric – in the Bradt Guidebook to Ethiopia, author Philip Briggs described him as a ‘nutter’ – who after dark each evening ventured out to Harar’s eastern fringes, summoned the hyenas from the neighbouring countryside and hand-fed them pieces of meat, not caring if his fingers got close to their toothy and powerful jaws.  Over the years, these nocturnal feeding sessions had become a popular tourist draw.


When I first made inquiries in Harar about where and when to see the Hyena Man at work, I was puzzled by the conflicting accounts I got about him.  The Hyena Man photographed in the tourist brochures was an old, decrepit-looking fellow.  However, when I was in Rimbaud’s House – or as the local street kids call it, Rambo’s House – there were several local paintings on display, including one that depicted the Hyena Man.  The young dreadlocked guy in the painting was definitely not the pension-age guy in the tourist-brochure photos.  I could only surmise that once upon a time, like Santa Claus, there’d been one original Hyena Man.  Nowadays, just as the forces of commerce have necessitated the existence of lots of Santa Clauses, in department stores and elsewhere, so the Harar tourist industry has encouraged than one person to play the role of Hyena Man.


We finally got instructions about where to see a (if not the) Hyena Man and one evening, as the sun sank behind the western side of the old city, we headed along a series of tracks and through a warren of rickety wooden houses on Harar’s easternmost edge.  At a spot where the last houses gave way to fields, we found the young dreadlocked Hyena Man who’d featured in the painting in Rimbaud’s House.  He had an assistant with him, who was busy cutting up joints of meat with long, lethal-looking knives.  Around the site, meanwhile, huddled a crowd of onlookers.  Also present were several big four-wheel-drive vehicles that, presumably had ferried groups of Western tourists along from their hotels.  (In Harar you can book holiday packages whose itineraries include an expedition to see the Hyena Man.)  Thanks to the headlights shining from those vehicles, hyenas could be seen slinking in from the darkness that shrouded the fields.  Their eyes glinted eerily in the light before their bodies became visible as anything other than black silhouettes.


I’d seen hyenas from a distance before and assumed they were little more than big, wild dogs.  What surprised me seeing them up-close while the Hyena Man fed them was how un-canine they looked.  They seemed more like bears – rather skinny bears, admittedly, but strangely ursine nonetheless.  While they were out in the darkness, and as they emerged into view in the vehicle headlights, they emitted yowling sounds that were so eerie they defy onomatopoeic transcription.


The scene was not high on drama, although the audible crunching of bones as the hyenas chomped on the meat was memorable, as was a moment when the Hyena Man held a fragment of meat in his mouth and a hyena came and bit the other end of it.  (Looking at the pictures that appeared when I typed ‘Hyena Man of Harar’ into Google Images recently, I noticed several photographs of people who were clearly Western tourists performing the same meat-in-mouth feat with hyenas at the feeding site.  I hope the insurance in their holiday-package contracts covered them for getting their faces bitten off.)


We had arrived late during the Hyena Man’s performance, so that it finished about 15 minutes later.  After that, the Hyena Man and his assistant went around the crowd of spectators collecting payment.  They demanded the full viewing fee from my friends and I, although we’d seen only part of their show.  A young Englishman in our group took umbrage at this and insisted on arguing with them until they lowered the fee.  I have nothing but admiration for the English sense of fair play that will make a young man dig in his heels, stand up for his rights and argue the toss with a pair of guys who are carrying an alarming array of long, sharp meat-cutting knives.


Unfortunately my camera equipment that night was primitive and non-digital and the photographs I took of the Hyena Man and his hyenas were poor in quality.  So here is a picture of a Hyena Man (not the guy whom I saw) I’ve filched from the Lonely Planet website.  Well, over the years, I’ve spent a fortune on the products of Lonely Planet’s publishing empire, so it’s about time I took something back from them.