Harar is an ancient walled city, some say as old as Ethiopia itself. The most important trading center on the horn of Africa until the mid-nineteenth century, Harar is a distinctly Muslim city in a country known for its Christianity, which in and of itself makes it worth the trip. Wandering the streets felt a little like wandering through North Africa not Ethiopia. Architecturally similar to traditional swahili homes like we saw in Lamu, the homes are brightly painted with a specific blue indicating the owner has gone to the hajj. Surrounded by a 5m wall, the city feels crossed between old and new (spitting camels and all), lacking the traditional charm of Lamu, but maintaining the mystic of a walled city.
Today, Harar is famous for two things: chat and hyenas. While we’ll save chat for another day, you might be curious to know about the hyenas. About 35 years ago, the region of Harar experienced a great famine. Looking to end the famine, local men began feeding hyenas outside the city walls at night. This is apparently based in an old ritual, but trust me it was a little weird.
Sloshing through the rain outside the city gates, the guide lead me around a dark corner to a boy standing with an umbrella. Holding a basket of meat, the boy called to his father who came through the house door with a plastic sheet. Setting everything down, the man began calling out to the hyenas in Harari. At least a dozen spotted hyenas, who lurked nearby, were suddenly alert and approached the man. Feeding them meat dangled on a small stick, the man commanded their attention, and truly it looked as though they were listening to him.
Of course, the ritual is a little touristy now, and Daniel, the hyena man motioned for me to come over and join him. Hesitant to get that close to hyenas, I protested. Encouraging me to join the hyena man, our guide told me they never attack. That’s comforting considering there are several hungry hyenas a few inches from my hand that oh yea, has meat in it. “Just like dogs,” the hyena man told me. Right. Screwing up my courage, I knelt next to the hyena man, less than 6 inches from the face of a very pregnant female hyena. Handing me a stick with meat, the hyena man encouraged me to feed them. Sticking my hand out, and yes I closed my eyes, I fed the hyenas. No limbs were lost, and seeing that I was still scared, but slightly calmer, the hyena man put a stick in his mouth. Yes, he fed the hyenas from his mouth. Again he pushed me to do the same, but sometimes there’s a line between adventurous and stupid, and feeding hyenas from my mouth is in my mind far beyond stupid. Pressuring me by saying “all the other tourists” do it, I laughed at him and stood resolute in my refusal. Soon enough the meat ran low and the hyena man had me tip the meat basket out so the hyenas could get whatever was left.
Leaving the scene, I could hardly process the feeding. The entire time the man was calling out to the hyenas, and although I didn’t understand the words, it seemed as though the hyenas did. It was exactly what others had told me it would be- a bit bizarre.
But where you may ask was my darling, protective husband during this experience? Danny unfortunately had to miss the whole thing as he was stuck in bed dealing with some nasty food poisoning. Montezuma might be vengeful, but he’s nothing like King Lalibela’s revenge. Let me tell you how fun the bus ride back to Addis was the next day…..