A few days after we got home from Ethiopia, I stumbled across an article about hyenas' incredible digestive systems. Turns out, whatever they power through with their legendary jaws, they can digest. Except human hair. Keratin's a hell of a thing.
It made me sit up and take notice because my face and my undigestible hair had been so close to a hyena's jaws so very recently.
The hyena men of Harar are no secret. They're mentioned in the guidebooks and the guides who work in town will unfailingly tell you about them and are happy to arrange a nighttime excursion for your to see them. It seems inevitable that, as soon as Ethiopia becomes a more prominent travel destination, the hyena men are going to be facing pretty major crowds coming to watch them do their nightly feedings.
Hyenas and the people of Harar aren't just proximate to each other - they share space. It's been that way forever, and it remains the same today. We were woken a couple of times in the night by "laughing" - and peoples' dogs barking in response to the hyenas' presence - only to go out on our balcony and see them strolling around the empty main road and market spaces below.
The closeness between these predators - the second largest, after lions, of Africa's extravagant collection of fauna - and people has been uneasy, to say the least. Living under the threat of valuable livestock being snatched away is one thing; the possibility of family members being killed is pretty much the definition of terror.
To sate the hyenas' hunger and reduce the loss of blood and treasure, some brave soul decided to go out into the night and bring them meat. It worked well enough that it's still a tradition.
In the swirl of myth and legend and actual history, the timeframe beginning of the hyena-feeding tradition is hazy. Some accounts say it started long ago, some say it really just got going in the more recent past - the '70s or so - with the "Hyena Man," who still feeds them today. Another hyena man, younger, now also feeds them on a nightly basis.
We ended up being taken to the younger hyena man, who himself has apprentices who start the feeding, a little like an opening band playing a few songs before the main act comes on, and with about the same differences in talent and stagecraft.
I hadn't really been frightened by the thought of the hyenas, despite all of the facts about them that should inspire a healthy dose of caution, such as the reason they were being fed in the first place. But once we got out of the bajaj, and saw a pair of them, skittering fast in our direction while fighting over a scrap of meat, the old survival drive kicked in. Had there been a tree nearby, I would have been up it.
In the harsh glare of a 4x4's headlights, more and more hyenas came out of the shadows. They circled around the apprentice doing the feeding, daring to come close and then loping away and noisily fighting over their spoils. When the hyena man himself came out, it was time for a little audience participation.
This was one of the things that I had been most eagerly waiting for, of all the things I hoped to do and see in Ethiopia. I knew that if I didn't peel myself off my husband and get out there, I was going to regret it for the rest of my life, so peel I did.
The hyena man nodded at me and I walked out into the light, toward where he was kneeling. I knelt down next to him and when he held out the stick he was using to feed the hyenas, I attempted to take it with my hand. He clucked at me, shook his head, snapped the stick in half and gestured for me to take it in my teeth. Oh, OK. Not what I had planned, but this was not a situation in which I wanted to express distrust for the expert. In my teeth it went, and the hyena man draped a shred of meat over the end of the stick.
Maybe being a dog lover helped, or maybe it was sitting next to someone who deals with these creatures every night, but a sense of calm washed over me as a sizeable hyena gingerly came toward me and plucked the meat off the stick with his teeth - almost delicately. But the realization of what was happening - that I had hyenas in front of me, beside me, behind me - was still enough to quicken my pulse.
The hyena man put more meat on the stick and again a hyena came toward me, this time grabbing a bit of the stick, enough that I had to bite down to keep hold of it. A few rounds of feeding later, the hyena man put an arm around my shoulder, holding out a piece of meat so that the hyenas would essentially bodycheck me. They were only too happy to oblige and I had the privilege of getting firsthand knowledge of the texture of hyena fur.
You tend to lose track of time when hungry, large predators are flying at you, so I don't know how long I was out there. The hyena man didn't rush me off. He put a dollar on the stick as a joke. He had me hold a basket with a few scraps of meat at the bottom, into which a hyena stuck its whole head. He made it feel like the most natural thing in the world, but I couldn't tamp down the thrill I was feeling at the same time.
By the time we were done, our bajaj driver had left, so we set off on foot, walking through the dark toward the modest lights of Harar, fueled entirely by adrenaline. The stars were a riot overhead. Beautifully fragrant incense smoke wafted from unattended braziers. People gathered for the food and music and conversation that defines Friday night across the globe. To walk through that environment, after feeding hyenas from a stick in your mouth, is, for complete lack of an otherwise fitting word, magic. And I promise you, if you find yourself in the same situation, the fact that a hyena could pretty much eat you whole won't even come to mind.