Destination Wednesday: Harar Hyena Hegira

Hyena 3
All photos Ericka Hamburg.

By Ericka Hamburg

Is there a conclave of bickering witches under our window? Besides footsteps and traffic, I hear laughing, cackling, whooping.

I’m tired from our road trip, but too agitated and jumpy to sleep. Draped in my frumpy nightshirt, I gingerly descend the precipitous stairs from our loft room. I step through massive wooden doors into a private courtyard, dark and gleaming under a star-filled Ethiopian sky. The din has ceased for now.

Babboons
Baboons on the tracks in Awash National Park.

Our blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tour of Ethiopia is winding down. Friend Hannah and I have ping-ponged by plane, bus and boat from festival to spectacle, from heritage site to natural wonder — a compact cultural immersion fueled by coffee, pizza, snapshots, and souvenirs.

harar
The ancient, narrow, enchanting streets of Harar.

And now we’ve blown the polluted, scaffolded chaos of Addis Ababa, and, aided by driver Yusman and guide Danny, traveled almost 400 miles to Harar.

A rise in elevation brings sweet air, quiet lakes, and church-topped mountains. Livestock herds trot past roadside settlements. Passing through Awash National Park, we parallel the currently abandoned Ethio-Djibouti rail tracks, and pause to watch a troop of frisky gelada baboons.

Harar’s Old Town, or Jugol, dates from the 16th century. With more than 80 mosques and shrines, it links Christian Ethiopia with the Muslim and Arab world. Five entry gates, each unique in design, anchor its curving fortress-like walls.

Culturally rich, economically fragile, Harar has always been a caravan city, both holy and pragmatic. Markets fill its maze of passageways with provisions: mattresses, plasticwear, breads, shredded camel carcasses, smuggled cellphones.

There’s a robust commerce in qat, the obsessively chewed, leafy narcotic herb. Its sheathed green bundles, transported by truck and pack animals, are traded with animated fervor.

Seeing Harar was Hannah’s idea; I’m here for the hyenas.

We’re lodged in a traditional Harari guesthouse. Its tall, whitewashed, interconnected rooms are high on aesthetics and low on soundproofing. Despite a restless, noisy night, after breakfast we rouse ourselves for a full day of touring all things Harari, including a much-needed visit to the excellent coffee roasters.

Qat
Activity in the qat marketplace.

In the evening, just when sleep calls, we instead pile into the back seat of Yusman’s car, and wend through a network of alleys to just outside the Jugol walls, where a line of cars face an open compound.

Abbas Mumey stands, his tall slim frame theatrically illuminated by the car lights, and turns towards the surrounding rocky terrain, beckoning softly, “… Koti, Jalla, Botay..” After some minutes, pairs of green orbs catch the headlights’ glow, and actual wild hyenas emerge from the hinterland.

Abbas reaches into a black metal pot for shreds of meat, stabs them with sticks to hold aloft. Handsome hyena Willi approaches first; circling, then lunging, to take the meat into his jaws.

More hyenas appear – maybe there’s twelve. Abbas, like his father Yusef, knows the whole clan, and shoves the greedier ones to give the shyer ones some food. As they yip, snap, chatter and snarl, I recognize the noise from under our window.

Though in decline and demonized throughout much of Africa, wild hyenas loom large in Harari folklore as a bridge to, and protection from, the unseen spirit world. At night, they emerge from dens in the bush, travel in packs to forage at the local dump, or compete with street dogs inside city walls.

Hyena 2Tourists pay to see them fed at several sites, and while seems dangerous to have wild animals literally at arm’s reach away, lunging for raw meat held by an arm that is essentially more raw meat, it’s very much a risk worth taking.. Despite years of this ritual, their wildness and social structure seem more or less intact.

Now it’s my turn. I’m in the spotlight, surrounded by circling and darting hyenas. As fast as Abbas hands me a meat stick, it’s snarfed from my grasp. And again. Some move close in, some hang back. Like Abbas, I try to get food to each of them, but it’s different than tossing seed to pigeons.

Hyena 1I smell their breath, note their wounds, count their spots.

Other visitors take their turn. As it winds down, Danny and Yusman usher us towards the car.

I’m thinking, how can I do this again? I’m entrigued by these slope-backed dog-ish, cat-ish critters. Could I maybe hang with them; run through town, make a ruckus, purge some bad spirits?

That is, if I’ve had enough sleep.

Ericka Hamburg is a New York-based writer, photographer, and artist.

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