Clank! That was the sound of Africa’s second strongest bite in close contact with my ear. For a quick moment, it actually crossed my mind the possibility of losing it.
Ethiopia is an amazing country and after two weeks I discovered a place of ancient history, beautiful and friendly people, good food and amazing scenery.
During my travel to Ethiopia, I got to visit Harar, a sacred Muslim city said to be the fourth holiest city of Islam. Yes, I was feeding wild hyenas in Ethiopia – East Africa.
Harar is situated on a hill of the Ethiopian plateau eastern extension about 500 kilometers from Addis Ababa. Apart from its historical spirituality related heritage, Harar is famous in Ethiopia for its hyenas’ feeding rituals.
Hyenas in Ethiopia – The ritual
“During the night, among Harar’s 82 mosques and 102 shrines inside the walled city, we can listen to the creeping sound of the hyenas laughing, howling, and running up and down the tiny streets.”
Legend says that spirits, called djinns, live in the nearby mountains. The wild hyenas come down to feed themselves in the city. It is believed that while they are fed by humans, they somehow lose interest in children. If by chance one day the hyenas don’t come down, something bad will happen, the local hyena feeder told me. For a close encounter with these wild beasts, you have to come to Harar.
Local superstition reports that these hyenas exorcise people from bad spirits. So Ethiopians from around the region come to perform this ceremony. The mysticism of the hyenas is also somehow merged with the mysticism of wolves, as being night creatures. In Amharic language, the word for hyena djibb, derives from the Arabic word dhib, meaning wolf.
Right after sunset, a group of initiated men – the hyenas’ whisperers – call the animals to be fed. Foreign visitors can also join, paying for the meat and the whisperer’s friendliness.
Soon, a dozen hungry, curious and suspiciously scared hyenas start to come close to the people near the hyena feeder. Hyenas are very interesting animals, and, locally associated with spirits, they do seem to be under some kind of spell.
The Hyena Whisperer will give you a wooden skewer loaded with meat to hold between your teeth, from which the hyena will come to feed. Unexpectedly he positions another meat skewer close to your ear. After the massive hyena fearlessly comes to eat, literally inches from your ear – you can feel its warm breath, smell the intense animal scent and hear it chomping loud while it devours the meat.
Although this practice of feeding hyenas has been done for a couple of centuries, it has been only since the 50’s that Harar’s population “institutionalized” this practice, and several people from around the city are actually funding this intriguing yet remarkable practice.
NOTE: Did you know that humans have a 54kg / 120lb bite pressure, domestic dogs have a 145kg / 320lb, lions have a 272kg / 600lb, white sharks have a 281kg / 620lb and hyenas have a 453kg / 1000lb powerful bite. That’s incredible.