At popular local show in a small Ethiopian village, a traveler unexpectedly finds herself performing the main act.
“We are here.”
An older Ethiopian man tapped me on the shoulder, rousing me from a restless nap. Our creaky bus, or more accurately, a 16-seat van with brightly painted decoration and loud, repetitive local music, slowed to a halt at the edge of town. I stooped, backpack in tow, to jump out and found myself at the central plaza of Harar, a small town in eastern Ethiopia. As the other passengers dispersed behind me, eager to get home to their families, I stretched, muscles and bones sore from the cramped and bumpy nine-hour ride.
The roundabout had smaller paths radiating outwards from the center, and curious locals hustled past, kicking up red dirt in the 90°F dry heat. I approached the nearest woman, hands full with a large sack of goods and a baby strapped on her back with colorful cloth, and asked, “Hyenas?” She nodded her head down one of the narrow alleyways, and I smiled in gratitude as I took that path.
As I passed tall, reddish-brown mud walls on both sides of the street, I reflected on how lucky I was to have gotten the timing of my arrival right. After all, the aforementioned hyenas were supposed to come out just after dark, and I could already hear the hum of cicadas in the trees and occasional stinging from mosquitos as the sun was starting to set. My excitement brought a bounce to my step as I emerged out of the narrow, curving street at the edge of town into a small opening.
A lone, middle-aged man spotted me and pointed down the road from where he was relaxing on the stoop of his home. “Wait there. They will come.” I picked up my pace, chuckling to myself about how easy it was for the locals to identify the reason foreigners came to a small village like Harar.
The first thing that came into view was the top of the heads of a handful of other tourists. A young local man in baggy pants and a loose T-shirt went from foreigner to foreigner, wordlessly collecting what appeared to be a small fee. The man next to me noticed my hesitation and leaned over: “It’s to pay for the leftover meat he gets at the local butcher’s shop.” I dug some Ethiopian birrs out of my pocket and handed the crumpled bills to him when he passed by, realizing that he was most likely the hyena whisperer himself.
At this point, it was nearly dark, and a low murmur was rumbling through the small group. Out of a nearby shop lit by a single lightbulb emerged a teenage boy—apparently the assistant—with a bucket of what I could instantly smell as raw meat that hadn’t been refrigerated in some time. He plopped the bucket down by the man in the middle of our semi-circle and backed up. The man peered inside, nodding his approval, then unfolded his arms and walked forward a few steps towards the edge of the town where dirt roads curved downwards into darkness.
Without warning, he emitted an eerily high-pitched series of wails—our group immediately fell into silence. Goosebumps lined my arms at the sound of the haunting howls. A few seconds later, he repeated them with higher and lower tones, arching his back to project his calls out farther into the dark, hands cupped around his mouth. The rest of us watched with anticipatory tension, nobody daring to move a muscle or laugh at the cacophony of sounds. My eyes darted left and right, squinting to try and make out any movement in the dark.
After an excruciatingly long minute or so, I heard someone whisper, with urgency and nervousness rolled into one syllable, “There!”
It took my eyes a few moments to pick out the shadow, but indeed, the silhouette of a loping figure was coming up the path towards us. The first word that popped into my mind was mangy; the hyena’s matted fur was a patchwork of brown, cream, and gray. His dark eyes barely registered the group of nervous onlookers quickly whipping out their cameras and trying to adjust the flashes as it drew near.
Nonplussed, it approached the man without any hesitation, sniffing at the slab of raw meat in his hand before wolfing it down a second later. I shook my head in disbelief at the man’s complete lack of fear—he had barely pulled his hand back in time and had been a centimeter away from losing a finger.
As he reached into the bucket for another slab, a second hyena appeared, slightly smaller than the first one but just as hungry and deliberate in its walk. It was obvious the man’s relationship with the hyenas went back several years as I noticed the second hyena similarly went straight towards him and cocked his head to one side, patiently waiting for the man to throw the meat on the ground before attacking it.
By now, a few locals were hanging around behind us watching the spectacle with amusement. Someone later mentioned to me that the feedings took place several times per week, and though the locals were used to the hyenas, it was the tourists’ reactions that were most amusing for them to watch.
The hyena whisperer turned towards our semi-circle and said something in Amharic, but no one reacted. I wasn’t the only one that didn’t understand or respond—most of the other tourists were also fascinated by the hyenas devouring their meat slabs, oddly domesticated by years of feedings by this man, but still maniacally savage at the same time.
The man caught my eye, and with a small smile, beckoned me over with one finger. I hesitated, looking around at the others, but their blank expressions were no help in deciphering what the man wanted with me.
The assistant walked up, took my hand, and pulled me towards the center as I warily eyed the two hyenas happily enjoying their dinner. The man handed me a wooden stick the approximate width and length of a glow stick and before I had time to ask what it was for, he gestured for me to get on my knees.
My brain went numb as I slowly lowered to the ground, still unsure of why I was obeying his commands and mentally measuring the distance between the two creatures and myself and my agility if I needed to run from them at that proximity.
The man took my hand holding the stick and gently placed one end into my mouth, and before I could react, he fished out a small piece of meat and hooked it onto the other end of the stick.
In that split second, I knew what was about to happen. My eyes shot upwards at the hyena whisperer, trying to send a frantic message of alarm, but he wasn’t looking at me.
The man whistled to the larger hyena, and in a fraction of a moment, I felt two heavy front paws land on the top of my back. I instinctively put out my hands on the ground to stabilize myself, and, now on all fours, I turned my head a fraction to the right when the hyena’s head stretched around me to snatch the piece of meat dangling just inches from my face.
The hot breath of the hyena hit my nostrils with a mixture of raw meat and dirt. I let out a gargled cry of surprise, since I still had the stick in my mouth.
As soon as I felt the weight of the hyena’s paws lift off my back, I flipped over, plopping down on the dirt, and realized I’d been holding my breath. The man pulled me up, and I dusted myself off, shakily making my way back to the semi-circle and extremely self-aware of how quickly my heart was beating. I barely registered the look of awe on the other tourists’ faces, and as I turned back around, a slow smile stretched across my face as I saw the hyena whisperer pull forwards his next volunteer.
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