The first sign of their arrival is the brilliant, luminous green orbs that beam back at you in the dead of night. Blinking and darting in the darkness, they come steadily closer in the feint light of a hand torch. At first, their steps are tentative, nervous even. But as the fetid smell of raw meat fills the night-time breeze they grow in confidence – and numbers. Holding a woven basket containing strips of sinew from the local butcher, the wide-eyed man sitting before us calls to them in a high pitched tone. He falls into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Consumed in a momentary state of hysteria, he calls again: ‘Hyeeeeeena!’
One-by-one they approach with care, retreating into the safety of the shadows at the slightest movement or noise. Hunger drives them back into the dim light and they cautiously advance with the odd, peculiar gait of a quadruped whose front legs are twice as long as their hind pair. Feral tufts of hair bristling down his strong arched back, the dominant male of the group creeps within striking distance and sits down patiently in the dust. He licks his lips in anticipation like a dog waiting to be given a bone. Composing himself from his momentary bout of hysteria the Hyena Man casually reclines in a gesture of submission. Keeping eye contact to a minimum, he holds up a strip of meat draped over a short stick. The beast inches closer. Meanwhile, the youngsters yelp and snap at each other in the shadows behind as they vie for their turn to feed. It is difficult to be sure, but I could count nine of them in total.
The air is charged, almost reverential, as we stand in awe of this powerful predator that has travelled more than 50kms through the hot sands and scrub of the lowlands just to be here. The five of us (who have paid to watch) are transfixed by the spectacle as human and hyena become locked in a slow dance of trust where a wrong move could mean a painful ending… for the Hyena Man that is. Suddenly, the muscular haunches of the beast tense up and with a forceful thrust of its large pockmarked neck, he lunges for the meat with jaws wide open. The morsel is snapped up and gulped down in a split second.
The Hyena Man beckons me to sit down next to him. I can feel the beast sizing me up as I walk over and tentatively crouch down. Hyena Man gives me a stick and instructs me to put it in my mouth – which I do – with some reticence. He then pulls out a long strip of meat from the basket and carefully wraps it around the other end. I realise that I’m now inches away from a collision course with a ravenous hyena. The Hyena Man pulls back and in the same moment, the hyena lunges straight towards my face with gaping jaw. Rows of large sharp incisors flash in the light of my head torch before snapping shut with a rush of air. I flinch. The stick breaks. The flesh falls to the ground. The smell of halitosis and raw meat fills my nostrils as I take a deep life-affirming breath.
In a hushed voice, the Hyena Man reassures me with the words chigger yellum (no problem), as he prepares a new stick for the showtime feed. In a moment of self-deception, I pretend to think that I’m just feeding a very, very big dog in a futile attempt to stem the rush of adrenalin that has now exploded into my bloodstream. I clasp the stick with my own miniature (by comparison) incisors and hold it aloft, presenting the meat to the beast with eyes wide open, determined not to let the hyena smell my fear. He lunges again, this time with deadly accuracy and snatches the meat cleanly off the stick with the same rush of air and whiff of halitosis. Relieved and unscathed, I return to the shadows again as the Hyena Man throws the remaining scraps of flesh over his shoulder for the youngsters to fight over. Settling her head onto her two outstretched paws, the mother of the pack yawns a big sardonic yawn; as if to give one final lasting reminder of what damage those jaws can do. The youngsters – buoyed by their first taste of flesh of the night – roll around in a play of rough-and-tumble familial affection. As we leave, they settle down for a nap. In a few hours, they will enter the city to help out with the municipal duties of waste management. I touch my nose just to check that it is still there.
Hyena Man tells me that the nightly ritual of feeding the hyenas outside the walls of the old Islamic city of Harar has been going on for more than twenty years. Every year, the pack are treated to a lavish feast of traditional Ethiopian food to honour the special symbiotic relationship that hyena and human have developed over the last two decades. ‘Humans and hyena are one family… but only in Harar’, he states as we accelerate up the narrow street towards one of the five gates to the Old City, Assum Gate, in his 1960’s vintage Peugeot 404 taxi (affectionately referred to as the ‘blue donkey’). ‘If the humans ever leave Harar’, he adds hitting the brakes, ‘it will be the hyenas who will inherit the city.’ I get out and head to the nearest Buna Bet (coffee house) for a drop of spicy mocha-flavoured Harar coffee to contemplate my own mortality in the face of such a formidable animal, and the Hyena Man’s words.
And you know what? I believe him.