Updated: Feb 1, 2021
It’s 11.30am and we’re waiting for Yusuf, a farmer from Harar, eastern Ethiopia. He was still sleeping, Solomon told me. Solomon is my translator for the day and we’re also with Facile, his childhood friend and our bajaj driver.
Suddenly, from the undergrowth, an elderly man appears. He’s got a stern face that’s naturally weathered but he doesn’t look particularly old. He has a slight hunch and is rather thin but not overly so. He looks like any other old man I’d seen around Harar. But Yusuf is far from ordinary.
Before we can talk, Yusuf has to pick his khat for the day. Most of what he grows on his farm now is khat, which is a legal stimulant in Ethiopia but has been banned in many other parts of the world, including the UK. "It will help you think more and help open your mind. It can make some people talk more or it can make some people calm. I want you to focus and it’ll help you with the interview. So when it takes effect, you can ask more and you can focus more. You chew it and swallow the juice. Then you wash it down with water."
Once Yusuf had picked his daily dose, we head back to the mango tree and sat in silence for a little while, but it wasn't an awkward kind of silence; we were passing water around, sharing the khat, getting comfortable and I was thinking.
Earlier that morning, Solomon and I had walked around the old walled city of Harar; a labyrinth of 368 tiny, colourful allies squeezed into just one kilometre square. I’m glad I didn’t go alone; my sense of direction is so bad, that I would have ended up walking round and round in circles until I'd just give up and end up sleeping on the streets.
Even though he had grown up there, I was still surprised by how easily Solomon navigated the tangle of tiny allies. It’s a fascinating place. With 110 mosques and even more shrines, it’s considered the fourth most important Islamic city in the world, with the city walls dating back to the 16th Century - there’s so much I could share about it, but perhaps I’ll save that for a different post.
What’s more curious about the walls, is that there are five small openings spread around the circumference. People can fit through if you bend over so it seemed strange to have them because then surely anyone could sneak in and out of the city? For a city built to protect itself from the Christian empire, it seemed like a huge design flaw. I asked Solomon and he informed me that they were in-fact hyena gates. He doesn’t know how long they have been there for, but records suggest that Spotted Hyenas have been present in Harar for over 500 years. But why? Known for being slinky scavengers that are like shadows in the night, they do not hold a very positive place in peoples’ imaginations.
Throughout history and across continents and cultures, hyenas have been depicted as feeble-minded delinquents, slinking through the dark, ready to steal from the kings and queens of the jungle at any given opportunity. These days, we have gotten our impressions of hyenas from movies such as The Lion King, where Shenzi, Banzai and Ed fumble their way through Scar's evil plans, drooling, laughing uncontrollably and just making every situation so much worse for themselves. However, the disgust and disdain towards these creatures go back to ancient folklore and they are often depicted in stories of witchcraft and 'sexual deviance'. Roosevelt described hyenas as a "singular mixture of abject cowardice and the utmost ferocity" and the ancient Roman author, Pliny the Elder, said that they can magically freeze other animals in place.
Back under the tree and Yusuf is telling me about hyenas in Harari folklore. "They made the extra gates for the hyenas. The hyenas eat jinni, shaytaan". Evil spirits. Jinni are believed to make people crazy and even eat them. "That's why there are so many crazy people in this town".
"They can come to your house, through doors and walls at night and they call your name once. They don’t do it twice. If you say yes, they have a hold on you which makes you follow them to a place far away, where they can eat you. That's why, when someone calls your name, you must wait for the second time or say 'oh', never 'yes'."
Jinni are invisible to humans. "Adam and Eve exist in the Quran. Jinni are creatures like us but god divided us. So we are the good people, hidden from shaytaan. They are evil, the worst people. Allah created shaytaan, no doubt. They breathe like us, the hyenas and the trees."
The only time they become visible to humans is if they call your name, but if you don't respond or say 'oh', they will vanish as quickly as they appeared. "Once or twice, I managed to see them. They called me, there were 4 of them. I started to follow them. They walk fast and they have human feet but it sounds like a horse. You don’t know what you’re doing but I followed them to the second mountain over there, maybe more than 7km. l somehow managed to light a cigarette. They’re afraid of light so they disappeared and that’s when I realised I was in the middle of nowhere." Once he realised he had been following the Jinni, he had to walk all the way back, in the night. That was his first experience. The second time, they happened on a group of people with torches and he suddenly came round again.
"They look exactly like a local person. Dressed traditionally, with a bag, like a local from the countryside. Jinni eyes are vertical. Ours are horizontal. Her legs are very thin - about the width of a thumb and the ankles are black."
However, when the hyenas see her, she cannot disappear; a power given to them by God. The hyenas are known to eat the jinni thereby keeping the city safe, which is why they created gates for the hyenas to freely come in and out under the cover of darkness. The hyenas were attracted to the city by rubbish and scraps of food left on the streets. Now, a lot of their food source is from
Solomon has known Yusuf for years. Along with Facile, our bajaj driver, he used to bunk off school and hang out on Yusuf's farm. The three of them were talking in Harari and Solomon would relay what they were saying back to me in English while I wrote it all down. Yusuf suddenly stood up and Solomon hurriedly told me to follow him. He shouted after us that Yusuf had seen some jinni bones on the farm and wanted to find them for me. The day before, Solomon and I spent the morning at a camel market and came across loads of camel bones. I mentioned that I had studied bones at university so he must have told Yusuf.
Yusuf glided though the farm, over the crops, round the cacti, through the undergrowth. I stumbled behind. He stopped to make sure I was still there and caught me trying to yank my trousers off some thorns. He then pointed at my ankles, which were all scratched and bleeding and I just grinned at him awkwardly; I didn't know how to tell him that this is just my constant state of existence but I think he understood.
It was only my third day and I'd gotten to the point when I realised this wasn't a normal holiday. Yusuf had led me to a graveyard. As we were walking along, I was processing what was happening. I had just spent the day sat under a tree, chewing a weird stimulant leaf, with three men, one of whom fed wild hyenas, and now I'm walking through a graveyard with this guy, looking for the bones of an evil spirit. After around half an hour of searching unsuccessfully, we headed back to our tree. He told Solomon he was upset he couldn't show me. This is something I'm going to think about for the rest of my life; it's always going to bother me that I didn't know what these things Yusuf thought are shaytaan bones were!
We sit back down and Solomon hands me some more khat leaves - I'm going to have to slow down because you have to drink water with it and at this point, I really need to pee again. There are only so many times I can pee behind some tiny crops on a farm with random people walking around.
Yusuf has been running the farm since he was 13, after his father died over 50 years ago. When his father was alive, the hyenas used to come and kill the cattle for food. Yusuf isn't sure what sparked the idea, but he decided to start feeding them to protect his livestock and his family since it is widely reported that hyenas used to also attack and kill people and children in Harar. Once Yusuf's father started feeding them, all of the attacks stopped. "As he kept feeding them, he got to know them better and they became friends".
However, when Yusuf was a child, around 7 years old, he was playing under a tree in the farm when a hyena approached. The hyena started relaxing and sat down but Yusuf was nervous. "I had a stick and tried to shoo him away but he wouldn't leave, so I hit him with the stick." Of course, as Yusuf was telling the story in Harari, I had no idea what was happening. I can feel the tension as he tells the story. I didn't understand but Solomon and Facile are listening, wide-eyed. Their hands have started gesticulating more and more as we reach the climax. They’re gesturing to their heads, and making painful expressions on their faces whilst their hands are wrapped around their scalps.
Yusuf and Facile won’t stop talking; it’s probably the khat. I’m just sat here, writing notes and mindlessly chewing khat while I stare into the trees, my mind whirring, thinking about anything and everything around me. The khat started off being really bitter and I was only really eating it to be polite. Now, it’s become almost habitual to put something in your mouth - like when you eat something for the sake of it whilst watching a film. It doesn’t seem so bitter after you get used to it. Even though I’d only had a few hours sleep and was sitting in the heat, listening to things I didn’t understand, I didn’t feel tired and I noticed I didn’t yawn once (normally I yawn quite a lot unless I’m actively doing something). I also felt very calm, but I’m not sure whether that was the countryside setting, under a mango tree, or the khat.
The story comes to an end and you can visibly see the tension leave Solomon and Facile's bodies. There's a moment's pause before Solomon begins translating again. "It became like a game, like a dog, but then the hyena swiped at me with his paw, throwing me to the ground. I was on the floor and the hyena had my head in his mouth. I was screaming for my mother but no one could hear me. I kept screaming for her. My head was bleeding and he was using both of his paws to keep me on the ground. Suddenly, a man who was working on the farm heard me and came running. He had a stick made of metal and hit him but the hyena wouldn't let go. I was bleeding more. My mother was walking from the bottom of the farm and saw this happen and came running. The man finally hit the hyena on the jaw and it ran away in pain. Because the hyena was hurt, it was bleeding. While I was at the hospital, my uncle came and followed the blood and it's the first time any of my family members have killed a hyena. If he could have wanted me to die, or eat me, he could have done it earlier before anyone could come. But he hurt me a lot. I'm not sure why he did it, I was just a child."
Growing up, Yusuf was never particularly fond of hyenas (understandably so), so when he came to inherit the farm, he continued feeding the hyenas just to keep the peace and protect his livestock. Yusuf eventually married and had a son, Abbas.
"I was growing and selling peanuts so sometimes we had no money. I wasn't able to buy meat for the hyenas anymore so stopped feeding them. That's when they started coming to the house. Children sleep separately and I was worried they were going to attack Abbas." Yusuf's family was saved by Mr Abdul Satar, a local butcher who knew what Yusuf was doing and decided to provide the meat to feed the hyenas for free." A man named Fikadu didn't like this because Abdul used to give him the free meat so he could sell it to other people for their pets. Fikadu decided to drive a wedge between Abdul and Yusuf so Yusuf couldn't get the free meat anymore. "I decided to keep selling all of my peanuts and using all of the money for the hyenas. I had a choice: feed my family or protect them from the hyenas. I decided to protect them".
The hyenas kept coming closer and closer to the house and even started digging a den. Frightened for the safety of his family, Yusuf tried scaring them off again. “I scared them away with a slingshot but they kept coming back. After a while realised they didn’t want to attack but they wanted my love. I started to feed them properly. Because of this, they became like family to me and the city of Harar.”
”Look, all the cows are here, there are no doors. Am I free sleeping with no doors in my house? Yes. They could have done something to me or the animals but they have not.“
Over time, Yusuf’s love for the hyenas has grown exponentially. “I love them very much; they’re like family. They have names: Chaltu (She’s more than anyone), Chalaa (he’s more than anyone), Deraltu (flower)...there are more than 70 of them. They all know me and I know them. I know the grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. I’ve known them all from babies and seen the family grow over 50 years. I love them without a doubt. I care about them more than myself, more than my family, so that’s the love I have for them. I love them I love them, I love everything about them.” They used to live in a bush outside of his house and Yusuf built them a roof so they could shelter from the sun and rain.
Eventually, word got out of Yusuf feeding the hyenas and people from all over the city come to see the nightly feeding. Soon, tourists came and local journalists interviewed him so he became a local celebrity. People from all over the area came to take photos, even brides in their wedding dresses! Eventually, he began earning money from the feeding and was finally able to support the hyenas properly.
Yusuf then told us a story. “Hyenas have special powers given to them by God. It is believed that this power is held in a hyena’s eyebrow. Others believe that keeping a hyena tooth will protect you from evil spirits. Politicians, generals and soldiers keep them in their pockets to keep them safe. They believe it will keep them safe from a bullet.”
One day, some foreign visitors came to look for the head of a hyena for this very reason. They sought out Yusuf due to his close relationship with the clan asked him to look for a dead hyena, and in return, they would give him 100,000 Birr (around £2,500 or $3,000). He agreed and searched for a week but was unable to find one so the group left.
“A few days later, they returned with a bag full of money. They told me I can buy a house, a car, I could live abroad, this money was mine. But they told me I had to kill one so I threw them out of my house. The neighbourhood heard about this and tried to convince me to do it. But how could I kill my own children?”
“The people of the neighbourhood decided they’d hunt one themselves so they could keep the money and I was so sure they would do it. That was the day I bought my first gun. If I saw anyone do anything to they Hyenas, I would shoot them.”
“The group searched outside of Harar and managed to hit a hyena with a car. They took the head. As they were heading back after the transaction, they were pulled over by a checkpoint. It’s illegal to carry that much cash in Ethiopia so they were imprisoned. The foreigners, however, got away because of corruption.”
"They wanted to change my love for the hyenas with dollars, but they’re my family. Hyenas should be respected. They’re creatures of the almighty. I don’t want to have or keep his bones, his head, his skin or anything. If I find one dead, I will bury it like a human. They’re my children.”
I started wondering about the future of humans and hyenas living together. Did Yusuf worry about people hunting hyenas for trophies and good luck charms again?
“You don’t know what humans are going to do but the local people have seen the love from the hyenas. The hyenas don’t attack us and they don’t attack the cows. Nowadays, people have the same mentality that I do towards the hyenas. Everyone knows why I refused and they agree with me. ”
Yusuf mentions that perhaps the people who went after the hyenas were blinded by the money. $3,000 is a lot of money for anyone and it would be more than some people in Ethiopia earn in a lifetime. It’s easy to see why that would be tempting.
Beyond hunting animals, populations around the world are growing rapidly, causing towns and cities to encroach of habitats, affecting innumerous species.
“Before, when you go to a bush to go to the toilet, you’d always see a hyena. Not anymore. Where all of these houses are, hyenas used to live. Before, they used to come without me calling them at around 4pm or 5pm. Now they come later and we have to call them. As the population grows, they are being pushed out further and further, so maybe they will come later and later.” Hopefully they don’t stop coming at all.
Not only are animals being pushed out due to habitat loss, growing populations lead to more human-animal conflicts, something we are seeing all over the world. More and more predators are using livestock as meal sources because prey numbers are dwindling and farmers resort to shooting the animals. I asked Yusuf’s opinion on whether he thought his model could be a possible solution to this around the globe.
“Definitely - humans are not good. But if you trust them, they become trustworthy. Let’s take the example of a thief; he will always find a way to steal. However, if you trust him and give him responsibility, he will be more trustworthy. If he gets something, there is no reason to steal or do wrong things. Animals are also like this: they do this because they are hunters and they cannot get food. If you give them food, why would they attack your animals? If you do it with a schedule, they will learn. Feed them near your animals and they will be friends with your animals. They definitely should live together instead of shooting. Give him the same time, he will be there all the time. Giving love can change things. If you give someone love, they will give love back.“
It was getting late in the day and Yusuf invited us to go with Turi, the farmhand, to see how the meat is prepared. Yusuf is old now and has passed on the preparation responsibility to Turi and the feeding on to his son, Abbas. Before we go, I ask if I could take a couple of quick portraits of him. He nodded gently and I asked him to stand in front of the cactus. We said goodbye, it was a pleasure to have sat with him and learned his stories from him. He said that once I finish my studies, I will get married (I finished my studies a long time ago but I look pretty young). I told him only if I find a boy good enough. Yusuf doesn’t laugh but he gave me a sly smile which felt like an achievement. “You will definitely marry a pilot - only the best for you”. He seemed sure. With that, he disappeared through the crops.
Turi is the farmhand who takes the cows out to graze in the morning. In the afternoon, he gets the camel meat form the market and prepares it, ready for the feeding in the night. Turi, Solomon, Facile and I squeezed into the bajaj (tuk tuk) and made our way to Turi's house where he showed us how he prepared the meat.
As the sun went down, we waited for the hyenas to arrive. They were late. As Yusuf had mentioned, they were coming later and later as the years went on. I'd been to a hyena feeding the night before with the second hyena man but this night was a lot more special. I now knew the story; I'd been able to understand the history and the relationship Yusuf's family had with these fascinating animals and I appreciated the tradition so much more. The love was tangible and I could hear Abbas call their names: "Chaltu! Chalaa! Deraltu!" It was now so much more than a tourist spectacle, it was the deep understanding between two species which now live side by side in harmony.
After the main feeding was over, the hyenas started coming into Turi's front yard, to eat the last scraps of bones that were left there. I wanted to take a photo of them in the complex with the house in the background so I rushed and plonked myself in the prime position, which happened to be on a pile of bones. As I sat on this pile, hunched over my camera like a gremlin, with sharp corners digging into my ankles, I had to stop myself for a second to appreciate the magnitude of what was happening.
I was in the presence of one of Africa's top predators, an animal which is capable of huge feats of strength and tenacity, a creature with one of the most powerful bite forces in the natural world, that can take down prey so much larger than them. I found hyenas to be dynamic and alluring, but what's secured them on my list of favourite animals is their ability to form the most compelling relationships with one another and the people of Harar. The deep-rooted love and trust between Yusuf's family and the hyena family was something out of a fairy tale and a story that the rest of the world could learn so much from.
A bit about hyenas
Even I, advocate of all underdogs and misunderstood animals (think sharks, octopus and squids), saw hyenas as sneaky, spineless, cowardly creatures. After I booked my flights to Ethiopia, I remembered hearing about people living alongside these bizarre animals somewhere. It wasn’t until I saw the animals up close did I realise just how captivating they were. So here are some quick fun facts about spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) to convert you to team hyena, and if you don't like them the tiniest bit more, I’ll eat my really manky flip flops.
1. They are the second biggest land predator in Africa, after lions
2. Despite their reputation for being scavangers, willing to eat even rancid flesh, they hunt over 50% of their meals and are capable of taking down large prey, like wilderbeest, which are four times their size. They're actually the most successful hunter in Africa and lions are more likely to scavenge hyena kills than vice versa.
3. They have enlarged forebrains, which is the region responsible for decision making
Hyenas are part of matriarchal societies, with groups reaching around 130 individuals and are led by a single dominant female. This makes hyenas the most "socially complex carnivores in the world" which requires a huge deal of intelligence.
4. People used to think that hyenas were hermaphrodites, but in fact, female hyenas just have a really elongated clitoris and no external vaginal opening. The mother hyena then has to squeeze a baby out of that tiny hole (casual). It is thought that this has evolved due to females being selected for their size and aggression. Scientists think that high testosterone levels during early development could lead to this bizarre adaptation of genetalia.
5. Every single female in a clan is higher ranking than every single male. So, the lowest ranking female will be higher up the ladder than the most important male. Females are also much larger reaching around 80kg, whilst the males grow to around 60kg.
6. Their weird posture actually makes them energetically efficient and more streamlined. They also have large nostrils, lungs and heart to allow efficient oxygen exchange, making them great endurance animals.
7. Hyenas have incredibly powerful jaws that can shatter bones. The strength to be able to crack bones has evolved in only 3 carnivore groups, with 2 of these now being extinct. Hyenas are the living third. They can even crack through giraffe leg bones.
8. Speaking of cracking bones, hyenas are able to digest almost all parts of an animal except hair, hooves and the keratin on horns. They're so efficient at digesting even bones, that only the inorganic materials of bones (e.g. calcium) are excreted. This is what makes hyena faeces white!
9. Despite appearances, they are closer related to cats than dogs. Hyenas are part of the suborder 'Feliformia' which means cat-like carnivores. This includes all cat species, mongooses and civets.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this rollercoaster of an experience as much as I did. It's hands down one of the weirdest, coolest and most heart-warming things I've ever done and I really hope that came across to you all.