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Published: February 4th 2014
3 November, 2012
Seven of us have decided to head east to Harar, flying from Addis to Dire Dawa and then taking a taxi to the bus stop where we got on a minibus for the final leg. We'll catch up with the truck in a few days. It was during the bus journey that the local men on board introduced us to chat; a flowering plant whose leaves are chewed to obtain a mild stimulant effect. They offered us each a couple leaves but for someone like me who has never smoked or taken drugs, I really wasn't interested in chewing some leaves. I did try it but the bitterness was off-putting, as was the hard, leaf-like texture (funny that) and I soon spat them out. A few chewed them for longer but a much larger amount of leaves would have to be chewed over a longer period of time for any effect to occur.
Gavin had an English friend in town and we had arranged to meet her and her local friends. Our bus driver had different ideas, wanting us to go to a hotel of his choice with tour guides of his choice. So after a
bit of hassle and arguing, we were eventually allowed off the bus where we wanted to get off and made our way to a café to wait for our crew, much to the disgust of the other men. From there we made our way to a hotel just outside the old city walls with a view over the rooftops. A small market below made for great people watching as children darted amongst donkeys and carts, elderly men and women conducted business and cars, tuk tuks and buses hurtled along the road.
At dusk we set out for the nightly entertainment: hyena feeding. Yup. Wild Spotted hyenas. There are two versions of how it came about; one being that a farmer started feeding them to avoid having his livestock killed while the other has to do with a porridge that they feed them once a year. If the porridge is eaten then it will be a prosperous year, otherwise people gather to pray and ward off the evil. Either way, it has been passed down from father to son ever since and there are now two gates with Hyena Men at them. And we would visit both over our two
Entering the old walled city, we had torches to help light our way but felt more confident using the moonlight and each other if we stumbled. The streets were mostly empty even at this early time, though a few cafés had patrons, the smell of food wafting towards us and the ever present cigarette smell. With the uneven path it was hard to lift your eyes from the ground and we talked quietly amongst ourselves, not really sure what to expect from the evening but excited all the same.
We came upon a touristy crowd, lit by the lights from a 4x4 and saw a man with a basket feeding a hyena with a strip of meat on a stick. Other hyenas lingered at a distance so there was five or six in total. Edging our way around, we watched as a hyena would come in and take the meat before running off and another hyena would tentatively come forward for his piece. All seemed quite skittish with some content to stay in the shadows. I hadn't really thought about it but I guess I assumed they would be much bolder, able to cause more damage
to us (unarmed) than we could to them.
Having waited somewhat patiently, it was finally our group's turn to feed them. Maria went first and was told to crouch down. She was handed a stick and a piece of meat was hung on it, all the while a hyena was already edging forward for it. Again, it was one of those surreal moments. I was going to feed a hyena! When it was my turn, the first thing I noticed was the smell of the meat. The second thing I noticed was the length of my stick. It was short. But I needn't have worried. The hyena that took the meat did so almost gently, not dissimilar to my family's dog taking a piece of chicken. His breath was much, much worse though.
Once we'd all had a turn, we thanked the Hyena Man and took our leave, heading to a restaurant for dinner. The electricity was out so it was a romantic dinner by moon and candlelight with somewhat cold drinks and good food.
Today was spent wandering with our guide before another evening with the hyenas. A UNESCO World Heritage
Site, Harar's old town walls were built between the 13th and 16th century and has approximately 99 mosques (various websites give numbers between 82 and 110) as well as 102 shrines within, making it the fourth most holy city of Islam. Alleyways and streets are immeasurable with some as narrow as to require single file and no camera bags jutting out!
It was an informative day but very long and I was more interested in playing with the kids. I know living there they'd know their way back (or they'd be spotted by someone who knew them and sent back!) but they followed us for such a distance! Older siblings carried younger ones on their hip or back and they took turns being picked up by us and twirled around, squealing and laughing. Eventually though, we had to try and turn them around and send them home. We failed, sign language proving to be an ineffective tool. Turns out if you're a village elder, all you have to do is yell two or three words and the children scattered. He even tried to apologise to us for their behavior and was pleased when we said they'd been no trouble
We left through one gate and reentered through another, also seeing where the hyena enter at night, helping keep the town clean by eating any scraps. No wonder the numbers at feeding time vary. As well as hunting for themselves, they can clean up in the city and use the Hyena men as backup. There were also a lot of men lounging around in dazed states, plastic bags stuffed with leaves within reach. A long procession of donkeys carrying firewood passed us and people were friendly and open to chatting. They had some beautiful craft work and yet again I found myself in a scarf shop though I didn't buy any. I did buy a beautiful antique silver ring in one of the hardest bargaining deals I've had to endure. It depended on other people also making purchases which wasn't very fair but at least together we could work as a team.
The hyena feeding this evening was much better in a lot of ways. We got there early and could hear the man calling the hyenas. Some are regular visitors and given names. It was dark by the time he arrived and there was only
a tuk tuk to light the area. A small handful of tourists had arrived and left, probably heading for the other gate where things were already under way. We sat and waited. Sure enough, shadows started moving and three hyenas appeared. A young boy threw meat to them which they came in to retrieve before backing off. They disappeared into the dark as the Hyena man made his way towards us but once he was set up, they came closer.
This time we were invited to put the stick in our mouths, meaning we would be extremely close to the hyena. For some reason I didn't do it! Argh. The man would also hold the stick over our shoulder so I was eye to eye with the animal. Who would've thought this was possible?? As the last person to feed them, I was given the basket which the hyena stuck his head in, checking for any last scraps before obviously telling the others there was nothing left and they all started moving away. It was an evening to remember. Tomorrow, we'll fly to Bahia Dar to meet the truck and the rest of the gang.
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