“Do you want to feed hyenas with me? We are not using hands, but our mouths!”
I follow Abbas Yusuf in silence and it feels like turning back the hands of time, back to centuries ago. Every day, at sunset, the young man crosses the walls of the city of Harar and feeds a clan of hyenas with raw meat, directly from his mouth.
Here everyone knows Abbas, the “keeper of the hyenas”. He is in his early twenties and inherited this prestigious task from his father, who held it for over 40 years.
In Harar, Ethiopia, this tradition has been handed down from generation to generation for over 400 years. The friendship between humans and hyenas is a matter of great importance and must be carefully safeguarded.
Lately, the ritual has become a tourist attraction and Abbas enjoys inviting tourists to mouth-feed the beasts. Accustomed to humans, they approach fearlessly, open their jaws and gently snatch away the morsel prepared for them.
I’m a little afraid to try, but I won’t leave here without feeding a hyena myself. In the past, I’ve had the opportunity to meet hyenas much less tame than these, in Botswana. In their eyes, I read the clear intention to attack me but I push away memories and I volunteer.
They approach in groups, but only the dominant hyena feeds. The others wait a few steps back, respectfully. The clan leader opens his mouth a few centimeters from mine, his breath gently hits my face and understands the intimacy of this ancient practice.
Harar is such a historical city, the fourth in importance in the Muslim world. Due to its strategic position, Harar has been a crucial trade crossroad for centuries and still has a populations of 250,000 inhabitants. With its 82 mosques, six gateways and picturesque colorful labyrinthine alleys, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also renowned for its coffee production, Harar was chosen by poet Rimbaud as a place to spend the last years of his life.
After 10pm, the city gates are opened and the hyenas are allowed to enter. Citizens are aware of it and no one is afraid. Their work is indeed much appreciated, since hyenas clean up the streets of any food waste left on the ground during the day. The city would be much dirtier without them. No accidents have ever occurred and no human has ever been attacked. Harar will remain in my memory as the magical place where anything is possible. Even mouth-feeding hyenas.
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