Every night for six generations a family in Harar, in eastern Ethiopia, has fed the hyenas that scavenge the city's streets and rubbish dumps. The family started offering the hyenas scraps of meat for spiritual reasons and as a way of discouraging attacks in times of drought, but when tourists started turning up at feeding time they realised it was good business too.
I was very keen to see the "hyena man" in action but it took me three attempts. On the first night I discovered the feeding site had been moved from its traditional location by the city walls so I needed to hire a guide and/or transport to find it. Trouble was, every bajaj driver (a bajaj is a motorised rickshaw, called a tutuk in Asia) quoted me an exorbitant fare. I had better luck the second night but by then the hyenas weren't interested in free handouts because two feast days in quick succession meant they'd been gorging themselves on offal from slaughtered sheep and goats. By the third night I'd learnt the location and the hyenas were hungry. It was about half an hour's walk outside the city on the edge of a pungent rubbish dump. I soon found the hyena man - I just followed my nose, plus I could hear him calling his furry friends - and the hyenas soon found him.
The current hyena man (real name Abbas) knows the animals by name and feeds them chunks of meat he holds on a stick (they don't discriminate much between live fingers and meat scraps) or sometimes in his mouth. Any tourists that show up are given a chance to feed them too, but Abbas' special trick is to encourage the hyenas to climb onto tourists' backs as he feeds them chunks of meat. Abbas calls it a hyena back massage. I also had my shoulders massaged, not the most tender masseuse I've known but my only real complaint was that hyena paws smell so fetid I had to wash my clothes afterwards. I guess that's what happens if you spend all night wandering around a rubbish dump.
A hyena by torchlight
Seven hyenas showed up that night. It's eerie the way they slink around noiselessly but even eerier their distinctive whooping howl. They were skittish but didn't seem afraid of humans, happy to approach within centimetres if a free meal was involved.
It's a testament to the basic decency of rural Ethiopians that I was able to walk at night through unlit countryside and poor villages to the feeding site without feeling threatened. It did feel uncomfortable but that's because you attract so much attention as a foreigner here - much of the way I was accompanied by groups of children shouting "faranji!" (foreigner) or "you, YOU!". At one stage I wandered by mistake into a Muslim cemetery; instead of telling me off, a lovely old fellow took me by the hand and led me back to the proper path.