On Tuesday night at the hyena feeding, a Harari friend introduced me to his sister from Canada. She was visiting Harar and the family had taken the opportunity to come to the hyena feeding. But something was up.
The Canadian woman began telling me how she was terrified of hyenas and that the mere sound of a hyena would turn her stomach. She was very distressed at being close to the hyenas and I wondered why on Earth they had come to see the very animals that disturbed her so. Then her brother and sister in law held her hands and led her to where the hyenas were being fed. The woman bent over trying to back away and her brother forcibly held her in front of the hyenas while she whimpered and complained. They put a stick in her hand and the hyena man draped a bit of meat over the stick for a hyena to take. In this case it was Jalla. I found myself wondering why on earth they were going through all this when, theoretically, a visit to Harar to see your relatives is supposed to be an enjoyable experience. When it was all over, the Harari brother and sister sat and reassured the Canadian Harari, saying that it was a gradual process and they could come back the next night and make more progress. This led me to ask a very personal question of the woman’s sister. I asked if her sister from Canada was disturbed, and the answer was yes. Later the hyena man confirmed what I was beginning to suspect and said that this woman had a jinn in her stomach. Her family were forcing her to face up to the hyenas in the hope of expelling the jinn.
This isn’t the first time that such a thing has occurred. Several months ago at the feeding, there was woman sitting at the shrine with her little boy of about 8 years. The boy was rocking back and forth and whimpering and was very agitated, while the mother was consoling him. I paid them no more attention as I assumed that the boy was simply afraid of hyenas or on the tail end of a tantrum. Then the hyena man’s son, Abbas, came out of the house and was laughing. I asked what he was up to and he said he was going to the farm to get some hyena poop for medicine and continued on his way. Meanwhile the mother had taken her boy and dragged him over to the hyena man and was making him feed the hyenas. The boy cried out when he was up close to the hyenas and struggled to get away but his mother held him there. Then they finished and went into the hyena man’s house. The hyena man came and sat with me at the shrine and, as this was early on in my time in Harar and my command of the language was limited, my Harari friend interpreted. He told me that Abbas had gone to get some hyena poop and that the hyena man was going to make some medicine from it. This is interesting, I thought, as I’d heard of some local cures that used hyena poop and I was interested to see what he’d make with it and what it was supposed to cure.
Abbas returned, with a handful of hyena poop, and went into the house. The hyena man stayed seated at the shrine so I stayed with him, waiting expectantly for the medicine making demonstration. Then after about twenty minutes the hyena man got up and went to the house. Immediately after he entered, the mother and boy emerged; the boy quite contented and completely different to his agitated state that I witnessed earlier. Then came the father and I exchanged greetings with him in French. Then came the grandfather with the hyena poop in a ziplock bag. They got into a car and drove off and I had the feeling I’d just missed something important.
Later, I was able to get the full story from the hyena man. They were a Somali family, probably from Djibouti as the father spoke French. Their son had been suffering some kind of mental disturbance for some time and after trying modern treatments without success, they had gone to see a sheikh. The sheikh had examined the boy and diagnosed him as having been possessed by a jinni. He told the parents to take the boy to Harar to see and feed the hyenas. Additionally they were to bring back some hyena poop from which the sheikh would make medicine to treat the boy over several months. Apparently jinn possession is not something that can be cured instantaneously but after the initial expulsion of the jinni, there needs to be ongoing treatment to eliminate the opportunities for it to return. This all makes sense in terms of the Islamic belief system in the Horn of Africa, which holds that hyenas can see and hear jinn and, as I mentioned in another post, will chase them and eat them at every opportunity. Hence exposing the boy to hyenas is a logical way of ridding him of a jinni as it would be expected to take fright and leave the boy.
The family had come to the hyena man’s house and told their story and the hyena man had agreed to participate in the exorcism and provide the hyena poop. Prior to the boy being exposed to the hyenas they had taken him into the house and made Quran readings, which the hyena man insisted were primarily responsible for expelling the jinni; more so than the exposure to the hyenas. The hyena poop, which the grandfather had in the ziplock bag, would be made into a powder and sprinkled on hot coals, the smoke being inhaled by the boy.
As far as exorcisms go, this kind is pretty agreeable. Hyena poop is mostly inorganic matter and quite odourless, so if I had to inhale smoke from an animal’s excrement, I’d almost certainly choose hyena. And being subject to Quran readings followed by feeding meat to hyenas, while potentially traumatising if you’re afraid of hyenas, is nowhere near as physically harmful as some other forms of exorcism. As far as efficacy, I’m maintaining cultural relativism and simply stating what I witnessed. A very agitated boy being dragged over to feed the hyenas and then a complete change when I saw him leaving the house later. The hyena man told me that the cry that the boy made when he was dragged close to the hyenas was not the boy at all. But the sound of the jinni taking fright and leaving, hopefully never to return.