Two kinds of hyenas

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I recently had a comment from an ex-pat Harari about the traditional songs of Harar and it led me thinking about one Harari song in particular. An Italian researcher (and friend), Ilaria Sartori, did a lot of research on Harari music, particularly the religious songs that they sing at shrines and also wedding songs. She recorded this really haunting version of a traditional Harari wedding song, in this case sung by Gini Zebida. The song is about Harar as homeland, and any Hararis out there, please forgive me for my clumsy translation work which follows: The line gey waldo, gey gibba means ‘Child of Harar, stay in (or return to) Harar.’ It’s pretty straight-forward, telling the Harari person that Harar is the place where they belong. Now, where it gets interesting is the next line which says tay sari-be waraba yagba. On face value the line reads, ‘let the hyena stay in the black mountain.’ So the message is: ‘let the Hararis stay in Harar and the hyenas stay in the black mountain – a far-away place.’ We’re comparing Hararis with hyenas here.

But whenever you hear the word for mountain (Sari) in front of the word for hyena (waraba), take heed. This isn’t a Harar hyena that’s being talked or sung about – it’s a mountain hyena. The locals in Harar, especially the older ones will tell you about two different kinds of hyenas around Harar. There are the peaceful local hyenas like Willi and Kamareeya who walk the streets at night and go to the feeding places. These are the Harar hyenas. Meanwhile, in the mountains around Harar, there lurk the mountain hyenas. These are described as though they’re a different species. Mountain hyenas are dangerous; they’re unreasonable and ravenous; and they kill and eat people who venture away from the town. In fact if it weren’t for the local Harar hyenas, the mountain hyenas would invade Harar and begin attacking people in the streets. Ironically it’s the local hyenas who are believed to form a defence against these mountain-dwelling marauders. Now some could draw parallels between the Harari conceptions of mountain hyenas and the other ethnic groups who threatened Harar in the past and compelled the Hararis to build a defensive wall around their town some 500 years ago. But I’m not going to delve into that structural, interpretive, anthropological briar. There’s a literal message in the song here: Yes, let the child of Harar stay in Harar and not be like the mountain hyena who should stay in the mountain. But while we’re on the subject, let the mountain hyena stay in the mountain and not come and attack us folks in Harar!

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2 thoughts on “Two kinds of hyenas

  1. Really fascinating, how these kinds of cultural interpretations give meaning to/receive meaning from actual events/behaviors. I mean, in many ways, the Harari hyenas exhibit a spectrum of behavior completely down-shifted on the boldness scale from their “mountain” (read: rural metapopulation) cousins, right? So they are, in some ways, a different breed…

    • I agree! And if we consider that any kind of species distinction is as culturally constructed as another then the Harari distinction is valid. Think… which distinction is more important to someone on the ground: whether a mountain hyena is genetically related to a Harar hyena or whether it has the potential to bite off your face?

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