We arrived in Harar on Saturday after two and a half dayy travelling and went to the Sofi hyena feeding place in the afternoon for a family reunion. I haven’t mentioned this very often but Yusuf the hyena-man and his wife and kids are family to me and my wife. When we married in Harar in 2010, Yusuf stood in for my father and Yusuf’s wife, Naime, mobilised her neighbourhood group to prepare the food and entertainment for the wedding. I always call Naime ‘mum’ and two of my wedding photos hang on the wall of their living room. We’re pretty close and it was lump-in-throat stuff when we arrived at the feeding place and were hugged to the point of asphyxiation.
Yusuf had off to hospital for some treatment and left us with the family. He’s handed the hyena feeding business over to his son, my adopted brother Abbas, who has grown into a really confident, respectable young man. My fondest memory of Abbas is from three years ago when he sat in an unattended Bajaj taxi, and in the process of playing with the controls, released the handbrake. The Bajaj began rolling downhill towards the canal with Abbas looking more like a confused passenger than someone in control. Meanwhile the crowd at the feeding place alerted the driver who impressively caught up with the taxi and reached in to pull the brake. That was Abbas – all innocence and good intentions but with potential to wreak havoc.
Abbas is married now. His lovely wife Biftu is very mature, welcoming and indeed brave. I say brave because Abbas showed me a photo of himself holding a piece of food over Biftu’s head with a hyena towering over her, its paws on her shoulders. This is impressive in Ethiopian terms because the locals are normally terrified of the close proximity of hyenas and I’ve seen Ethiopian men falling over themselves to get out of the way of hyenas.
One change that really interests me is Abbas’ different approach to the hyena feeding. I wrote in my thesis how Yusuf’s non-controlling, non-commercial approach to hyena feeding was causing his business to suffer in comparison to the other feeding place in Harar which is much more touristy and aggressive. I suggested that the processes of globalisation and the demands of tourists would automatically lead to the commercialisation of hyena feeding, and taming of hyenas; that Yusuf’s way would not survive where tourism demanded reliable, predictable hyenas and an entertaining experience.
While Abbas is not making a conscious effort to control the hyenas or make them do circus tricks, he does seem to be looking at a way forward for the family business. He was talking about setting up a rudimentary cafe at the feeding place so that tourists could sit and drink coffee when they came. And our sister Ardelle, who has become proficient with a camera, is taking photos of people feeding hyenas on demand. She loads them onto peoples’ USBs for 60c per photo. I kind of like this approach. They’re not trying to alter relations with the hyenas – not making efforts to confine or control them – but they are thinking in terms of developing peripheral aspects of the business that could suit their customers. This is why I love my family.
So after spending the early evening in the house with the family, the arrival of some tourists outside at the shrine was a cue to go out and reunite with my spotted, four-legged family. I could hear the giggles and whoops outside and wondered who was there. Who was still alive, who was new to the place and who was missing? I wondered if I would still recognise Willi and would he recognise me? Maybe I was expecting too much.
To be continued