Hyena censorship

So far I haven’t written much about the relationship between people and hyenas in the region around Harar, but there is a lot worth writing about. During my time over there I did some surveys and interviews with the Oromo farmers in the Hararge region and some investigation in the town of Kombolcha where there was a series of hyena attacks. What I found was interesting. The rural folks there largely said that they thought hyenas were a benefit to the area. Hyenas controlled pest species, deterred thieves from lurking about in the night, cleaned up animals who had died of disease, and as with Harar, kept the area free of dangerous, unseen spirits. I wrote about this in an article that’s just been published in Anthrozoös. Despite suffering occasional hyena attacks on their children and livestock, the people I surveyed were largely positive in their attitudes towards hyenas with a huge majority saying that they were a benefit to the area and half saying they would support an increase in hyena numbers. An increase!

Now, whenever I’m dwelling on interesting hyena material, I end up discussing it at length with my dear wife who is from Shewa, about 900kms from Harar in the west of Ethiopia. These talks are really fascinating for me because I’m given a perspective on hyenas from someone of the same ethnic group as those in the Hararge region, but with a different religion and different set of ideas about hyenas. But one thing that she raised has the potential to turn upside-down pretty much everything I’ve concluded about the Hararge rural peoples’ relations with hyenas. When I mentioned to my wife that so many Hararge Oromo people thought hyenas a benefit in the area, and so many supported an increase in hyena numbers, she said, ‘Oh, you’ll find the same thing with the Shewa Oromo.’

I said, ‘I thought you told me the Shewa Oromo didn’t like hyenas at all and would prefer there were none in the region.’

She said, ‘yes that’s right but if you ask them the same questions as you asked the Hararge Oromo, you’ll get the same answers because they’re afraid of offending the hyenas.’

The Shewa Oromo apparently believe if they say anything against the hyenas, then the hyenas will overhear (they do have amazing hearing) and come and trash their farms and attack their animals, their children and themselves.

Now, I wish we’d had this discussion before I wrote my article because it casts a very dark shadow over what I found. But it’s also very meaningful. If the Shewa people are afraid to give forthright answers about hyenas because they fear repercussions, then who’s to say the Hararge people are any different? Perhaps all of those amazing results I found were in fact answers that people were giving under duress; the threat of violence from eavesdropping hyenas. Of course this would render the surveys invalid but it would open up some amazing possibilities regarding the ways that human/wildlife conflict is so often culturally mediated and really difficult to get to the bottom of. On the one hand, we have an unusual reason for the persistence of hyenas in the region. Imagine a people who’s approach to coexistence with hyenas is entirely overshadowed by their fear of hyena retribution for misplaced words and actions; a people coming up with superficial reasons for a pretend appreciation of hyenas. On the other we have a conundrum: If it was the case that the Hararge Oromo gave deliberately false answers out of fear of reprisals (though I’m not yet saying that they did), then how on earth could you find out what they secretly felt about hyenas?

Translator and friend, Tariku, conducting not so confidential surveys in the Hararge region

Translator and friend, Tariku, conducting not-so-confidential surveys in the Hararge region

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One thought on “Hyena censorship

  1. The prohibition against speaking ill of hyenas have to be transmitted from generation to generation. Where/how do folks tell their children not to speak ill of them?
    Are there any spaces/region where the Oromo folks feel protected from hyenas? Are there ways of writing or speaking the Oromo believe the hyenas do not understand or would simply ignore?
    I wonder if having a conversation about “what people who do not understand the hyenas think of them?” might reveal actual thinking about hyenas. I guess it depends upon how well people believe hyenas understand human communication. If anyone who utters an imprecation against hyenas is in danger, regardless of the context in which it’s said, that won’t get you anywhere—but that would mean people wouldn’t say that there are people who think ill of hyenas, so they can be spared saying anything ill of them.
    A complicated, very interested problem. I don’t envy you for having to solve it, but I’m fascinated by it.

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