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HARAR, Ethiopia — Twenty-four-year-old Salamo Fantan slapped a strip of goat meat on the stick held between his teeth. Seven or eight wild hyenas darted around him, snatching the meat from the stick, or yanking it out of Fantan’s hands.
The animals look like large brown dogs, with bone-crushing white teeth shining in the headlights. They gnawed on the bloody scraps, while Fantan called to them in a loud resonate voice. A few tourists snapped pictures. Local Harari women with baskets on their heads glanced at the spectacle as they strolled by, but they did not pause.
In Harar, a 1,000-year-old walled city in eastern Ethiopia, hyenas roam the streets at night. Usually scavengers, hyenas have been known to attack, killing livestock and children. But locals say if the animals are treated kindly, people have nothing to fear.
Hyenas, they say, are their neighbors and spiritual guides. The animals rid the streets of garbage and bad spirits, and tell the future. And if they are not treated well, hyenas will exact their revenge.
Men like Fantan have been hand-feeding hyenas for more than 25 years for a small fee from frightened tourists. But the relationship between the Hararis and the hyenas is ancient.
“We must feed them, if there is tourists or not,” he said. “If we have enough money or not — we must feed them.”
Youseff Mume Saleh, who nightly feeds a different family of hyenas on the other side of town, said he cares for the animals to protect his farm and his city. If they are not fed, he said, they will eat the city’s farm animals out of anger.
“I feed them for the safety of my area and of my city,” he said, as he rested on a stone wall after feeding about a dozen hyenas in the rain.
Saleh also said he understands the hyena language, and from the animals he gets news from far away. When the news is bad, he said, the hyenas cry.
“They speak about all the world,” he said, “about everywhere.”
The local hyenas, he added, protect the city from packs of hyenas from the neighboring countryside. The hyenas of the nearby town of Kembolcha would attack Harar, but for the Harari hyenas. In Kembolcha, he said, the hyenas are not well cared for by their human neighbors, and the people pay the price, with attacks on their children and livestock.
“Those hyenas will eat you, if you are alive or if you are dead,” he said.
For Muslims in this historically Islamic city, hyenas are also ancient spiritual guides that predict hardship or prosperity. During the annual Islamic new year celebration, hyenas are summoned with drums. Lead by the “hyena king,” the animals join the party and are offered a special porridge. If the hyenas refuse the porridge, the coming year will be grim. If they dine, the year will bring peace and prosperity.
The last time the hyenas refused to eat the porridge was in 2005. Two children were killed in hyena attacks that year near Harar, along with several cows, according to the wife of one of the sheikhs who hosts the yearly celebration.
“We feed porridge to the hyenas for our cows, our goats, our lambs and our children,” said Kadiga Ali. “We pray the hyenas will eat it.”
For other Hararis, peaceful coexistence with the hyenas is more of a practical matter. Adam Mohammad, a butcher, leaned away from his wooden stall, laden with hunks of bloody goat and lamb’s meat. He said the hyenas visit his store almost every night and he offers them scraps of meat out of his hand.
One of his neighbors once got annoyed with a hyena and tossed a small stone at the animal to frighten it away. The hyena soon retaliated, and killed one of the man’s sheep.
Hyenas stick together, he added. “If you harm one,” he said. “Another one from their family will just come in and bite your kids.”
But harming hyenas is out of the question to most Hararis, even those who admit to enjoying their meat. Besides the historical and spiritual connection, Hararis depend on hyenas to clean their city. At night, hyenas enter the walls through drainage holes, and devour the garbage on the streets.
When Fantan’s hyenas had ravished the basket of meat, he pointed out a man in the shadows. It was his teacher, Morgeta Olemaria, who has been feeding the animals by hand for 20 years. Olemaria trained the younger man, so the hyenas will be fed long after he his gone.
Olemaria sat in the shadows, hugging his knees as the hyenas settled in for a post-dinner nap. At the end of the night, the hyenas will follow Olemaria to his house before retreating to the hills.
“They are my family,” he said. “When I leave here, they will take me to my home.”