by Ericka Hamburg
Is there a conclave of bickering witches under our window?
Besides the expected footsteps and traffic, I hear whooping, crackling, shrieking.
Tired from our road trip, but too agitated and jumpy to sleep, I decide to investigate. Draped in my frumpy nightshirt, I gingerly descend the precipitous stairs from our loft room, and step through massive wooden doors into a private courtyard, under a star-filled Ethiopian sky. The din has ceased, for now.
Our Blink-And-You’ll-Miss-It Tour of Ethiopia is winding down. Friend Hannah and I have ping-ponged by plane, bus and boat, from festival to spectacle, from heritage site to natural wonder--- a compact cultural immersion fueled by coffee, pizza, snapshots and souvenirs.
And now we’ve blown the polluted, scaffolded chaos of Addis Ababa, and, aided by driver Yusman and guide Danny, are driving almost four hundred miles to Harar.
With distance, a rise in elevation brings sweet air, quiet lakes, and church-topped mountains. Herds of camels trot past roadside settlements. In Awash National Park, we parallel the currently-abandoned Ethio-Djibouti rail tracks, and pause to watch an extended family of frisky gelada baboons.
Harar’s Old Town, or Jugol, dates from the 16th Century. With over eighty mosques and shrines, it links Christian Ethiopia with the Muslim and Arab world. Five entry gates, each unique in design, anchor its curving fortress-like walls.
Culturally rich, economically fragile, Harar has always been a caravan city, both holy and pragmatic. Markets fill its maze of passageways with provisions; mattresses, plasticwear, breads, shredded camel carcasses, smuggled cellphones.
There’s a robust commerce in qat, the obsessively chewed, leafy narcotic herb. Its sheathed green bundles, transported by truck and pack animals, are traded with animated fervor.
Seeing the town was Hannah’s idea; I’m here for the hyenas.
We’re lodged in a traditional Harari guesthouse; tall whitewashed interconnected rooms, high on aesthetics and low on soundproofing. Despite a restless noisy night, we rouse ourselves for a full day of touring all things Harari, including a much-needed visit to the excellent coffee roasters.
With darkness, when sleep seems most appropriate, we instead pile into the back seat of Yusman’s vehicle, and wend through a network of alleys to just outside the Jugol walls. Here a line-up of cars face an open courtyard.
Abbas Mumey stands, his tall slim frame theatrically illuminated by the headlights, and turns towards the surrounding rocky terrain, beckoning softly, “… Koti, Jalla, Botay..” After some minutes, pairs of green orbs catch the headlights’ glow, and actual wild hyenas emerge from the hinterland.
Abbas stabs into a black metal pot for shreds of meat, and holds them aloft. Handsome hyena Willi approaches first; circling, then lunging, to take the meat into his jaws.
More hyenas appear – maybe there’s twelve. Abbas, like his father Yusef, knows the whole clan, and shoves the greedier ones to give the shyer ones a chance. As they yip, snap, chatter and snarl, I recognize the noise from under our window.
Though in decline and demonized throughout much of Africa, wild hyenas loom large in Harari folklore, as a bridge to, and protection from, the unseen spirit world. At night, they emerge from dens in the bush, travel in packs to forage at the local dump, or dip through dedicated openings in the fortress wall, to compete with dogs for street spoils.
Tourists pay to see them fed at several sites. Despite years of this, their wildness and social structure appear more or less intact.
Now I’m in the spotlight, encircled by skulking and lunging hyenas. As fast as Abbas hands me a meat stick, it’s snarfed from my grasp. And again. The more aggressive jump, snap, hug close. Like Abbas, I try to get food to all, a bit like tossing seed to every pigeon on the sidewalk.
I smell their breath, note their wounds, count their spots. Their coats seem more bristly than soft, but its not a petting opportunity.
Its all too brief; other visitors take their turn. As it winds down, Danny and Yusman usher us towards the car.
I’m thinking, how can I do this again? I’m intrigued by these slope-backed dog-ish, cat-ish critters. Could I maybe hang with them; run through town, make a ruckus, purge some bad spirits?
That is, if I’ve had enough sleep.