Ethiopia: Nightlife in Harar

Hyenas are the main attraction at nightfall in Harar, Ethiopia.
Hyenas are the main attraction at nightfall in Harar, Ethiopia.

Nightlife in Harar, Ethiopia: Watching the Hyenas

By Justin Dupee

In life, as in travel we are sometimes given a brief glimpse of things to come, our futures spelled out in foreshadowing. A missing bag at the airport can signal the beginning of a trip full of mishaps. Securing the last room at a much sought after hotel in a busy city might indicate the promise of a successful trip.

The hyenas are fed raw chicken meat by villagers.
The hyenas are fed raw chicken meat by villagers.

But an optimistic mind or at least one that strays from superstition might pay little credence to such celestial signposts. In literature foreshadowing can usually be counted on to give an indication of things to come, in life however, we are better off not making these assumptions. Furthermore, in books the story is predetermined, in life, the story is what we make of it.

My travel partner Jesse and I had been anticipating the last leg of our Ethiopian trip since its inception. We had come to this country with the primary goal of finding old LPs of Ethiopian jazz music and assumed that this would probably take a few weeks. The plan was to bum about Addis Ababa for a week or so, get the feel of the city, make some contacts, put some feelers out there, then head south to the tribal part of the country.
With any luck, we would come back to information that would lead us to these. With our primary mission accomplished and with southern Ethiopia at our backs, we decided to head east towards the Somali border to the ancient city of Harar.

UNESCO Heritage Site

There are many good reasons to visit Harar. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the ancient walls that surround the old town and back alleys that twist and turn like knotted hair around the rustic storefronts and homes. It was the home of the young French poet and philosopher Arthur Rimbaud, it is the fourth holiest city in Islam and it is said to have some of the world’s best khat — a leaf that when chewed, produces a mild stimulant. All of this was interesting to my traveling companion and I but our main interest in Harar was the nightlife.

Jesse and I had read that at night wild hyenas come down from the hills and roam within the walled confines of the city. Furthermore, there is a brave soul who meets them every night to feed these beasts raw chicken so that they won’t be tempted to prowl about for unsuspecting children. The idea of seeing hyenas casually roaming the streets and be hand fed like a lap dog was all too intriguing for us and so we set out via bus, our brains swirling with what possibilities might lay ahead of us.

The ride was long and slow going, in part because of the conditions of the road and in part because of the thick layer of fog that enveloped the countryside. Every now and then we would stop in some backwater town and wait while locals would take turns trodding on or off the bus. It was hard to tell if it had just rained or if the fog had permeated even the dirt, because it seemed like everything was covered in mud.

Despite this thick fog, our bus driver did not seem to grasp the concept that lanes were designated for specific directions. For no apparent reason, our driver often would swing to the other lane and then casually lean back into the one designated for our direction. This seemed wholly unnecessary to both Jesse and I and the lack of visibility in the fog made it seem downright suicidal.

It had been about 45 minutes since we had passed anything that resembled a town when suddenly we felt a bit of a jolt and we came to a stop. Jolts and unexplained stops were not uncommon so Jesse and I remained in our seats, curious a bit about the stop but not surprised.

There was still a dense fog and I couldn’t see much past the edge of the road but slowly I started seeing locals start peering out of the mist and curiously gathering on the road. The bus driver had gotten out of the bus a few minutes prior and came back on to assure us that everything was ok and that there was no need to get off the bus. “No need to get up, everything is ok. We will be resuming shortly,” he said.

There was something in his assurance that made me wary. He seemed very concerned that we believe everything was alright. Furthermore, it seemed like the message was specifically meant for Jesse and I.Then he addressed it to the whole bus but I felt his eyes made specific attempts to catch ours multiple times. Someone looked at me and said, “Accident.” I had started to notice that people were continuing to gather around our bus and a few men had gotten off initially and had not gotten back on.

To the Front of the Bus

I decided to take a look outside and Jesse followed suit. As we stood up a woman chided us but we continued to make our way to the front of the bus. When I poked my head out the door there were far more people gathered around than I had realized and more seemed to be seeping out of the fog.

The majority of the crowd was gathered around a vehicle, presumably the one we had hit. Upon closer inspection, I realized that we had collided head-on with what was now a crumpled up SUV. The front of our bus had not sustained much damage but the SUV was not so lucky.

People were shouting all around us with a sense of urgency. Hands were outstretched in a symbolic gesture as if trying to help or at the very least be some sort of comfort. The air was tense and a sense of panic could be seen on the face of almost everyone present. I moved closer, my shoulders brushing past those of the screaming locals until I caught my first glimpse of the inside of the SUV. Inside I saw a man slumped over the steering wheel and apparently unconscious. Even in the dark fog, I could make out the shimmer of blood that now caked his face.

A few men were in the process of trying to pry the door open. I wanted to get closer but the swirling chaos was daunting, to say the least and I didn’t want to get in the way of the apparent rescue effort. Within a minute or so the men had the door open and then to my shock, they started to drag him out of the vehicle. It dawned on Jesse and I that the two of us undoubtedly had the most medical training of anyone there — that is to say, simple first aid training — and we knew that the manner in which they were dragging him out of the SUV was probably contributing to the damage already done.

But there was nothing we could do. We did not speak the language and everything happened in a flash. Instead, we stood idly by and watched as he was carried by his arms and legs to the back seat of a waiting car. They slid him in with little ease and the last thing I saw before the car took off was tiny stains of blood forming on the back seat of the car.

With the ordeal more or less over and the throngs of locals slipping back into the lurking fog we found ourselves in a new predicament. The bus was evidently not in any shape to continue on to Harar and although a much smaller replacement bus was coming, it would not take us the whole way. This proved to be less tricky than we had anticipated however because we were able to locate a minibus to take us the rest of the distance not too far from where our second bus left us.

Mild Trepidation

As the minibus ambled through the outlying suburbs of the walled city I remembered my mild trepidation in coming here. Harar has a long history of xenophobia, dating back to 1854, when Sir Richard Burton first visited and commented on the tense relationship between locals and visitors. A century and a half later, Paul Theroux also made note of this inherent dislike of non-locals, although he himself did not encounter any xenophobic tendencies.

Hyenas in action.
Hyenas in action.

Arguably Harar’s most famous inhabitant, the expat poet Arthur Rimbaud apparently experienced quite the opposite and felt very much at home in the walled city. With that said, it should be noted that this author recently spoke to some friends who visited Charleville, France, the original home of Rimbaud, and found it to be one of the most hostile places that they had ever visited. Could it be that this is why Rimbaud felt so much at home here?

Our minibus deposited us just outside the stone walls of the city and now Jesse and I were tasked with finding a hotel. I had read about a particular traveler friendly hotel that is said to have windows that look out onto a trash dump directly behind the hotel. This is only appealing because supposedly hyenas troll about the refuse in search of discarded treasures.

With our guidebook out, we clumsily fumbled about trying to find this hotel until a man flagged us down and invited us to his hotel. “No, thank you,” I said, positive he was looking to scam us. “We have reservations at another hotel.” We did not.

“What hotel?”

“Tewodros Hotel.” I said this with confidence, as if I knew where I was going.

“Ah, Tewodros Hotel. Yes, that is where I work. Come with me, I will show you where it is.” I was taken aback. Who did this guy think I was? As if I would fall for something like that. I was almost insulted that he took me for some novice traveler. The man motioned for us to follow him and he headed down a narrow pathway. I looked past him down the road to a sign that said, “Tewodros Hotel,” with an arrow below it. I immediately felt like an asshole.

Bushel of Khat

In front of the hotel sat two men leaning back in chairs, their feet propped up on a small fence. Next to each man was a huge bushel of khat. Each man slowly chewed the leaves of this plant and stared at us, their eyes huge and bloodshot. The man who had led us to the hotel had disappeared inside and Jesse and I stood there awkwardly, watching the two men chew their cud.

“Do you want some?” one man kindly offered. We shook our heads no. We had tried the stuff earlier in our trip and after 45 minutes of chomping on the sour leaves, we didn’t get so much as a buzz. The man then went on to explain to us that he lived in Addis Ababa but liked to vacation in Harar because that is where the best khat is. “What else do you do while you are here?” we inquired. “Nothing. I just chew khat. Many other people do the same.”

The hotel staff we had met up the road took us to our rooms. Normally I like to check out the rooms ahead of time before paying but feeling embarrassed about my arrogance and having to explain that I don’t have a reservation, even though I had said I did, we paid up and then went to go look.

The rooms were barren, smelled like mold and were all but filthy. Prostitutes mingled about, shooting advancing gestures our way while two soldiers trodded up and down our hallway inspecting the scantily clad women. I spied a few roaches congregating on the walls and my bedsheets were tattered and stained. As a social worker, I have visited some pretty dingy hotel rooms but this far exceeded anything I had seen on the job.

On the plus side, our window looked out onto the trash heap. We would have front row seats to the feeding frenzy that we hoped would happen later on that night. Before leaving we mentioned to the staff member that we wanted to see the hyena man and he agreed to take us to see him at 8:00 pm that night.

At the Gates of the City

We left the hotel and within a few minutes found ourselves at the gates of the city. We looked up in awe, feeling as though we were stepping back into time. The old town was bustling as the residents of Harar scuddled through the streets, going about their business. Minarets from the many mosques rose up into the sky while donkeys carrying planks of wood slowly sauntered along the dusty streets below. It felt magical to say the least.

Jesse and I began exploring the many twists and turns of the city but we couldn’t help but notice the many eyes that followed us as we weaved along the stone walls and into the back alleys. I had not noticed any other tourists and wondered at first if the locals were just not accustomed to seeing paler faces. Women passing us started to shout, “Faranji, Faranji! all while pointing and laughing. ” Faranji is the local word for “foreigner” and we had been called this by children in rural parts of the country before but not by adults and not in cities.

The deeper we went into the city the more this increased and the more annoyed I became. There is a stark difference between cultural differences and being an asshole. Harar’s fabled xenophobia was beginning to rear its ugly head and Jesse and I were quickly becoming aware that we had become quite the spectacle. I suggested that we get off the streets and retreat to a bar.

“Faranji!”

Hardly a minute would go by without adults and children pointing at us and yelling. It became incessant and each shout of “Faranji!” brought more and more attention to us. I had my breaking point a few minutes later when a small boy came up to me and said, “Faranji. Give me money.” I said to him, “You give me money,” and quickly strode away. Seconds later, the young child ran up behind me and plunged a pencil into my back.

I turned around and he started laughing hysterically. This laughter was infectious as everyone around us began to laugh. I was fuming. “Fuck you, you little shit!” I yelled at the child. This only produced more laughter. Luckily I was wearing a jacket and the pencil did not puncture my skin but my ego was beyond bruised. “F–k this city,” I said to Jesse as we quickly walked away, realizing I had just told a small boy to fuck off. We both agreed that we had already seen enough of Harar and would leave on the first bus to Addis on the following day.

Night fell and we rendezvoused with our guide. I tried chatting with him as we traversed the dark city streets in search of the hyena handler, but he was a man of few words. After thirty minutes or so we found the hyena man and watched in awe as he fed raw chicken by hand to these ugly creatures. It was certainly a sight to see but we weren’t the only tourists there. We were assured that this was done not for the benefits of tourists but out of necessity.

“Buy Me a Beer”

I don’t know if that is true or not but there certainly was an air of inauthenticity. After the show, our guide asked us if we wanted to get a beer before going back to the hotel. It turned out this meant would we buy him a beer while we sat there awkwardly not talking — despite my best efforts.

Jesse and I resolved to call it a night. We made our way back to our rooms and went our separate ways. As I laid on the bed, fully clothed and outside the sheets, aware of a multitude more of cockroaches, I could hear activity outside. A few moments later Jesse came to my door and said, “I think I can hear hyenas out there. Should we go check it out?”

We slinked around the side of the hotel in the cool night air, our ears perking each time we heard the hyena’s ominous howl. Making our way to the giant heap of trash we began to see these creatures darting in and out of the moonlight. It was a cathartic moment. Here we were on our own in African soil, peering upon these beasts that we had grown up seeing on National Geographic specials. In the wild. In their element. Jesse and I stood in silence for quite a while, pleased with ourselves, as we listened and watched.

We woke up early the next morning to leave and it was dark out as we made our way to the bus terminal. Down the street, we could hear the sound of dogs barking. The barking came closer and closer until we saw a lone hyena, running for his life as a pack of local dogs chased him out of the city. You could almost hear the dogs shouting, “Faranji, Faranji!” So in solidarity with the hyenas, we slung our bags over our shoulders and shuffled off, sleepy and showerless, away from Harar.

Contact the author: justindupee@gmail.com

Like this article? Share it with your friends!