Once upon a time in the city of Harar, a goat gave birth to a man. The news of the half-goat-half-man traveled quickly through the tangled alleys of the old city center, known as the Jugal. The walls surrounding the Jugal were erected by a Harari sultan to protect the city from invaders, and now the news of the birth of this crossbred wonder was trapped inside, like a ball in a pinball machine.
The village was split on how the goat-boy came to being. But no matter what you believed, the streets of Harar were buzzing with loud mouthed children all speculating on what brand of jinn (evil spirits) might have possessed that poor goat.
Half of the people believed the goat-boy was a miracle sent by Allah, some kind of messenger that was released too early and died on arrival. Harar is Muslim Ethiopia’s spiritual center. Once it was walled in the 1560s, Harar was closed to outsiders and especially Christians. Then in the late 19th century, Ethiopian emperor Menelik II conquered the city and brought it into the fold of the Abyssinian empire for good.
The Muslim population, mostly Somali, was allowed to worship as it had at the numerous mosques scattered throughout the Jugal, and today Muslims make up 90% of the population. The Christian Orthodox eventually erected a church in the Jugal, and today the city displays a laidback atmosphere of Muslim-Christian tolerance.
The significance of the goat was not lost on the city’s inhabitants. Indeed, one traditional method of ridding the jinn involves sewing up the afflicted individual in a goat carcass, and once he has been purged, the empty goat skin becomes the jinn’s new vessel. Goats are almost as numerous as people on the streets of Harar, moving freely through the Jugal, greeting the camels and keeping distance from the hyenas. Goats are most famous for cleaning the roads of all the chat leaves and stems leftover after the leafy drug has been sufficiently distributed in the late afternoon.
The other half of the village was convinced that a farmer, probably high on chat, was trapped in a bout of madness overcome by the jinn had simply had sex with the mother goat, thereby transferring the evil spirits to the animal.
Abdul, the twelve year old who told us about goat-boy, wasn’t sure what to believe. But he was very excited to talk about the goat-boy to outsiders, taking pride in the curiosity that always makes people ask to see photos.
A student brought the now famous photos of the creature to Tesfaye’s photo studio near Harar Gate, the main entrance into the old town. Tesfaye’s studio produced three copies of the photo. He kept one of the copies taped to the underside of the glass counter in his shop. This way the children would not ruin the photos with their greasy fingers, he reasoned.
The other two copies were passed through the city like medicine, everybody taking a glance and giving his or her personal interpretation of the human-like nose and feet of the animal. Somali women, dressed in colorful, oversized dress-like garments, sat in the markets selling potatoes, peppers and onions and talked about the goat-boy and wondered if, had he lived, he would have been accepted by Harar’s residents. The photo reached a group of men sitting on the steps of the al-Jami mosque chewing chat, who looked at the photo with wide eyes and dilated pupils, typical after a good four hour chew.
I thought a satyr wandering through the streets would suit Harar nicely. But it would take a real flamboyant goat-boy to divert the attention of casual observers from all the tash, or chat-heads aimlessly wandering through town with empty eyes and green chat ooze seeping from the corners of the mouth. The tash are like a legion of innocuous zombies, and the majority of them don’t wear trousers. Somehow a goat-boy mixed in this bizarre world of chat, goats and hyenas seemed perfectly normal to me.
The farmer who owned the goat adamantly rejected any accusation of abusing the goat. Instead he worked on finding a buyer for the mother goat. He secured a good price for the goat. Goats in Harar sell for 500 birr ($40 USD) and one medical student offered him 1000 birr. Confident in his negotiation skills, the farmer woke up one morning to find the goat had died during the night.
Nobody in town would buy a dead goat, not even the local butcher, who told the farmer that Allah would not forgive him for serving the cursed goat meat to humans. The only buyer interested in the dead goat was Yusef, affectionately known as the “Hyena Man”. For the past 25 years Yusef has fed a pack of hyenas, which prowls outside the city walls every night at dusk.
The hyena, like the goat, is a sacred animal for Harar Muslims. When the city was first walled almost 500 years ago, hyenas were included. At night, Africa’s second-largest predator roamed the streets, carrying away bones and unwanted animal parts. To keep the hyenas away from the children, the people of Harar began feeding the animals porridge at each of the city’s gates. And then it was merely a matter of course before they started to read prophesies in the hyena’s eating habits: leftover porridge signified good things were to come, but when the hyenas ate all or none of the porridge, the jinn were on the loose.
Each night, the Hyena Man carries a bucket of camel meat outside his home. He sits on a rock and whistles into the sunset. Slowly, curious hyenas appear from the bush, one by one until forming a pack of 8 or 9. He then feeds them from a chopstick-sized branch. Sometimes he puts the stick in his mouth and feeds them face to face, and sometimes he actually gets his arms around the feeding hyena’s neck, sharing a moment of human-hyena affection. Yusef has a cat that patiently waits next to the bucket of camel meat. Unwittingly, the hyenas ignore what would be a scrumptious morsel of a cat and concentrate on the free stuff.
Though tourists abound, being a Hyena Man is more than a circus show. Hyena Man is a veritable trade, like Chile’s chinchineros or India’s snake charmers. Yusef inherited his status of Hyena Man from his father, whose father also fed the hyenas in a very personal way. But Yusef is not the only one daring enough to feed the hyenas. There are currently two Hyena Mans beyond Harar’s walls. Mulagete is known as the Christian Hyena Man to locals and is much younger than Yusef. He is the latest Hyena Man, and the first Christian to ever get cozy with the animals.
The two Hyena Mans are not on speaking terms, partly because of religion, but mostly because Yusef distrusts Mugalete’s reasons for becoming a Hyena Man. Yusef believes the young Mugalete saw a lucrative business opportunity, as more and more tourists flock to see the Hyena Man’s exploits. Indeed, over the last ten years Harar has become synonymous with the Hyena Man. I first became aware of Hyena Man when I saw him on a rickety Addis Ababa billboard advertising Harar’s daunting beauty, over 400km away from the capital city.
Yusef’s son is still too young to become a Hyena man, but has had his share of experiences within the pack. When he was but a baby his mother once left him unattended on a street of Harar. A hyena from the pack then kidnapped the baby and with the rest of the hyenas cared for the little boy for the better part of a week. Yusef finally found his baby boy in the hyenas’ den, unscathed. Abdul told me this story, and then told me another hyena-baby story that does not end well for the baby.
Once a hyena from the Afar region came into the city of Harar and stole a baby right out of the hands of a Somali woman. Harar’s homegrown hyenas then attacked the aggressive hyena and rescued the baby. Only it was too late, and the foreign hyena had already ripped off both of the baby’s arms. The hyena’s chased the other hyena away. The baby died.
The next evening, when Yusef fed his hyenas the meat of the goat, which had given birth to goat-boy, something magical happened. For the length of time it takes a pack of hyenas to eat a goat, the Harar residents, the chat-heads, the Somali women in the marketplace, the Christians and the Muslims, the camels and the desert and the rest of the Horn of Africa experienced weightlessness as a load was lifted from their collective shoulders. The jinn had finally been expelled.