The final days of December have always been a magical time for me. Maybe because I grew up listening to the adventures of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, or Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Eitherway, although I am not a Christian, the days starting with Christmas always seem magical, a number of days in which fairy tales can come true.
So when this Christmas day a tweet that fell into my time-line, it took me to one of the best holidays I ever had, some years ago, in Ethiopia.
Brian, one of my oldest friends, had been inviting me over to visit him and Sabrije for quiet sometime, and finally a new year eve’s party along with a trip to the Danakil thrown in the equation, I succumbed. Well, I confess, it hadn’t been hard to convince me. I love Brian and Sabrije, one of the few people on this planet I enjoy spending time with, and Brian and I have been through some hairy road trips in combat lands together, all for another time to tell. Also, I had a horrendous year, needed a change, and the Afar triangle where Brian worked was a place I wanted to spend some time in. So with the magic words Afar and Danakil I found myself on a night flight from Paris to Addis.
For the past few years I had been traveling in and out of the Sahel, working on a book about the refugee situation in Eastern Chad. I knew that a similar situation was abreast in Ethiopia. The nomadic pastoralists and their need for access to waterways for their herds was a chronic issue across Sub-Saharan Africa much as the Sahel. The age old conflict between the settled farmers and the nomadic herdsmen was something I was deeply interested in. But that is not what I will tell you today. It is Christmas afterall!
The New Year Eve’s party was a blast. We set out in a couple of days, Brian, Tom and I, in a Volkswagen Golf as old as us. Out of the open windows of the old car (no, the AC did not work) I looked at the Africa I loved. The sun would soon set. People were walking by the side of the road in the dimming light, dust lifting behind us as we drove out of the city. Amadou and Mariam sang to us through the speakers.
A few days and many adventures later we were in Harar, an Eastern city of this beautiful land. Tom wanted to go and find the man who feeds the hyenas at nightfall. So we asked around the marketplace to find out the spot and the approximate time. Foreigners were welcome. The tradition, although elusive like most town residents, was also a marginal tourist attraction, meaning, once we got there, in the dark, there would be very few foreigners, if any. We liked it that way.
The hyena was a sacred animal for those living in this fortress town. The legend of the white hyena was closely associated with year long fertility of the farming lands. It went like this: every year on the Day of Ashura, Harrarians would cook the a porridge-like soup, boldly sweeten it and add lots of butter to make it tasty and take the pots to the hills surrounding the city and leave it for the hyenas. If the animals showed up and finished off the food, it was considered a good omen. And better yet, if the white hyena showed itself, ghostlike, from among the trees, then it would mean good rains and thick crops for a whole year to come.
So we sipped our Harrar coffees as famous as the hyenas, and as it got late in the evening switched to our Harar beers and waited for the man who feeds the hyenas, and the hyenas themselves.
And they came. Shy, quiet, and wild. Slowly they crept up the hill towards the man who showed up a little before they did, and settled on the ground waiting for them with a basket of raw meat.
Brian had parked the car a few meters back. He turned on the lights dim, enough for us to see the animals, but not too much so we didn’t disturb them. Tom was eager to feed one himself. Here we were, surrounded by a pack of hyenas, moving shyly and quietly around us. Not too close, not too far. The man had started feeding them, attaching pieces of raw meat to a stick which he would hold in his mouth. First the female in the pack approached and took the meat. Then her cubs followed. They were curtious. They would each wait their turn. The man, slowly, as if in a trance, would feed them, one by one. Not one of them would go hungry, they knew. So each took its time.
Yes, Tom also fed one. And no, we didn’t see the white hyena. We heard it was elusive, the king of the pack, and it only came out the Day of Ashura, and that only if the year will be a good one of bounty.
I hope yours will be.