Feeding the hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia

Shoa gate and market scene in Harar

„Rambo, Rambo!“ A small-framed man points agitatedly towards the courtyard of a wooden mansion in central Harar. A brawl, we suspect, but a quick glance at our guidebook clarifies that the building with the nicely carved gables and the colourful window panes is the house where the French author and adventurer Arthur Rimbaud lived for a while during the 1880s and which now has become a sightseeing spot.

Rimbauds house in Harar: a wooden house with coloured windows

Rimbaud came to Harar as a coffee trader for a Yemenite agency, and stayed. He made not so bad a living as a portrait photographer – charging the natives one Dollar per picture. Today it is the other way round – the tourists have to pay for every picture they take. On the upper floor we stroll through the exhibition of Rimbaud’s black-and white impressions of Harar.

Back then, Harar was also called the “White City“, because of the numerous white buildings. Today most of them are painted in gaudy colours like pink, lime green, purple, and yellow. But the city, which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2006, is still famous for its dark full-bodied Arabica coffee roasts. In the café „Mermaid“ on the main street an Espresso Macchiato costs only 50 cents. It’s delicious and goes well with a piece of “Black Forest” butter-cream cake.

Time for the drug

Harar market qat seller

In the afternoon the old town and the market get quiet. Only some women are still selling bundles of green herbs which they store beneath wet cloth – Khat. Khat, or Qat, is a plant that is classified as a drug by the World Health Organization, but nevertheless chewed by many Ethiopians every day.

Khat is most effective when it is fresh and so the harvesting dictates the daily rhythm in the whole region. Every morning the khat gets cut, until noon it finds its way onto most markets, and in the afternoon the streets are empty and the bustling energy gives way to placid laziness.

One kilo of khat, we hear, costs more than three times as much as a kilo of coffee. No wonder that more and more coffee farmers switch to the drug crop.

Meeting with hyenas

Man feeding hyenas at night

In the evening we have an appointment on a sandy field at the periphery of the old town with the town’s „Hyena Man“. „Hyena Man“ combines purple jogging pants with a red T-Shirt and looks more like a brawny boxer than a dog whisperer. We see shadows moving in the near distance.

Hyena Man claps his hands and starts to hum softly, and out of the shadows the hyenas appear: They have the body of a wolf, big, dark, beady eyes, pointed ears like a kangaroo, and a freckled fur like a leopard. And they know that they will get food – slaughterhouse waste. Hyena Man feeds them with a stick and he holds the poses long enough for the tourists to take pictures. And then it is the spectators’ turn! „Do not lean forward too much and never ever look the hyena into the eyes,“ Hyena man advises. „And do not think about those razor-sharp teeth with which they can bite with the multiple strength of a fighting dog,“ – we add mentally and lean forward with the meat-stick. It worked!

Market area in the walled town of Harar

Is it worth visiting Harar?

Harar is worth going for its unique atmosphere and for the fantastic coffee alone. The hyena man and sights like Rimbaud’s House or a local beer brewery are additional features that make the trip even more interesting and worthwhile. Stay a few days to justify the long travelling time and to get into the swing of the town.

How to get to Harar?

Harar is one of the few towns that are connected with the capital Addis Ababa by plush long-distance bus, run by Selam bus and Sky Bus companies. Ask at your hotel for details on pre-booked tickets. There are also daily flights. The town of Harar itself is easily navigated on foot.

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