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2009 Narrative Travel Writing Contest Runner-Up Winner

Ethiopia—Mouth to Mouth

Feeding Hyenas in Ethiopia

How could I know what it would feel like to sit nose to nose with a hyena until it happened? I am sitting on the outskirts of the Ethiopian city Harar beside Solomon, a young man who calls rhythmically: “Nebucha, Hellloooo, nae, nae. Nebucha, Hellloooo, nae.” He is greeting the hyenas and inviting them to approach us on the woven mat where we sit. Between his palms he cradles a basket of raw meat. Half a dozen hyenas revolve around us in a planetary model and another six cautiously crouch back in the shadows. Solomon selects a strip of meat and drapes it across a thin Eucalyptus stick. I clench the stick between my teeth, just as he had done before me. Harar’s hyenas are healthy specimens: two and a half feet from ground to crown and weighing 150 pounds. What is most shocking, though, is the girth of the shaggy head approaching mine. It isn’t until she darts in and bites the meat off the stick in my mouth that I think to trade curiosity for concern. Her breath on my lips and the tug of her teeth against mine on the same thin piece of wood startles me. I blink. What am I doing? But, Solomon has already dropped another strip of meat on the stick clenched between my teeth and the hyena’s face is moving toward mine again.

My best friend made me a list before I left for Ethiopia. No drugs, no unprotected sex, and no joining a revolution, she explained. These were the conditions for my trip, a list that did not include feeding hyenas from my mouth. She was slightly horrified that I was going to a country she considered rife with unsettled conflicts, poverty, disease, and starvation. I was used to the, "be sure you get enough to eat" remarks that people made when discovering Ethiopia was my destination. The country has been a part of my generation’s popular imagination since we were children and chided at the dinner table for pushing lima beans around on our plates. There were more grateful children who were starving in Ethiopia, we were told. But, the television images from the Live Aid charity campaign or South Park skits about starvin’ Marvin and Sally Struthers are only part of our incomplete vision. Additionally, my friends and family were concerned about the bullet-riddled, constantly-in-conflict, civil-strife-ridden, coup-of-the-month Africa that peeked out of the papers and the nightly news.

A few weeks prior to my departure someone kidnapped a couple of Welch tourists in Mekele, one of Ethiopia’s northern towns where the lasting tensions with Eritrea still stewed. My best friend contacted me with the news and a mixture of pride and fear. See, she said, what are you getting into? I excused her caution by reminding her that these things can happen anywhere. I stand the same chances here in the States as I do in Africa. It is more sensational to pay attention to Westerners abducted by Africans than to violence in Los Angeles or small-town Colorado. Therefore, unfortunately, we have an imbalanced idea of what the danger ratio really is. Ethiopia is a place where people live their day-to-day lives, where they talk with friends, share meals, go to work, and go to sleep at night. It also happens to be a place you can feed hyenas. But, don’t they chase tornados in Kansas and wrestle crocodiles in Florida?

When traveling, we become strangely invincible by suspending our expectations and engaging guilelessly with people in unexpected circumstances. This release allows us to stumble through a phrase book understanding of a language, taste the unidentifiable food placed before us, and do things we may normally consider dangerous back at home, where we imagine we have more control. In our minds, what we are experiencing here in this unfamiliar country is somehow normal to this place. We trust. That is how I ended up here on the edge of town with a Hyena eating from my mouth.

Of the small portion of tourists who come to this remote town in eastern Ethiopia, even fewer come to sit down and present themselves, unguarded, to wild hyenas. Though Solomon performs this show regularly (and even now a Land cruiser with a German family is creeping up to where we sit), I remind myself that these are wild animals. On our way here, following our guide, Fascile, past shrugging houses where clutches of people talk in doorways and cook aromatic coffee beans on coal stoves, he and my friend, Mesfin, discuss the lion-hyena war that made the news ten years ago. A hyena had found an infant lion cub and devoured it. The lion pride, justifiably outraged, began the war in retribution. Twenty-three days of vociferous fighting later, forty hyenas and seven lions were dead. The battle took place in the hills outside of Harar. It made sense that it happened there, Fascile explains, as hyenas have always been important to Harar’s history. Many years ago, the hyenas caused people constant grief. They snuck in through weak spots in the winding walls that encircle the old city and devoured the sick, the young, the old, and the drunk. The people designated a guard to feed the animals once each year as a symbol of good will. This man became acquainted with the hyenas, Fascile tells us. Soon, the man knew the hyenas by their markings and knew them by name. When the guard became too old, his son took over the position and for many generations of man and hyena it has been like this, Fascile explains.

It makes sense when you see Solomon there, calling the hyenas, keeping watch over the young ones who circle around behind his back. He sweeps his arm out to shoo them away or throws a few strips of meat into the shadows for them to quarrel over. It makes sense when you sit beside Solomon and he hands you a piece of raw meat on a stick, and it makes sense that you put that stick in your mouth and wait for a hyena to come close enough to kiss you. I watch the black muzzle approach my face and I smell the thick dust on her coat. She is so near I could lean in and embrace her.

I know that my best friend listed the dangers she could imagine and that if she had considered feeding hyenas a possibility it would have been on her list as well. Many of us travel for the chance to encounter the unexpected and have experiences that we cannot anticipate. The things that actually worry me are the dangers I can anticipate. Driving on winding dirt roads in a blinding rain, knowing your headlights are helpless and there are no guardrails between you and a precipice is a bad idea in any country. It didn’t matter that the road was in Ethiopia and not Wyoming. Backpacking in the mountains above Lalibela is no more risky than doing the same in the mountains around Seattle. The number of casualties connected to routine camping trips in the Cascade Mountains each year reminds us that even our perceived level of familiarity is not a guarantee. We take risks each time we walk out our front door. I can’t make a list to anticipate every danger I might encounter any given day and neither would I want to live by such a list. Solomon still has all his limbs, he has no gruesome wounds, and he is alert and confident. I sit beside him as he lifts a strip of meat on to the stick I hold in my mouth. I watch the hyenas turn their attention to me. Solomon calls to them: “Nebucha, Hello. Come here, come here,” he says.