Author : Marcus Baynes
Year : 2009
There are quite a few versions of the history and the events of the hyena feeding of Ashura, so I’ll condense them into one, generic version. Essentially the story goes that there was a famine in Harar and that due to the shortage of food, the hyenas had taken to attacking and eating the people. It became such a problem that the people protested and demanded that something be done to stop the attacks. The town’s saints held a meeting on Mt Hakim and decided that the hyenas should be fed porridge and in return the hyenas should not attack anyone. This was successful and as a result, the truce is celebrated each year at A’shura, when the hyenas are fed porridge with lashings of butter at various shrines in the land around Harar. The other versions have a similar theme to the above: Widespread famine, people being attacked, solution sought, solution found by feeding hyenas porridge.
The actual feeding has a mythological ring to it. People say that after the porridge is laid out for the hyenas, the hyena king comes first to test it. They say that the hyena king is very handsome, very graceful and completely white. Although I have heard from some people that he can be completely black, but either sounds a little incongruous for a hyena. The hyena king tests the porridge by looking for his reflection, and if he can see it, he tries some. If he approves of the porridge he signals to the other hyenas to come and eat the porridge at which point the others come and join in. It’s best if they eat most but not all, as that means it will be a good year with no drought, famine or pestilence, but it’s up to the murid of the shrine to determine exactly the meaning of the leftovers.
As I said, many have tried to film this hyena porridge-eating and all have failed. So we set off from Harar for Aw Nagus (the shrine of Saint Nagus) on Saturday afternoon, full of anticipation but highly sceptical and not expecting to see any hyenas eating porridge. I mean, honestly, hyenas eating porridge? Be serious. But we knew for certain there would be all-night celebrations including dancing drumming and singing zikris, which alone would be worth driving 50kms on unmade roads to see. We arrived around dusk and were shown the compound beside the shrine. There was a room for the men’s business and a room for the women and children (which also contained sheep), a kind of chill-out room and a room for the healing rituals. I went around back to see the women preparing the porridge. It was bubbling away in a big cauldron, with two women stirring it using metre long wooden poles, and a bunch of other women singing and laughing all the while. In the men’s room each of the men had been given a chapter of the Quran to read and they did this until all chapters had been completed. After that, they made supplications and prayed and apparently this was to continue until the hyenas came. In the women and childrens’ room there was drumming and singing and things were a little less earnest.
After a couple of hours, the porridge for the hyenas was carried out in bowls on the top of some young womens’ heads. And if you’ve ever seen an Oromo woman carrying something on her head, you’ll understand how incredibly graceful this procession was. The women took the porridge to a stone slab, set in the ground beside the wall of the shrine and laid out three perfectly circular mounds of porridge, each about 30cm diameter and with a depression in the middle so that they looked like three big white doughnuts. Then some older women took some ghee and poured it in the middle of the porridge so that each had a little pool of butter. After they did this, I went up to the wall beside the shrine and found myself a position which I hoped would be comfortable, as I was expecting to be sitting there for some hours waiting for the hyenas to come, if at all. The organisers had anticipated the potential problems, so there were soldiers at hand who herded the local children together and made them stand in a huddle near the water tank. To the untrained eye it looked for all the world as though the children were about to be executed. Meanwhile, all the adults except myself, a news cameraman, a journalist and a few VIPs had retired to the respective rooms around the compound to sing and pray and entreat the hyenas to come.
About 5 minutes after the porridge had been set down and just as I’d settled in my position at an oblique angle to the slab and about three metres above it, a hyena came out of the bushes and started lapping up the ghee. I was both incredulous and panicked as I hadn’t even switched on my camera, so I sat there fumbling with the buttons, praying that the hyena wouldn’t run off before the camera started up. Luckily the hyena stayed and I filmed most of the action. It lapped up the ghee in each mound and tasted some of the porridge, before moving on to the next. I was looking in my viewfinder, incredulous, that this lone hyena (hereafter referred to as the hyena king) was doing almost exactly what the legend had said. I was also gesticulating madly at the other people who had positioned themselves directly in front of the porridge and who the hyena king kept looking up at, being very skittish. He looked like a hyena about to run away and I was hissing at the journalist to switch off the torch that he was shining on the hyena (they’d been told not to use any lights, I was using infrared) and an insufferable VIP who kept taking photos with a flash. They ignored me so instead I gesticulated to the soldier behind me to shoot them, but he ignored me too. So the hyena king, after having just tested the third mound of porridge, took fright from the lights and disappeared into the bushes. And so began the long wait for the other hyenas to come and eat. We waited for an hour, while more and more people gathered at the wall, and we could see the hyenas about 30 metres from the shrine but refusing to come and eat. They’d found a cow’s rear end that must have been put there to attract them and were far more interested in that, than in three mounds of gheeless porridge. That was when a dog arrived and decided it wanted to be part of the tradition of A’shura and began eating the porridge. A soldier dispatched the dog with a well-aimed stone and it ran off to go and harass the hyenas. Then two men decided to drag the cow’s rear end over to where the porridge was, presumably in the hope that the hyenas would give up the cow in favour of some white, lumpy, buttery stuff. I tasted some porridge myself afterwards and I must say, the cow’s rear end is a more attractive proposition. So after the hyenas had dragged what was left of the cow into the bushes, the murid decided that enough was enough and that the porridge should be ‘read’. He came out and made an examination and then an ox and a sheep were brought out to be slaughtered. This was done under the watchful gaze of the hyenas, just out torch-range, and in front of the dogs who had taken up the task of defending the meat from the hyenas. Most of the meat was taken to the compound to be cooked for the celebrations, while the heads, skins and entrails were put out for the hyenas or the dogs; whoever wanted them the most.
Any hopes of seeing the hyenas gathering to finish off the porridge were abandoned and the people returned to their respective rooms to sing zikris and perform healing rituals and so forth. The mens’ room was full, with about 80 men and boys and there was much chat chewing, singing, dancing and drumming. The drums were big and booming and the sound pushed against one’s chest when they hit them in centre for a bass beat. And the singing was repetitive, but infectious and seemed to me like of a kind of religious football song where there are certain zikris in which you insert the name of the relevant saint. And the murid announced his interpretation of the partly eaten porridge, promising a prosperous year with perhaps one calamity and success for those who had made the trip from Harar. All in all, the atmosphere was amazing and the hyenas were all but forgotten in peoples’ minds. There was one Australian researcher, however, who every now and then went out to check and see if the hyenas had come to eat the porridge. On my second visit to the wall, I could hear them squabbling in the darkness where the porridge was so I switched on my camera in the hope of getting some footage. But these guys were far more skittish than the hyena king and they scarpered each time they heard me near the wall, so as a result I can only claim to have heard, and not seen, them finishing off the porridge. But when I went to look at the stone slab at the side of the shrine below the wall, the porridge was indeed gone.
I am no longer the sceptic I was. The hyena king was not all white, but was also not spotted apart from having a few spots on his knees. Personally, I think hyenas are beautiful, but I’d guess that most people would have concurred that the hyena king was not particularly handsome or graceful either. Yet he did test each of the mounds of porridge, just as the legend says, and he was followed, albeit much later, by the other hyenas who finished the stuff. For me it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen and I felt like I was at the interface between reality and mythology. The ceremony happens only once a year, yet the hyena king was ready and waiting for the people to leave so that he could test the porridge. In terms of hyena ecology, it’s a testament to the power of the hyena’s memory; in terms of the beliefs of the people, it’s a testament to the power of prayer; in terms of human-animal relationships it’s an affirmation of a relationship with wild animals based on recognition of the need for co-existence with minimal conflict and I feel so lucky to have been witness to it.
The video of the hyena king is now in high demand. The news crew was unsuccessful using torch light (though they were successful in scaring the hyena away) so really the only video available is the infrared footage that I shot. I can’t hand over the tape to anyone though, because it also has footage of people dancing and singing and making porridge and my ethics approval doesn’t allow me share it. As far as the footage of the hyena king, I’ve been advised to sit on it until it can be decided what to do with it. So sorry about that, and I hope the above description will be enough for now.