On a hilltop in the eastern Ethiopian Highlands stands the ancient walled city of Harar. Along the base of the wall are small doorways, constructed some centuries ago to allow the city’s most unusual residents, hyenas, to come and go.
Harar was given UNESCO’s City of Peace Prize in 2003 because of the harmonious relationship between local followers of Islam, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Catholicism. Residents have an equally cordial relationship with the spotted hyenas that enter the city at night to eat the food scraps and other organic waste from the garbage dump and the market.
Some date the open door policy regarding hyenas back 200 years, some 500. The generally accepted origin story is that during a famine, the hyenas of the surrounding savannah became aggressive towards livestock and people. Local leaders decided that if they left food out for the hyenas, the animals would be satisfied and life could go on as usual. Since hyenas are opportunistic scavengers, over time the mutually beneficial aspects of the arrangement became clear.
Beginning in the 1960s, “hyena men” began feeding the animals in nightly shows for tourists. Although the trade is in the decline, some still operate. While the hyena clans that visit are generally accustomed to humans, it’s worthwhile to remember that they are still wild and undomesticated animals.
Visitors who have the “waraba nasib” — hyena’s luck — to turn up on the Day of Ashura, the Muslim festival on the tenth day of Muharram, will get to see the hyenas predict the future. On that night, at shrines outside the city, the hyenas are fed a special porridge, and the way they devour the meal is said to reveal how prosperous the city will be in the coming year.
Know Before You Go
It's recommended to reserve a local guide to show you around.