Night has just fallen in the ancient, walled-city of Harar and “the children” are being called to get food.
One by one, they approach Abas Yusuf, climb onto his shoulders and nuzzle in his lap.
It is a tender sight but these are not regular offspring – they are fearsome, flesh-eating hyenas.
The Harari people in Ethiopia have a long tradition of feeding and living alongside these wild mammals.
Abas is the latest ‘Hyena Man’ and inherited the job from his father, who fed the spotted beasts for over 40 years. It is a profession he already plans to pass onto his young sons Ibsa, three, and Tujar, two.
Abas said: “I learnt from my father Yusuf when I was just seven years old. I am very very much in love with these animals. Before I eat, I think about how they will eat first. I have given them names and they know their sounds as I call them. They are like my children.”
As the sun sets, Abas places ten wheelbarrows’ worth of meat and bones – cow and camel – outside his home.
He then heads off on his motorbike to a patch of wasteland to begin the nightly feeding.
These days it is very much a tourist attraction but one based on ancient folklore and a pragmatic approach to protect humans.
Using just a torch and the headlights of a bajaj, Abas sits down and calls the hyenas by name, telling them it is time to eat.
One by one, they come and embrace their friend and take a piece of meat from his hand or his mouth.
Next, a tourist will be invited to sit next to Abas and the heavy hyena will climb onto their shoulders reaching for food.
If the visitor is feeling brave, they have the option of holding a piece of meat skewered onto a stick between their teeth.
They can then closely watch as the legendary animal with wide-eyes and strong jaws rips apart the food.
Holding out his hands as proof, Abas says: “I have never been attacked and neither has a tourist. They wouldn’t even try.
“We are very close and the hyenas are very disciplined. However, I won’t let the tourists try to touch because they hyenas are still wild.”
After the show, the hyenas head to find water before making their way into Harar to scavenge for scraps and to clean up the streets. They will also stop to dine at the wheelbarrows of meat left out by Abas and his family to ensure they don’t go hungry.
“Even if there are no tourists, I still feed them” Abas says. “One time they didn’t get meat and they came to my house. So first I will feed them and then I will feed my family. If there is a choice between the hyenas eating or me, then I will feed the hyenas. I can control my hunger whereas the hyenas can’t.”
Spotted hyenas are the second largest land predator in Africa, known to kill children and maim the sleeping homeless.
However the people of Harar have a healthy respect for them and they are embraced as a part of society.
There is written evidence of hyenas being in the area for the last 500 years and there are currently around 250 of them living in three packs in the nearby caves.
Local folklore says that feeding began during a famine in the 19th century by city residents desperate to stave off attacks on livestock.
This legend is still marked each year during the Festival of Ashura where a bowl of porridge and butter is left out. The hyenas’ reaction to the porridge is said to predict the year ahead. If it is all eaten or completely ignored then it means famine or pestilence will happen. If they eat around half then a good harvest is promised. It is said that in 2005 the hyenas refused to eat and two children were killed in the surrounding countryside.
Abas’s father Yusuf Mume Saleh restarted the practice of feeding the hyenas over 40 years ago. One night as he fed his dog, he noticed a lone hyena by the family home and fed it a scrap of meat. The hyena kept returning and eventually brought more of her pack.
A new tradition was born with locals believing that both Yusuf and his son have the ability to speak to the animals. They give the family meat for the hyenas and sleep safer at night thinking they and their livestock are protected from any potential attacks.
These days Yusuf has retired and has happily handed over the family “business” to Abas.
“He has done a great job” Yusuf says within earshot of a smiling Abas, who is packing his basket full of meat before the nightly feed.
There is an idiom in Harar, which is waraba nasib or hyenas’ luck. It is said to mean the person in question finds fortune without seeking it.
This is most certainly true for both the Hyena Men of Harar and the wild animals they adore.
Ed.’s Note: Jane Wharton is a volunteer at The Reporter.
Contributed by Jane Wharton