Stranger’s veiw of Addis Ababa and It’s Hyenas
By: Yves Marie
The two hyenas moved into the middle of the backstreet that led to my house – between me and my front gate. I froze like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights: I was on foot, alone, and it was close to midnight on a rainy night in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s ramshackle capital where I’d recently moved. Nobody was at hand to help or tell me what to do. I was very scared.
This all happened a stone’s throw from Bole Avenue, the city’s commercial hub. Every day, I’d walk to work across fields dotted with cows accompanied by frog song. And this was the heart of the capital city, in the year 2002. I had, however, moved to the city just as it was on the cusp of radical change: globalisation had reached the country, and Chinese funds too.
The fields I used to walk through next to the airport are today occupied by luxury hotels. This pulsating metropolis of five million people now has a ring road, high rises and malls, and the city is fast losing its patchwork of gardens, streams and village neighbourhoods – and also its hyenas. But back in the early 2000s, it often seemed to me that Addis had perfectly applied Alphonse Allais’s tongue-in-cheek answer to urban woes: build a city in the countryside.
Hyenas have always featured prominently in the life of Addis Ababa – and Ethiopia. Contrary to many countries where the beasts are reviled and feared, in Ethiopia there is a long tradition of people and hyenas living side-by-side in harmony. This was brought home to me when I read a recent BBC articlesaying that hyenas were “out of control” in the Ethiopian capital (up to a 1,000 of them are “running amok” here, apparently), possessing a bite “stronger that a white shark” (quite true) and gobbling up vagrants’ and rough sleepers’ toes and fingers (a preference for finger food, it seems).
A few voices pointed out the benefits of their increased presence, as “they eat up dangerous stray dogs and are a free clean-up service”. But overall – following the news of a baby being snatched straight from its mother’s arms – it was a familiar story of the fear of the beast: the wolf baying at the gates of Paris or London in the middle ages, snatching enfants or infants from their cradles.
But the story of Addis Ababa and Ethiopia’s long coexistence with hyenas is a more nuanced affair. I would argue there are fewer hyenas in the city itself, and more of the beasts on the periphery. Fewer in the city because ringroads, fast cars and a blanket of cement and urbanisation have erased a lot of the “wild” urban areas. More in the periphery because Addis Ababa has grown so tremendously in the last few years.
People are moving into what were sparsely populated areas, and the increasing wellbeing and economic growth in Ethiopia has led to a tremendous increase in the number of domestic animals being slaughtered, with bones – and all sorts of other solid wastes – being dumped on the outskirts of the capital: more food for scavengers. Far from its drought-prone image, booming Ethiopia has the largest cattle numbers in Africa – and a lot of that cattle finishes on the plates of Addis Ababa’s new middle classes.
After moving to the city, I ran a horse trekking outfit a few miles from the capital. I can safely say that Ethiopia and the outskirts of Addis have some of the highest concentrations of hyena in the world. When we put down an old horse in the bottom of the field next to the stables, around 30 hyenas turned up at dusk. In the morning, you would have been hard-pressed to find a single horse hair … that old white-shark bite again. Yet when we walked down to the village through the forest in the evening, and sometimes found ourselves surrounded by hyenas, a quick “shoo!” and these not-so-terrifying beasts would scamper.
In the Entoto Hills, the resting grounds of most of the hyena packs these days, there are hundreds of shepherd children out every day of the year, on their own, without even a dog for protection. The only proven casualty I’ve heard of in 12 years was a drunken man who was hit by a car – and abandoned unconscious in a pool of blood.
In the eastern Ethiopian city of Harrar, I stood with a hyena on either side and looked on in wonder as their “minder” called them in turn by name, and fed them tidbits from a stick he clenched between his own teeth. A cat looked on through all this, patiently waiting its share of offal. It too had a hyena on either side and seemed unfazed.
Yves Marie Stranger blogs at uthiopia.com