Shortly after dusk, the hyenas emerge from the mountains and creep toward the edge of the village of Senafe, Eritrea. They announce their presence with a distinctive yipping call. It is an eerie sound that has been compared to the laugh of a demented person. These are the laughing hyenas of East Africa.
I recall that, as a child, I walked with my friends to the furthest extreme of the dim village lights of Senafe at dusk to engage with the hyenas. We moved cautiously hoping to maintain a safe distance. We did so with some amount of trepidation. The howling cry of the hyenas ceased as we grew closer. We knew they were present by the dark hulking shadows darting forward then dropping back into the dark African night. Our search to spot them in the darkness was met with a row of luminescent eyes staring back at us.
The hyenas leave the mountains because they are hungry. They can be intimidating creatures. The spotted hyena (scientific name of crocuta crocuta) lumbers on stiff hind legs that support heavy shoulders and a large head with powerful jaws. These are jaws that can snap a spinal cord in two. The hyenas are scavengers but also might attack livestock or even small children.
The relationship between the hyenas and the diverse peoples of East Africa is complex. It is informative because it is more multi-faceted than the simple conflict between the hyenas seeking food and the villagers needing to protect their village. The hyenas and the people of East Africa have co-existed for centuries. Together with the peoples of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and other countries, the hyenas are survivors of armed conflicts, plagues, drought and famine. The hyenas have been scavengers in the brutal armed conflicts that have sadly beset this region. Sometimes they have fed on bodies left behind on battlefields or have dug up shallow graves.
Both the people of this region and the hyenas have survived because of great resiliency and adaptability. The hyena has come to occupy a place of respect in the cultural and narrative traditions of the region. They are woven into the fabric of the legends and the life rhythms of East Africa. Hyena stories have an important place in local narratives. These narratives often draw on lessons from the animal kingdom to inform human behavior.
East Africa has found its own way to make peace with the hyenas. The legendary Hyena Man of Harar (in Ethiopia) is designated by the villagers to engage with the hyenas on their behalf. He travels to their habitat in the mountains, meeting them in their own territory. He meets them at night when the hyenas are most emboldened. The Hyena Man comes in peace to feed the hyenas and convince them to leave the village unharmed. It is an intimate engagement. The Hyena Man holds chunks of raw meat in his mouth and invites the hyenas to come and eat. He is willing to be vulnerable. He is the host of a meal and a facilitator of a conversation. This is peaceful engagement with a potentially dangerous party for the purpose of finding common ground.
The tradition of feeding the hyenas to placate them grew from indigenous spiritual wisdom that sought out a way of peacemaking with these creatures as an alternative to attempting to eradicate them. There are narrative accounts that efforts to poison the hyenas only incurred the wrath of the hyena packs. It also had unfavorable environmental impacts as poison found its way into the food chain. The Hyena Man represents an alternative response. Through the Hyena Man, the villagers engage in a reflective conversation with the situation of the hyenas encroaching on the safety of their village.
The hyena is an icon for the intrusive neighbor with whom we must inevitably find some peace. Feeding the aggressor may be more effective than attacking them. This is a simple and profound truth from engagement with the hyenas: feeding those who are hungry goes a long way toward peacemaking! The hyenas come into the village simply because they are hungry. They leave because they are satisfied. The resolution is more than a full stomach. It comes through a relational engagement. The Hyena Man calls the hyenas by name as he feeds them. This is a communal conversation that engages the entire village in discourse with the pack of hyenas. It is a conversation not only with the hyenas, but with the situation itself.
The notion of a conversation with the situation stretches us beyond our individualistic and dualistic thinking. It involves more than a subject and an object. It requires a more relational perspective. It involves dialogue as reflective process of listening together. This is more than even listening to each other. It is what I call, relational listening. The notion builds on Schön’s writing in The Reflective Practitioner. It suggests that any conflict involves more than two parties—us vs. them.
What can we, in the West, learn from the East African experience of making peace with the hyenas? Many of us who have journeyed from Africa to the U.S. are struck by the impulse here to respond immediately to a perceived threat with dominance and force. If there is a conversation before a violent response to an act of violence, it is often restricted to a war room. It may be debated by television pundits entertaining the public with ‘debate’ on the issue. It is rarely brought into the public square of dialogue and deliberation. When is the collective wisdom of the villagers trusted? Does the propensity toward powering-over any threat preempt and avoid the deeper conversations with the situation that need to happen?
There is a perception in the predominant media and culture in the U.S that any administration responding to violence with dialogue and deliberation is showing weakness. Despite this, there is some growing perspective that military threats or a show of power should be a last resort, instead of a first response. Perhaps, on the level of international engagement, we are beginning to learn the wisdom of the Hyena Man of Harar.
The ‘war on terror’ has preoccupied resources and cost so many lives in many parts of the world over the past decade. Might it have run a different course if our response had been less about military counter-aggression and more about engaging conversations that needed to happen? This might have included a conversation about how and why the West has come to be despised in portions of the non-western world. It might have included an effort to reach some understanding of more peaceful ways to react to deep clashes of religious and cultural values.
There are perhaps conversations with the situation that need to happen whether the threat is the encroachment of hyenas on the village or the threat of terror attacks on an urban center. Deep conversations do not diminish us or our standing in the world. They may in fact enhance our ability to respond to real and perceived threats. The more reflective and measured response may have merit. Yes, the West has wisdom to learn from Africa.
Samuel Mahaffy was born in Asmara, Eritrea and grew up in Senafe, a village in Eritrea close to the border with Ethiopia. He has assisted more than five hundred nonprofits and NGO’s around the world. His work supports nonprofits in the Seattle, Washington area working with refugee families and immigrants from East Africa. He earned his Ph.D. from Tilburg University in the Netherlands through the Taos Institute.