Had someone asked me before I left, I would have said this day trip would be the pinnacle of my journey to Africa. And even at the end of the evening on Wednesday, I would have said it was, but now, looking back, I know I would have been incorrect. Just as Elijah would have been incorrect had he said God was in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. (1 Kings 19:11-13)
I had done my homework. Harar is considered to be the fourth holiest city of Islam, behind Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. It was established around 900 AD and the wall around it was built in the 1500s to guard against Oromo tribal invasion and it still stands. I read the journal of Richard Burton, the British explorer who claimed the title of “first white man to enter the city.” There was a legend before the 1800’s that if a Christian ever crossed the threshold of any of the gates of this holy center of Islamic learning, the walls would fall. But Burton had become such a master of Q’urannic learning, an expert of Arabic and East African culture, and so skilled at the prevalent languages that he passed through the Erer Gate and befriended the Emir. The story reminds me of the account of Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Funny how the names even coincide.
I wanted to visit for three reasons: to walk in the history of the place, to meet the man that I believed would come to Christ while I was there, to procure an African sword, and to feed the legendary hyenas of Harar. My objectives were met, despite numerous people telling me they could not and would not happen.
Below is a drawing by Burton of Harar in the 1850’s and a photograph by me of Harar in 2018.
Although the angles are a little different, notice the twin minarets of the Jami Mosque in roughly the center of both. The town has certainly grown in the last 160 years, but much remains the same. The Oromos and the Somalis are still arguing about boundaries, the Hararis still seem to try to stay out of it, and Islam is still the prevalent religion, with a mosque in this city at most 100 meters from any home, providing no excuse to be late when the call for prayer is given.
The only stop we made on the way to Harar was for a group of baboons coming down the hillside to the south. My traveling companions thought it as funny as I do that the English word for a group of baboons is “congress.” I’ve since discovered this is only an urban myth and the word is “troop.” Either way, we stayed out of their way and took a photo from the truck window.
Upon arriving in Harar we met Pastor Wodulo Denis, who I am now privileged to call a friend. We met at his Hope International House of Prayer and it was there, during a prayer service for the city, that we prayed with a certain young man as he became a Christian. After this eventful beginning to the visit, we began a trek around and through the city, seeing the gate where Burton entered, the other ancient gates and wall, the markets, and finally, the hyenas.
For centuries, the town of Harar has kept the wild hyena population in those african hills fed, on purpose. The thought has always been that if they feed them what is ok to eat, the hyenas won’t attack what is NOT ok to eat, such as the livestock or the worse yet, the people. Hyenas come in just below the lion on the African predator food chain, so Hararis have developed a relationship with them over time: we feed you and you don’t eat us or ours. The next step that developed in this symbiosis was that the few families who were in charge of maintaining the otherwise wild hyena discovered that tourists would pay to see them up close and personal. 100 Birr per person. ($3) So now, if you can make your way from wherever in the world you might be, to Africa, and Ethiopia, and Harar, and this little field just outside the southeast city gate, you can watch wildish hyenas coming in from the bush, and then fighting over scraps of meat, laughing and growling all the while. Out of 20 or so spectators on a given night, there are always a few who want to jump in and be part of the show, or the meal – whatever.
So we wrapped up quite a day, with all my appendages still intact in spite of the close encounters with wild hyenas. As were wandering through the markets of Harar earlier, I told Pastor Wodulo that I was looking for a sword, and that everyone from local law enforcement to my lawyer friends to other non-residents told me it would be impossible to get anything qualifying as a weapon, without being a national or part of of a tribe.
So Pastor Wodulo gave me this:
It is an Oromo ceremonial tribal sword. A gift from a friend that I will treasure for a lifetime. My day was complete.