THE HYENA MEN
Abdullahi Ahmadu was 15 years old when he joined his father’s business in the small town of Malumfashi in Katsina State, Nigeria. This meant that he had to acquire his own hyena, as his family made their living as entertainers accompanied by hyenas, snakes and monkeys, in addition to selling the fetishes and herbal medicines that are popular in Nigeria.
Abdullahi’s grandfather, Nalado Ahmadu, taught him how to catch and control the animals, and introduced him to the charms that help subdue the creatures and protect their captors from harm.
Today Abdullahi is an experienced animal handler in his early thirties, who travels across Nigeria as part of a troupe of entertainers including his younger brother, Yahaya, and other members of his extended family. Together they work with three hyenas, two rock pythons and four baboons. According to Abdullahi, this is a tradition exclusive to his family, and only they are taught the secrets of how to trap and take care of the creatures.
The first time I met up with the hyena men, as they have become known, the group was staying in a ramshackle three-bedroom apartment in Dei Dei Junction, a suburb of the Nigerian capital, Abuja. The animals were housed in specially constructed boxes. Every member of the party had sores and scars on their faces, legs and hands - legacies of times when the animals suddenly turned hostile and pounced on their handlers with their teeth and claws.
‘We use a heavy stick to hit the hyenas on the head when they misbehave,’ Abdullahi said. ‘We knock them down on the ground. All of us hold the sticks in case the animals become aggressive.’
However, Abdullahi’s daughter, six-year-old ‘Mummy’, played with the animals with no sign of fear. She even rode a hyena as if it were a miniature, slope-shouldered pony. ‘She cannot be harmed,’ said Abdullahi. ‘It’s the same thing with the snakes and monkeys. She has taken a potion of traditional herbs and has been bathed with it. So her safety from the animals is guaranteed for the rest of her life.’