Circus culture is not a thing in Africa. As far as post-colonial history is concerned, there is no story like that of P.T. Barnum nor a Cirque du Soleil-esque company.
But what Nigeria has is a fascinating crew of young men who go from city to city with their band of three hyenas, four baboons and two rock pythons. And the Hyena Men, as they are called, have earned huge admiration for their showmanship.
Across the country, the young men thrill teeming audiences, usually gathered in compounds and by streets. These are paid performances.
They can get their hyenas to sit, stand, hug and whatever pleases the fancy of those watching. The young men equally dazzle with the other animals.
The snakes may be wrapped around the body or an arm. And if a performer wanted to get more gasps, they bring the poisonous reptiles close to their face.
A short documentary, Hyena Boys, produced and released in 2013 by a South African crew on the Hyena Men went viral, catching the attention of world media.
The itinerant performers are from a family in Kano in Northern Nigeria. When they are in a place where they’d like to perform, they beat their drums and call the attention of the public.
After wowing the crowd, at a cost, they would usually sell potions they had brought along the zoological attraction. This business model has proven successful for over a decade.
But it is not easy gathering the animals for their roadshows. With the employment of spiritual charms and potions, the hyena men are able to capture and train the wild animals.
Aisha Mohammed, the only woman of the family, does not take part in the nomadic engagements yet plays a significant part. She prepares potions for the young boys in the family thereby inculcating in them fearlessness and command over the animals they would one day grow to work with.
Such is the connection between the men and their beasts that the leader of the team, Baba Mohammed, even believes that he could speak with the animals.
Photographer Pieter Hugo, who spent some time with the men told The Guardian last year: “There was something very strange going on between the guys and the hyenas, bordering on sadomasochism. These animals had been taken out of the wild as pups. They couldn’t return. They were entirely dependent on these guys for food. And these men were dependent on the animals for their livelihoods. They needed each other, but it wasn’t an easy symbiosis.”
But the African fascination with hyenas and making money is not only limited to the Mohammed family in Nigeria.
Nsuri.com reports that in Harar Jagol in Eastern Ethiopia, tourists entertain themselves by feeding “friendly” hyenas.
It is said the townspeople have for decades tamed the hyenas in their part of the country and have managed to make what could have been a bloody situation turn into a mega attraction.