‘There was something very strange going on, bordering on sadomasochism’ … the street performer and his hyena. Image Credit: Photograph by Pieter Hugo
I first learned about Nigeria’s “hyena men” in 2005, thanks to a picture that had gone viral. The caption said they were debt collectors in Lagos. I knew I had to find them. The country has a population of 186 million people, though, so the odds were pretty low.
But then in 2017 a journalist friend told me they come from his home town, Kano, in the north. Two weeks later, I was on my way.The hyena men are itinerants: they never spend more than two days anywhere.
I found them in a shanty town near Abuja, the capital. Despite the language barrier we got to know each other pretty quickly. Outside of Lagos and Port Harcourt, I didn’t see a single white person in Nigeria.
So I probably seemed as odd to them as a guy walking a hyena in the street seemed to me.
We smoked some weed to break the ice. It turned out they weren’t debt collectors – they were more like town criers, traditional storytellers who performed in the streets and sold potions after their shows. I
t reminded me of stories I’d read about eastern European circus troupes in the 1930s – except instead of bears, these guys had hyenas, baboons and pythons.
Seeing them perform was unforgettable. It was a huge spectacle. They would beat drums to draw in the crowds, then take the muzzles off the hyenas.
Next they’d put their arms and even their heads between the animals’ jaws. The aim was to convince the audience they had special powers, and that the audience could acquire them too, if they bought their potions.