Profiles in Bravery: Boy Mauled by Hyena, Father Saves the Day

Three weeks ago, I got a call from a nun from the Philippines. Also an anesthesiologist,  Dr. Toni directs Attat Hospital, a Catholic hospital outside Addis Ababa. She had an 8-year old boy with a huge head wound – he’d been mauled by a hyena 5 months before.

When we met a few days later, I saw a very scared boy with a huge white head bandage,  clutching his dad.


I sat with his dad to get the story: His dad, Alawi is 45 years old. As a boy, he traveled to  Addis Ababa for 4 or 5 years, working as a shoeshine boy, a carrier, a guard.Then his father called him to come home and get married. He’s been married for 26 years. “I was 19, a kid, no beard, nothing,” he joked.

I asked about the marriage customs: It’s all arranged by the parents: “out of respect for our parents, we agree.” He saw his wife from afar before marriage, that was it. He had never spoken with her.

His wife is named Saiida, she is 39. She married at 13. He added: “She is a very good wife, she celebrates with me, she supports me in times of hardship, when I’m in the fields, she goes to market. She left her whole family to be with me.”

They’ve had 7 kids ranging in age from 8 – 20.  That’s a lot of kids to support. He had hoped things would get better with his daughter working as a housemaid in Syria but she died there 18 months ago. Terrible tragedy.

He lives in a village he calls “Enemur.” There are perhaps 1000 people in the village. They speak a local dialect: “Enamurinya.” The village is mostly Moslem, but there are plenty of Christians. I asked if there is any tension between the 2: “None,” he said. “We attend each others’ weddings, and we support each other – when Mosl

ems fast, the Christians help us. When Christians fast, we help them.” I asked about mixed marriages – “none,” he said, “we marry within our own groups.”

The village school goes to 8th grade. Then the students walk 1 hour away for high school. Alawi has a 7th grade education, his wife is not educated. He regrets his limited education, but due to his family situation, he moved to Addis Ababa to work as a teen. I asked about female education – he’s very happy to have educated daughters. He believes girls should get married after they are educated and life is stable.

Alawi is a religious Moslem, he prays 5 times a day. There is a “Masgid,” a mosque, in his village. He goes there several times a day. He goes to a larger mosque nearby on Fridays. I asked about holidays – his favorite holiday is Arefa and Id Al Fitr. He loves fasting during Ramadan. I asked if he ever cheated during the fast. “Never,” he replied emphatically.

His father purchased land for him. We had a long discussion over the measurements: 5 zeng, or 8 kend. A kend is the distance from the elbow to the tips of the fingers. A zeng is just the length of the hand. In any case, he farms over 2 hectares, his land is long, rectangular. He grows enset, coffee, teff, potato, and maize. Mostly this is for them to eat at home. He sells the teff when he needs money.

I asked him about animals – he has none of his own. People give him a cow, he feeds it, and if it gives birth they can take the calf and he drinks the milk. He uses the manure for fertilizer.

I asked him how much money he spends in 1 year. He said 3000-4000 birr.  1 dollar = 18.6 birr. That upper number comes to $216. In Ethiopia, 39% live on less than the international poverty line, $1.25/day. Alewi is far below this, especially considering his family size.  In fact, he has less than his neighbors. He had hoped things would improve when his daughter left to be a housemaid in Syria, but she died there.

I asked how often he eats meat – he said halfway through Ramadan, neighbors pool their resources and eat 1 meal together. He estimates that they eat meat 6  times/year.

There is no electricity in the village, they cook with “naphtha,” kerosene. He has a “kuraz,” a  small oil light for night use. And he has a radio.


I asked what he’d do if someone gave him a windfall – 10,000 birr. That’s $540. “I’d use about 7000 birr to finish my house. I’d buy korkoro – corrugated aluminum sheets, and hire a carpenter. I need about 100 korkoros,  including the barn. A cheap one costs 80 birr. An expensive one costs 120 birr. Carpenters charge 35 birr per korkoro sheet to build.”

I asked if he’s happy. “Sure,” he said, without hesitation. “Most of your life is about your kids. You don’t want to die without building them a house to live in. He worries all the time about getting his kids onto their own, and leaving them something to stand on.

We spoke about Abdulrazak: “When we was growing up, we were never afraid of hyenas,” he explained –  “Ye sefer jib,” the local hyenas. You recognized them. You saw them almost daily. They left you alone. They walked by.”  He explained it’s the custom that when an outside hyena – “engida jib,” literally “guest hyena,” comes into the area, a respected elder will go out and order the hyenas “get rid of this outside hyena, or we will cover up the holes you hide in.” He said it works.

With all this as background, I asked him to describe what happened to Abdulrazak.

It was a Sunday afternoon in January. Abdulrazak was hungry, and his dad paid 1.25 birr (about 7 cents) to buy him bread from a kiosk. That was lunch. His son noticed smoke from a fire nearby, and he wanted to visit his friends there. Abdulrazak said “I’m going to take the cattle there.” It was about 8 minutes away.

He was there with 2 other kids. They saw a hyena. It seemed large to them, and one of them thought it was a donkey. Another kid said “I think it’s a hyena, everybody run.” They scattered. Abdulrazak was the smallest and slowest. The hyena ran to him and pushed him down, and stepped onto his back.

The hyena bit his ear and tore it upwards. As this was happening, his dad was farming maize. He heard screaming and heard a kid shouting “jib.” He ran as fast as he could towards the noise – it took just 4 minutes at super-fast speed. As he got close, the hyena continued eating.  The hyena had his jaws around Abdul’s head, and was attacking the right side of his face, destroying his right ear and blinding him in his right eye.

Alewi immediately said to himself “if he’s going to kill my son, he’ll have to kill me first.” Risking his own life, he dove to pick up the hyena’s back legs. He got 1 leg into his hand, and went for the 2nd leg. About 30 villagers came running. The hyena jumped away. Alewi picked up Abdulrazak, and then passed out.

He had blood on his body, his hands, his face. He swallowed some of his son’s blood. Neighbors took the child out of his hands. They thought of taking him to the village clinic, but they all believed that the boy had died. They carried the body home.

Someone thought he may be alive and walked into town to call an ambulance. Alewi, his wife, Abdulrazak, and a couple of others rode 1 hour to Attat Hospital. Abdulrazak was unconscious.

At the hospital, Abdulrazak was evaluated by 2 doctors, admitted, cleaned, bandaged, and given “glucose,” the Ethiopian term for IV fluid. In fact, he got over 20 bags of IV fluid during his stay. He became slightly responsive.

For the next 5 days, Abdulrazak wavered between life and death. Both parents maintained  a vigil at his bedside for 2 months. They prayed constantly. In their village, their kids stayed with neighbors. Then their daughter Addis Ababa moved back home to care for her brothers and sisters. She stayed for 10 weeks. Now she visits once a week.

In Attat, Abdulrazak slowly improved. After 2 months, he no longer needed both parents at his bedside, so his mom returned home. He was premedicated to change his bandage every day in the operating room. Later, in Addis Ababa it was done in the “wound-care” room, without medication. This was 1 tough kid.


I asked how much this cost – He paid 200 birr initially, then the hospital never gave them another bill.

Eventually, doctors advised that he needs extensive surgeries, which could not be done in Attat. Dr. Toni phoned to ask for my help.

When I examined him, I noted that he had literally been “scalped,” missing his right ear, he had a membrane over his right eye, and he had raw, exposed scalp on the top, back, and right side of his head.

“What happened to the hyena?” I asked. “He escaped.” He went to another woreda (area). He bit 2 girls. 1 died, 1 was wounded. Another child was attacked – he is also in Attat Hospital. There are 3 in hospital at this moment with hyena bites.

A neighbor’s 12-year old went out to collect wood. They found his head and his body separated. The hyena has now moved on. He escapes into the eucalyptus. By now, the hyena has bitten about 16 or 18 people. 6 have died.

I asked how are things for Alawi now? “Money problems,” he said. His daughter takes home 570 birr/month ($31) as a housemaid in Addis Ababa. But needs to quit her job to move back home to help her mom. “I don’t know what we’ll do,” he said, shaking his head.

I asked him why all this happened. “It’s a test from G-d,” he replied, “Xavier fetena.” “Starting from when my oldest died in Syria 18 months ago,” he said, “G-d has been testing me.” He continued “But G-d gives joy in different ways. This is my youngest child. We’re much closer now. When my wife took him for a day, he said “get dad back here.” Alewi describes Abdulrazak as “extremely curious and smart,” and would love for him to get a real education.

The day I examined Abdulrazak, my friends Ron Romaner and Jaynie Shultz were visiting from Dallas. I told them the story. Ron immediately contacted “Friends of Western Galilee Hospital,” an Israeli hospital in Nahariya. The hospital jumped at the chance to help this boy. The Israeli Ambassador took special interest in his case. She phoned me twice a day to ask for updates. JDC was delighted to help as well. I was able to get them an Ethiopian passport in 2 days, and then Israeli visas. Last night I brought them to the airport and put them on the Ethiopian Air flight to Tel Aviv. They are now in Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, being evaluated for surgery later this week.

I was incredibly impressed with Alewi, – he is an uneducated farmer who risked his life to save his son. And his son has endured many months of suffering to get to this point. They each deserve gold medals for heroism.

But Alewi turned to me the other day  and said: “Doctor, fetari yekefatot…” literally, “May the Creator bless you and give you back what you are doing for me – I am not able to.”

We all wish them successful surgery.

– Dr. Rick Hodes