The hyenas are eating guns

“The hyenas are eating guns”  it is a phrase we used to discourage the raids 

(Evans Onyiego, Maralal Diocese Peace Building Team)

In this post, I show how the phrase came about from a story told one night in the Kenyan bush.

  • The phrase condenses a story into five words.
  • It is, on the surface, ridiculous – hyenas will eat many things but probably even they will not literally eat guns. The phrase is a puzzle that attracts interest and attention, and is memorable.
  • The story originated in a real event and physical experience – Evans sitting at night with morans (young men, the warriors of the tribe) armed with guns, ready to raid, and trying to persuade them not to go; together hearing the noise of the hyena in the bush around them.
  • Evans takes that physical experience and uses it to create a story for the morans he is with. Here is how he retold the story:

For two months the hyena were very angry. They need meat.

So they are asking you to go for a raid, so they can have something to eat.

Because definitely, (if) you go, you will be killed.

So it wants to eat you.

“Bring those guns, bring those guns. I want to eat.”

And the hyena will kill you. You all will be killed while the hyena celebrates to get their meat. 

  • In the story, the hyenas are personified. They feel angry. They not only speak, but they know that a raid means morans will be killed and there will be meat for them.
  • In the hyena’s voice, the morans are spoken of as guns (metonymy). The metonymy reflects what has happened since the guns arrived to replace traditional spears for the young men: actual guns have become part of the moran identity and embodied experience through training and use; they are seen as beautiful and important.
  • Shared cultural meanings make the story understandable and powerful:
    • hyenas are seen as dirty and disgusting
    • calling someone a hyena is an insult: a very big abuse
    • hyenas are seen as animals that work very hard, but feed on leftovers
    • hyenas are said to eat anything: they say if it cuts itself, it would start eating its own leg
    • people are very scared of hyenas.

Evans draws on all these in constructing his story. The despised and feared animal becomes even more so when it expresses pleasure in human conflict and sees it as providing meat. To be eaten by such an animal would be a terrible thing.

  • The moral of the story remains unspoken; Evans does not tell the listening morans explicitly not to go. They are left to do the work of imagining themselves being meat for hyenas to eat. This work is an investment in the story which may make it more persuasive.
  • The phrase, The hyenas are eating guns, is taken up by the morans: even now they are using that phrase / everywhere they go.
  • The phrase is made into a poster, with a visual image of hyena and gun that literalises the metonymy and reminds people of the story or creates a puzzle for them to work out. The poster is displayed widely.
  • The phrase, and the story behind it, spreads beyond the initial group and place. In a parish many miles away, the priest told people  ‘the hyena was seen eating guns.’

In the next post, I’ll report what I see happening here when I look at it as a researcher.

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  1. […] previous post told how a peace-maker created a story that became known as “The hyenas are eating […]

  2. […] peace-makers in northern Kenya used stories to influence people’s feelings about the guns (see the Hyenas are eating Guns). They painted pictures of a good life that was possible without violence, and they painted […]



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