I have many things to blog about. Almost everyday I have some little experience and I think, "I should really blog about that!" Then life gets in the way. By the time I've fetched water, made dinner, washed the dishes and sorted myself out for the next day I'm far too exhausted to do much more than crawl into bed with a book or old episodes of Grey's Anatomy and so my blog gets put off again and again. Now there's another reason for my time away. Shaka died last week and I haven't been able to blog on until I've addressed the shadowy cloud that is the loss of my third dog in two years.
Simba was my first dog. My host mother in Deorham noticed my affection for a certain village puppy, and so knowing where that puppy had come from, she requested that a sibling be given to me. I think I got the runt of the litter. Exactly two weeks into Simba's life with me, he passed away. I came home from school to find him curled up in his box in the garage, cold and stiff. We buried him in the backyard, where my host mother said a few loving words before her domestic piled dirt on top of him. I never found out exactly what killed him, but I later discovered that all his sibling died as well. They were probably just from one sick litter.
I was still pretty sad about Simba's death. People in the village knew this, and one person in particular proposed a solution. He would get me another dog. While he said this to me personally, I was still pretty surprised when he rolled up one day with a squirming bundle of adorable, Rustenburg. I named him for his "rusty" copper ears and the South African city of the same name. He lived well past the two week mark, and even moved with me when I left Deorham for Loopeng. There he was a quick hit with my new family, as Rusty was a fairly composed and unflappable animal. He rarely barked, or jumped, or made anyone's foot a chew toy. I left him for a few days to attend a workshop, and while there learned that he was found dead back in Loopeng.
That was devastating. I was halfway across the country. I had no idea what had happened. I had seen him just a few days prior, as happy and healthy as could be. Then, he was gone. Poof.
I returned to Loopeng and began life as a dog-less volunteer for the first time in almost a year. It was bearable. I could handle it. But it wasn't fun. I didn't enjoy spending time outside without a dog to throw a stick to. I didn't like not having a warm head to pat first thing in the morning, before I brushed my teeth. I was lonely without a dog to greet me at home after a long, and frequently depressing, day at work. Still, I survived. I puttered on.
Then a friend moved to a new village. I went to visit her, and lo and behold. Her neighbor had puppies, and yes, they were for sale. I picked the first fluff ball to stagger towards my feet and start nibbling my toes. I named him Shaka, because obviously he was going to be fierce.
I didn't know the half of it. Shaka was a handful like no other. He was cute as a button, but man, was he crazy. He jumped. He scratched. He chewed. He bit. He barked when he wanted attention, which was all the time. He was never tired. Never, ever. I would toss his rope toy til my arm was sore, and he would still have enough energy to tear my clothes straight off the clothesline with his jaws. I couldn't take him for proper walks because he was so busy biting the leash to bits. Shaka was a spitfire, and he drove me insane.
Time passed, though, and age mellowed him just a tad, just enough to make him seem manageable. I invested in some dog biscuits and began training him, both vocally and visually. He could sit, stay, paw and lay down. He actually did those things whenever he felt like it. On many occasions, during an evening training session, I could feel the gears grinding in his head as his attention wavered between the treat in my hand and the donkey cart outside the yard. The donkey cart usually won.
Shaka died last Tuesday. He came to my door in the evening, as usual. I let him in, but something was off. He stumbled to his bed, but was too weak to climb up properly. I lifted his hind legs, and he started to settle down. He was panting heavily and drooling like a maniac, so I gave him a bowl of water. He lapped it up, but couldn't seem to actually swallow it. I still wasn't too concerned. I thought maybe he'd been in a fight, he was stressed, he was anxious, he just needed to rest. I started towel-drying my hair. Shaka started shaking. I called his name, he looked at me, and I saw that he was not improving. I put down the towel and started frantically Googling his symptoms. I found nothing helpful. Stroking him with one hand, I started dialling numbers. The call to the vet didn't go through. Shaka started seizing, his jaw snapping wildly. I called another friend with dogs. She was helpful and kind, but minutes after I hung up the seizing stopped. I said his name to no response. My heart rose to feel his continue beating, but I burst into tears when I felt it stop.
I stroked him until his body went stiff, covered him in his towel and lay him outside. I couldn't bear to have his body in the room. My host dad buried him the next day.
So I've had three dogs die, each more terribly than the last. Of course I asked myself what I did wrong. Plenty of other volunteers adopt pets during their service, but I don't know anyone else with such a tragic track record. As it turns out, dog poisonings are not uncommon in Loopeng. Farmers, in particular, set out poison to prevent dogs from eating their chickens. Other people just hate dogs. I heard this after Rusty's death, I just didn't really believe it or its now-obvious extent. In a way it makes me feel better to know that there was really nothing to be done for Shaka. That he didn't die of something accidental or preventable. His death was intentional, and short of locking him up inside all day, everyday there was nothing I, or anyone, could have done to save him. It also infuriates me that I live in a part of the world where people deliberately kill man's best friend. Thankfully, many of my friends and colleagues feel the same way. I've heard nothing but angry and empathetic comments about "these people" for a week straight. "These people" are supposedly responsible for a rash of dog poisonings that stretches from Loopeng to several villages east. Apparently it's been happening for years.
Knowing this now, and given the general difficulties of pet ownership in a rural, African setting, do I regret all the time, money and emotional resources I invested in my dogs?
Really and truly and honestly, no, no I don't regret anything and I would do it all again.
I'm not alone as a volunteer prone to acting like a hermit. Interacting with the village, day in and day out, all alone, is exhausting, often difficult, and, of course, sad. There have been so many days when I just did not want to get out of bed, much less go outside. But I had to. Simba, Rusty and Shaka all needed to be fed. They all needed to be played with. If nothing else, my dogs made me get up, go outside and face the world. Every. Single. Day. Sure, sometimes we never made it outside the yard, but at least I got some sunshine to drive away the constantly impending doldrums.
The exercise wasn't a bad bonus either. Additionally, my daily dose of their affection, though no human substitute, was far, far superior to the daily dose of absolutely nothing that most other volunteers subsist on.
My dogs also served as a vehicle for some of my most meaningful, and fun, interactions with local people. I enjoyed walking them, and having people comment on how nice and friendly they were. I enjoyed showing off how dogs could learn to listen and obey commands. I really enjoyed seeing children, who were once terrified, pick up a ball and include my dog in a game. For example, I have some really fun photos of Shaka and local children playing with bubbles. In a world where dogs are frequently treated as pests, and are more often abused and neglected, showing off my dogs as models for a more mutually beneficial relationship between man and beast has been one of the highlights of my service. If just one of the many, many admirers of my dogs some day puts out a bowl of pap, instead of poison, takes a stick and tosses it to dog, instead of using it to beat the dog, I will consider my service a job well done, and my three dogs well worth all the pain and suffering.
Ultimately, all relationships between pets and their owners end in sorrow. My sorrows just came a whole lot sooner than I expected. However, just like the potential for an untimely demise never stopped anyone I know from adopting an animal in America, it didn't keep me from keeping pets in Africa. And with just three months left of my service, I'm glad it didn't. I loved each of my dogs, learned a lot from my experience with them, and generally benefitted from their presence. That's the best anyone can hope for.