Towards the culmination of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy awakes from her coma (call-for-attention, if you ask me) and declares a statement concerning the location of joy. I forget the specifics, but it has something to do with happiness being in your own backyard… The last few days prove that some things are in my backyard, but I’m not entirely sure if happiness is one of those things.
* * *
“There Is No Place Like Home”
The first week of break brings a welcome calm to the school compound. The air turns from a wild quibble of schoolchildren to a calm and uninterrupted tranquility close to the likes of a rehab facility in Southern California. I approve! After detoxifying my body with copious amounts of sleep (waking at 10 AM) and healthy eating (stuffed green peppers for dinner), I decided to go to town and catch up with the world.
Set and ready for the ride into town, I throw my Jack Spade over my shoulder, slip on my shoes and exit my house. After I lock the door, I turn around and literally jump at the sight of a woman sitting on my stoop. The shock on my face is so visible the woman stands without saying anything and stares at me, waiting for a scream. When the air hangs in silence long enough for me to regain my breath, I finally ask her, “Inyo bo ikoto ijo? What do you want?”
She begins to mumble so softly I can’t hear her so I clear my throat as an indication for her to speak louder and she starts again. “Sir, my father is dead. My stepmother is evil. She chased me away from home. I have nowhere to go and my friend, Feddie, told me that you would take me in, let me live with you.”
My immediate reaction is inappropriate (both in humanity and culture): I think of every story that begins with an evil stepmother situation. Houses made of candy. Narcoleptic women. My mind wanders to Disney; a song clicks on, “Little town, it’s a quiet village. Everyday like the one before. Little town, full of little people waking up to say ‘bonjour’…” A mental kick in the pants helps me focus on the situation at hand. My mind floods with ramifications: living with a woman in my village is the same as walking down the aisle, Peace Corps sends people home for shacking up with members of the opposite sex, I don’t want to pay for another person, I don’t have room to be a boarding facility… Deep breath in, “I apologize for your unfortunate series of events but it is not possible for you to live with me. Perhaps you can talk with your stepmother?” She releases a deep sigh, slumping towards the ground a few inches but I push through, “If you need support when talking with her, I could go and stand with you in solidarity.”
“It is bad. She will never take me back.”
“You don’t know that if you don’t try. What else can you do?”
“Stay here, with you.”
“No, you can’t. I offered the maximum support I can give you. I don’t know you and I am not able to sustain you in my home. I apologize but if you refuse my offer, then I must continue on with my day.”
“What will I do? I will wait here for your return,” she held her ground, defying my request.
“No, you will not be here when I get back,” I implied, thinking better of myself afterwards. Directness was necessary for my point to come across. “When I come home, you will be gone.” Walking away, I couldn’t help but feel like the worst person in the world. I had literally told a young woman “there is no room at the inn.” However, I knew taking in a runaway would jeopardize my position as a volunteer. I saw it happen to a friend and it cost him his last eight months in Uganda. Furthermore, I didn’t know this woman. I wouldn’t invite a stranger to live with me in America, much less here in Uganda. Nevertheless, a wave of guilt spread over me like a blanket. I continued walking towards the center, refusing to look back but hearing the woman begin to cry.
* * *
“I’ll Get You, And Your Little Dog, Too!”
People define themselves in one of two ways: a dog person or a cat person. This definition is so important to many Americans that a relationship can be forfeit when interests differ. I identify as a dog person.
Whatever kind of person I may be, I didn’t actively search out an animal companion in the first umteen months (or did I hit 20?) of my service because most people in Uganda treat dogs differently than Americans. I knew by taking a dog I would have to leave it behind when I return to America. In Uganda, dogs are not companion animals; they are guard dogs. People don’t allow them in the house. People are afraid of them and often throw rocks to make them go away. They run amuck, eating scraps and chicken bones (sometimes chickens, if sneaky). In the first few weeks, I saw a horde of children stone a dog to death. I was a passenger in a bush taxi that ran a dog over. The bump in the road brought me to tears. I didn’t want a dog, or to leave a dog, in this climate.
I awake Saturday morning after sleeping in longer than appropriate. Sun high in the sky, heat radiates from my tin roof, changing my simple home into an oven. Waking up with sweat flooding into my eyes is so common, I now sleep clutching a sweat rag. A whole new meaning to the phrase “that’s hot.” Wiping my brow, I dash madly to the windows, flipping the curtains on themselves to let in the light and opening the windows to catch a breeze. However, not only do I hear the usual crowing of roosters and mooing of cows, I hear a slight whimper in the back of my house. I freeze, a bead of sweat runs down my cheek.
What could it be? Did I imagine the noise? I tiptoe to the door, creating unnecessary anxiety for myself. In the village, I’m a professional at that. Sometimes, I get so anxious just worrying about creating anxiety. Too much free time… Standing at the door, I hear a soft crying noise. Could it be the twins from next door? They cry everyday for one reason or another; however, their usual howl does not match with the hushed whimper outside. I unbolt the barricade lock and turn my skeleton key in the door.
Puppy. A tiny brown and white dog laying on my stoop, forever scratching himself and crying in pain. Shocked, I stand in the doorway frozen, gawking at the little dog in front of me. What can I do? I’m sure the nurses would tell me to avoid the situation but the sight of the helpless thing makes my heart cave in on itself. I bend down and pick it up, aware that I could catch a few thousand bugs in the process. I feel the dog’s bones against my skin and, when I flip it over, I see countless scabs, ticks and maggots and fleas and, wait, are those lice? I put the dog down, running to my medical kit for gloves.
After two days of tweezers, citrus baths, OFF!, village medicine for de-bugging cattle (in a very low dosage), howling through the night, peeing everywhere and endless yelps of pain, the little dog looks much healthier. His scabs are healing and falling off slowly. He even accepts to drink milk. The best guess at age is 4 weeks. I decide to name him Moose (as in eMUSugut, or white person). He rides around in my bicycle basket for all the village to see. Most gasp and jump back when they see him. Everyone leers at me strangely like I am an alien. My neighbors snoop around my compound to see what I feed him or if I let him in my home.
The third day, my neighbor meets me as I weed my garden. “You spoke with yourself last night? I heard you.”
“No. Actually, I was telling Moose to stop chewing my shoes. Also, don’t come to find gossip at my house. It’s bad manners.” Moose loves my shoes. He chews them with his emerging teeth, ignoring the cow bone I found for his enjoyment. He sleeps in them and on them. He grabs them with his paws as if they are a ride a Doggyworld and rides them as I walk. The dog shares my love of shoes. Dog bless him.
“Oh, you were talking with your dog,” she eyes me suspiciously. “You white people.”
“Actually, I have black friends at home who talk with animals. It is an American thing. Oh, I totally forgot, it is also a religious thing. St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, would go into the forest and preach to animals. I thought you would know that, being a highly religious person who likes to pressure me to attend mass with you on Sunday.” The only reason I know about St. Francis of wherever is that I have oracle cards. I hide those (one thing among many) from the village. After my citation of religion, our discussion ends.
Six days into Moose, I realize caring for a thrown-away puppy is like being a parent. I awake every hour in the night to take him out for potty breaks. He whines if I don’t pay attention to him. I worry when I have to leave him to go to work. I worry how the schoolchildren will treat him. Best of all, he runs to me when he sees me. I am his protector. I am his dad. And, if I can give him a good six months before returning him to village life, then why not? After all, he did have a little piece of paper on his neck that read “Emusugut.” He was a present to me and, in Uganda, you can’t refuse a present.