Friday, October 14, 2011

Not so Much the Dog’s Life

There are days when living in a southern African country is mundane. I’ve gotten used to it. 15 months will do that to a person.

I’ve forgotten a lot about the United States. Like the taste of Gatorade. I know this might sound stupid to most of you, but the Swazi (well actually South African version, since all our products come from our neighbor to the north, south and west. I coincidently live in the one part of the country, the eastern side, that neighbors Mozambique, so whoop for me) version leaves much to be desired in taste. I’ve only started purchasing it as an alternative to ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts), the remedy PCVs resort to when we have tummy problems. And by tummy problems, I mean loss stools.

ORS is basically like drinking sea water. But it is a life saving recipe (8 tbsp sugar, 1 tbsp salt, 1 liter treated and filtered water) that is a necessity in this part of the world. In my time here, my number one first aid tip to my host family, community members and counterparts has been to impart my knowledge of this recipe. There are far too many deaths due to dehydration caused by diarrhea in this country, especially children, that could be easily prevented from such a simple mixture.

The reason I mention this is because I recently got a package (an awesome, amazing package. Thanks Mom and co, you guys always manage to outdo yourselves) with a container of real Gatorade powder. I immediately made myself some with cold water from my fridge (just because I could) and thought I would die of happiness. Over a year of trying to quench my thirst with lukewarm, sterile tasting water from a tank just doesn’t cut it in comparison to that first sip of paradise.

Another thing that has eluded me has been the sight of a happy and healthy dog. For me, the sight of skeletor dogs and puppies, like the 20+ that run around my homestead every day, is normal. The idea of petting them, giving them treats, playing ball or merely offering some sort of kind acknowledgement of their existence is not my first thought. Rather I must cautiously avoid them, reprimand them in siSwati (“suka” or “go away” – which is in fact a much nicer word than what most of my host family uses) when they rummage through the trash, or just stare past them in order not to remember how much I in fact adore dogs.

In the beginning there were less of them. When I could, I’d give them any food I could think to provide. Since for the first year I was sans refrigeration (yes, exciting update, I now am a proud member of the Soft Corps club with my recent purchase of a fridge. This impending summer just got a whole lot easier to manage), that meant bread, hard boiled eggs, even tuna once. But food is expensive, especially the kind they need. And with their ever-multiplying numbers, it became less feasible for me to even try and make a dent in their nutrition.

I also used to try and befriend them. The older dogs still like me. They know me and I’ve even treated them to a pet or two. But these are not house pets. And many are crawling with fleas, get “bathed” only when they are trying to avoid the literal downpours during the rainy season and are none too friendly to strangers.

In Swaziland, dogs are owned for one reason. Security. And boy, if I don’t have the most secure homestead on the block. The running commentary between myself and our Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer is mostly about the current tally of new litters I’ve got running underfoot. I’m pretty certain I have the most canines on my homestead of any PCV in Swaziland. So go me.

It seems lately that I find a new batch of already doomed runts every couple of weeks. For the first couple days after they have been weaned off their emaciated mother, they appear almost healthy. The outline of their ribs are barely noticeably at this point. I take advantage of these precious days, before most of them develop a disease that leaves their skin patchy, to play with them. I pick them up, sometimes I give them silly names and in general I just try to enjoy their new, though in all likelihood, short lease on life.

Why are the male dogs not neutered, might you ask? To a rural Swazi, that’s not a practical question. With a significant portion of the population living on barely 400 emalangeni a month (that’s roughly $57), the expense of such a procedure on an essentially living and breathing piece of protection is not really a priority. Plus, my host family at least occasionally sells off some of the offspring before they get too pathetic looking. So to them, that’s the answer to keeping their numbers somewhat manageable.

For me, the best coping mechanism has been to block them out. Whenever I stop and look just a little longer at one of them, I can’t take it. The way they huddle against the wall of the main house together. How they take every kick from my 9 year old sisi (sister) with an every-enduring resignation to their fate. This is a challenge in not just cross culture, but in reevaluating perspective.

The thing is that as much as you are probably bemoaning these dogs fate, they are better off than a lot of their compatriots. My host family will at least feed them from time to time, albeit the offerings are mostly gruel-looking slop, but hey, it’s something.

And honestly, most of the time, one’s attention is more taken with the skeleton-looking human being walking by, pushing the empty wheelbarrow, wearing the threadbare clothing. And that’s when that perspective thing comes in handy.

I tell you things not to make you think that this place is depressing every moment of every day. But in fact that it is a reality for not just Swazis, but so many people around the world. I know that this refrain is like a broken record, but being here one has almost an obligation to say these things. I could talk about the developed part of the country, like Ezulwini Valley with its luxury hotels, movie theater and nice restaurants. Or I could mention the fact that I can buy taco seasoning at the grocery store in the capital, which also has running water a person can actually drink (a fact certified by the US embassy in Mbabane). But that’s not the real Swaziland. That’s not where I live.

There are happy moments for sure. Like when I walked home from school the other day with my 5 year old little bhuti/nephew (family relations can be confusing), the son of my older bhuti. We decided to exchange backpacks, mine having 25 notebooks in it that I had intended to dispense to my students.

Alas that didn’t happen as they decided not to assemble for club that day. Or the next day. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, I got to walk hand in hand with one of the funniest kids I’ve ever met and try to keep from laughing while he desperately tried to drag my heavy bag all the way back home in order to show his Gogo (grandmother), my Make (mother), that he was strong.

And though he rebuffed every attempt I made to hold the bag up off his shoulders, ordering me to just take care of his green and plastic Power Ranger backpack, he nevertheless kept grabbing for my hand to steady his balance.

So in all his glory, he made it, walking triumphantly through the gate until he reached the veranda, calling out for Gogo. He then showed us his drawing he made at school of his hands and his number sheet up of 1 to 10. His Gogo and I just laughed, shaking our heads and letting him ramble on in his nonstop jabber of English and siSwati.

So you ask me how I make myself feel better? What I do when I feel like the world is closing in on me and my attempts at “development” are like throwing pebbles at an iron cast door?

I walk down my dusty road holding hands with that cute, little rascal.

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