He greeted me at the gate. tall and muscular, a rich, deep, tan color with black ears and snout, he was gentle and curious, yet reserved — a stoic African giant. I wanted to become great friends and yet wanted to remain detached, to avoid the inevitable heartbreak when I left.
I had arrived in Kampala, Uganda, a few days previous to begin my field assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. I was excited, energized, curious and anxious to meet the people I would be living and working with over the next six months. Though I felt well qualified for work as a nurse in a large HIV/AIDS project in northern Uganda, I was less certain about my ability to live with 10 complete strangers and adapt to the extended separation from family, home and pets.
I have great difficulty with leave-takings and goodbyes. Yet over the previous decade, I had shifted my career toward international work, knowing it meant leaving the comfort, security and love of family: my husband of 31 years; my aging mother; my sisters; my dog, Helen; and my cat, Netty. I have left them behind on numerous occasions in the past, first for three- to four-week volunteer assignments, then for twomonth stays during my summer break from academia. The longest I had been separated thus far was a three-month stint in Ethiopia. The six-month commitment required by MSF was daunting. Yet, it was my opportunity to satisfy a lifetime passion — to use my nursing skills to help people in all parts of the world. Working with MSF was a dream come true, and I could not pass up this opportunity.
While it may sound irreverent, it is much more difficult for me to leave my pets than it is to leave my spouse. I rationalize this as follows: My husband understands the concept of time, and knows exactly when I will return. He has been involved in the decision making and the preparation, and we maintain contact on a regular basis through email and weekly phone conversations. For him, I am not totally gone, as I am as far as my pets are concerned. For them, the anxiety begins with the onset of packing. Helen, dejected, stares at me, her head resting on her paws. Since she doesn’t understand the concept of time, I am simply gone — returning? or not? It isn’t until the plane is in the air that I begin to look forward to my destination.
When, after introductions and a brief orientation in the capital, I learned that one of my housemates in the field (an eight-hour drive north) was a dog, I relaxed, becoming less anxious, confident that all would be OK. I knew it would feel more like home because of the dog. Even then, I had no idea how helpful the dog would be.
His name is Tasia. The story is that he had been born in the MSF compound in this large town in northwest Uganda about seven years previous. His mother, also an MSF dog, had died of cancer a few months after Tasia and his brother were born. Tasia has been living with the rotating team of ex-pats that come and go at various intervals ever since. Stability is provided by the support staff (cooks, watchmen, housekeepers), who feed him daily and provide companionship.
Our relationship began slowly enough … I was happy to greet him each morning and at the end of a long working day. He was always there at the gate, nose through the slats, anxious to see who was arriving home. He knew who belonged and who did not. He was not permitted in the house and rarely attempted to test those boundaries. In the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa, the unscreened doors were left wide open day and night. We all spent the majority of our time at home on the veranda or in the yard, so Tasia had lots of company.
He came in the house just two times in the six months that I lived there. One day, when it was raining, windy and cold, I came out of my room to see him lying just inside the living room door, never venturing to move farther into the house. Another early morning, I found him chasing Maay, our goat, out of the house — these two were generally good and tolerant partners on the outside. It was Tasia’s role to keep the other animals in line, and one of his favorite games was to run in circles with the ever-present lizards that scampered around the yard.
After a week or two, I noticed that Tasia frequently stood at the front gate looking longingly at the people and animals passing by outside — goats, cows and chickens roamed freely on the road. While the yard was quite large and Tasia had plenty of company, he rarely went off the grounds. I began taking him for daily walks, using my belt for his leash. I enjoyed the exercise and the diversion from work, and I loved introducing Tasia to the neighborhood children. Our daily routine helped me feel comfortable in my new surroundings and introduced me to our neighbors, who were not accustomed to seeing a large dog being walked on a leash. More importantly, it felt like home for me — the same routine I had with my own dog. It made me feel closer to Helen to walk Tasia each day.
It is not the norm in this area of the world for a dog to be walked on a leash. Dogs remain inside gated compounds to guard the property. There were surprisingly few stray dogs roaming the neighborhood streets. By and large, the local people were frightened of dogs, and crossed to the other side of the street when we walked by. Sometimes I heard the muttered word simba (“lion” in Swahili), and it’s true that Tasia was almost as large as a lion, and was similarly colored.
Eventually, the children became used to seeing the two of us every afternoon and would wave gleefully as we walked by. Some would even run toward us, always stopping a good distance away, afraid of getting too close to the dog. Tasia proved to be a great canine ambassador. He sat readily on command, and I taught the children how to allow the dog to smell them, to approach gently, and to feel his soft and velvety fur. Tasia was always calm and charming, and the children became brave and confident as they gradually developed the nerve to touch him.
Our relationship grew, and soon, Tasia began to expect his daily or twice-daily walks — in the early morning before work and in the evening when I returned home. On days when I was running late, I would feel guilty when those soulful eyes looked at me with longing as I walked out of the gate without him. On Sundays, when the office was empty, I took Tasia with me. He would greet the watchmen, explore the yard and the nooks and crannies of the office, then lay on the cool cement floor as I emailed home. My teammates began teasing me that I was spoiling Tasia and would have to take him back to the U.S. with me when I returned. I must admit it was tempting; Tasia was truly a regal dog and I knew I would miss him greatly. I believed he would also miss me, since no one else provided him with daily walks.
I began scheming about how to get him home, but in my heart, knew that the plane ride was just not something to which I could subject him. Each leg of the journey would require a minimum of 10 to 12 hours in a crate. I have seen dogs that have made this journey — the large ones limp for days, and all look sorely stressed. Tasia belonged to Africa.
My work was challenging, both from a cultural perspective and an emotional one — after all, it was an HIV/AIDS project in an area of limited resources, where sad things happened on a daily basis. But on particularly difficult days, when it all seemed too much to bear, there was Tasia waiting at the gate, with his soft touch, his gentle nuzzle and his constancy in just being there. We would sit on the veranda, me sipping a beer while he rested his head on my knee. I cannot begin to describe how this helped lessen my burden and give me the strength and encouragement I needed to continue. While it helped to destress with my teammates, nothing filled my emotional needs like the quiet, loving acceptance of that dog.
The day I left to begin my journey home, I walked Tasia very early in the morning, wanting to spend as much time as possible with him. I explained that I would be leaving, and that he would always be in my heart. I thanked him for his love and attention, and his friendship. He then did something he had never done before: he gently licked me on the cheek. He understood; he had been through this before.
Some time after my return, I worked with an MSF nurse who had taken part in the same project. She reported that she ran with Tasia every morning, and assured me he was happy and healthy and thriving with his rotating circle of friends — the ever-changing MSF team. For me, he will always be the great African dog who saved my soul and gave me the love and encouragement I needed while living so very far away from home.
Illustration Tina Zellmer