I am upcountry. The air is fresh and a light breeze is always blowing, teasing the leaves on the trees that run along the fence, making them rustle, sounding like nature is whispering its secrets to you. The sunshine is gentle here, nothing like that harsh Nairobi sun that blazes without respite, determined to kill you and everything you love. And when it rains, people laugh and go smiling into their homes without running, yelling and tying plastic bags around their heads, dreading the cost of transport home and the imminent despair that comes with being stuck in traffic. The rain makes people happy.
If you walk a few steps from the house you get that I-Am-Definitely-In-The-Village smell: cows and cow dung. Somehow, even that is more refreshing than Nairobi. The compound is expansive; if I was serious about getting fit a jog along the fence everyday would easily do the trick. It is quiet. It is calm. I could achieve inner peace here. Life moves slowly here. You don’t get that feeling that the world is leaving you and your mediocrity behind. You can be mediocre in peace because this place doesn’t demand greatness from you. It only demands that you greet everybody you meet, whether you know them or not. Places like this are where great novels are written. Tranquil, serene, still.
I hate it.
Okay, I don’t hate the calm, quiet, inner peace-ness of this my father’s home. I love that part actually; who doesn’t want inner peace? But I am a certified Born Tao City Ghel (yeah, you have to say it like that) and I don’t know how to be in a place with no WiFi without complaining. Or a place where you have to carry water from outside so that you wash dishes. Or a place where you have to walk three kilometres if you need to buy a bar of soap. I’m not proud of it but I accept it as part of what I am. Go away with those your criticisms about the uselessness of my generation. I get enough of it from my mother and my whole extended family.
I have a love-hate relationship with my family’s tradition of going upcountry every holiday. Actually, it’s more hate than love. I don’t like going there and I’ve resisted it (to no avail) for as long as I can remember. I softened my heart towards it two years ago when we finally got electricity and piping and we no longer had to walk the three kilometres to charge our phones for ten shillings at the shopping centre, and no longer had to bathe in a dingy structure outside the main house. But still, do you know how exhausting it is to serve tea to an endless trickle of visitors who come as early as 7 am? Heh, the hate part of this relationship remains bigger. The love is only because of two things: quiet and dogs.
We’ve always had two or three dogs here at any given time. When we were younger, it was exciting for us to arrive in my grandmother’s compound in the darkness of non-electrification and have dogs darting towards the car to check us out. Exciting and a bit terrifying. They were bigger than us, after all, and sometimes they forgot us and thought we were intruders. I’m convinced that the only reason they didn’t ever maul us to shreds is that they always knew my dad–he was there every month. But they were friendly once they remembered us and my brother and I treated them with a mixture of fondness and fear. Exciting stuff.
Even then, the dogs were pretty much the only up side of travelling upcountry. You see, these forced holidays afforded us the opportunity to decide that we loved dogs. Without them we may not have known this because my mother generally dislikes pets of every kind, and thinks the only useful animals to have are the ones that give you meat and milk.
The dogs themselves were kawaida upcountry dogs. They followed the workmen who took the cows to the river, they barked whenever someone entered the compound, they loved to be petted and played with, they were skinnier than was ideal, and they knew that when we were around, the food was more. We took it upon ourselves, my brother and I, to name the dogs that we liked because we were not satisfied with the names the workmen gave them. All dogs upcountry are called Rex, Simba or Chui. If your village is near a town you might get a Snoopy. We got sick of it and decided we could do better. In hindsight, our ‘better’ wasn’t actually better. In fact I think it was frequently significantly worse.
We often named them according to their traits or according to whether or not we liked them. Our cousin’s dog, for instance, was named ‘N.D.’, which stood for Nice Dog, because we liked that dog and felt he had a nice personality. Creativity at its best. And we said it like that, like initials; it didn’t ati morph into something more reasonable like Andy or something, like you’d expect. Others were not given actual names but were identified according to the way they looked or behaved, which then later became their names. We had ‘The Scared Dog’ (because it ran away when you tried to pet it) ‘ The Black Dog’ (because it was mostly black), and even sometimes ‘The Other Dog’ (because there was nothing remarkable about it). One female dog was called ‘Lady Kyle’ because the show My Wife and Kids was on NTV at the time and in one episode they had a dog by the same name.
Needless to say, the ridiculous names didn’t catch on and remain used by only Kevin and I. Our only successful naming attempt was with the oldest dog we currently have whom we named Carlos Centeno after the guy who was shot in the short story Tuesday Siesta from the set book When the Sun Goes Down. You see? I wasn’t just wasting school fees in high school. Of course everybody else just calls him Carlos.
Having dogs was a bittersweet experience though. The problem was that these were dogs that spent most of the year in the care of workers who had bigger things to take care of, like planting maize. The dogs were basically left to fend for themselves. They were fed, just not much, and not that frequently. They were skinny and had some injury or other every time we came here: a bitten ear, a discoloured eye, a limp. And the ticks. God the ticks. One time, Kevin, being the problematic child that he was, suggested that we remove the ticks from one of the dogs. It did not end well. It’s not that he didn’t succeed in removing the ticks (he removed at least one), it was that the only thing that saved him from a thorough whooping from my father was probably the fact that it had just rained. I told you rain makes people happy here and my farmer father was in a good mood. Turns out handling ticks with your bare hands and a stick isn’t a great idea. But the dogs were covered in them, which made loving them pretty hard.
When we were younger, we loved them anyway. Now? I don’t know.
Americans, and generally people from the West, have some sort of obsession with their dogs. After years of being exposed to Western media and seeing white people dress up their dogs and carry them in strollers just as though they are children, we learnt that not all dogs are equal. Proper dogs were the ones we saw on TV or in movies. They were to be kissed and hugged and cuddled with and carried like they were the most precious things on earth. We learnt that this was the way to love dogs, and then it became no longer enough to love them from a distance, the way Africans generally do. Dogs are for guarding the house around here. They are not friends to go on walks with everyday, to be bought expensive food, and they certainly do not sleep in the house or go anywhere near babies. We couldn’t love our dogs the ‘proper’ way, you know, because of the ticks, so we stopped loving them. They became lesser dogs, uglier dogs, barely lovable dogs.
Carlos was the last dog we named. And his time is almost up. These days, when we get new dogs, they are just dogs. We don’t even try. They still dart to the car when we arrive. They still want to play. They still have the limps and bitten off ears from fighting with other dogs. We are still happy that we have dogs. But it’s not the same. We pet them with noticeable discomfort, far more aware of their funny smell and their wounds than we ever were as children. And we look away because there is not much we can do. Around here, dogs don’t get healthcare. Heck, around here, even humans have trouble getting healthcare so really, it’s understandable. We don’t name the dogs anymore to make ourselves feel better. The burden of guilt is greater when you’ve given them names but can’t give them love.
I recently rediscovered the Kenya Society for Protection and Care of Animals (KSPCA) on the internet and I think of them every time I walk around this compound and see Carlos lying there languidly as though he is reflecting on the hard life he’s led. They are doing the Lord’s work, those people, but I can’t help but be overwhelmed for them because they have barely scratched the surface. I imagine most dogs in the country live the way ours do. How do you get a whole nation to believe that there is more to caring for animals than just feeding them leftovers sometimes? One day, after I’ve convinced my mother to let me have another cat and a dog (or after I’ve moved out because that endeavour of convincing her is unlikely to be successful) I will go to KSPCA and adopt a pet. And if I get a dog, I will name him Carlos and spoil him like the white folk because we all need to absolve ourselves of the burden of guilt somehow.
Before then, I will think about whether I can afford KSPCA membership, try to enjoy the rest of my stay here and find inner peace or something. The rest of you lucky people who still have internet connection in your lives should check out their Facebook page and see how cute those cats and dogs are. Or call my mother and tell her to let me get a pet because I’m a good person who deserves good things.