Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Gravediggers

To risk sounding like the opening lines of a bad country song, my dog died last week.  [Insert lyrics re: pickup trucks, cowboy boots]. 

It was the puppy, Jacqueline Cousteau.  I had been in Ngaoundere for the weekend to work on applications and catch up on emails, and got back into Mbang Mboum just before 1:30 prayer on Sunday.  My landlord having recently taken a second wife, a widowed mother of five, the number of children in my concession has doubled.  I’m still unaccustomed to the new dynamic, and was a little overwhelmed by the mob that swallowed me as soon as I climbed off my moto, little hands grabbing my bags and tugging on my shirttail. 

“Laura! Laura! Lao Mboum!” they chanted, my actual name and my household name competing as the children called over each other. 

“Yes, yes,” I agreed vaguely, distracted by the difficulty of unlocking my door while juggling two bags of groceries and a motorcycle helmet. 

Nyari, the oldest son, pushed his way to the front.  “Non!” he cried.  “Laura, c’est le sien”—le chien, the dog, his Northern accent eliding a hard “ch”.

I looked at him, not yet understanding.  Nyari’s younger brother Nzika took up the thread.  “Il est mort,” he said, still smiling, his tone matter-of-fact.  The other children pressed closer, curious to see my reaction, as I registered for the first time the small, still, furry body barely visible behind a row of potted plants on my porch. 

Two things flashed through my brain at once.  The first was a stupefied horror at the unexpected nature of the news.  The second was an instant resolve that I could not—absolutely could not—cry in front of the children, not over this.  Their attitude to delivering the news perfectly encapsulates the Cameroonian attitude towards both animals and death: it was worth commenting on—something that happened; news to give—but it was news that could be delivered with a smile.  It rained yesterday.  The corn’s about ready to harvest.  Your dog died.  It was certainly nothing to get worked up over, nothing particularly sad.  I know the family already has trouble understanding my attachment to my dogs, and while they try to make excuses for me as an American, they disapprove, on some level, of me feeding the dogs meat and letting them into my house.  The children aren’t ill-intentioned, but they can be thoughtlessly cruel, and I knew if I showed emotion, they would laugh. They would not be amused by my pain, but amused by the strange thought that someone would cry over a dog.

So I swallowed hard and carried on, putting my bags away as quickly and efficiently as possible before walking to my postmate Alizabeth’s house.  As I told her the news, I began to feel a lump in my throat, and when she immediately pulled me into a hug, I dissolved into tears.  As I wiped them away and took a few deep breaths, Aliz gathered a shovel and an old cardboard box.

Cousteau’s little body was already stiff; Death, the taxidermist, had done his work.  I tried to fold her into the box, and bit back an inappropriate impulse to laugh at the legs that determinedly jutted out, as though she were trying to brake an unexpected fall.  Too late for that, little girl.

The children goggled at us as we carried the canine corpse out to our garden, currently at the height of bloom.  We found a clear spot, behind the sweet potato mound and adjacent to the cucumbers, within sight of a wall of exuberant sunflowers.  Scipio Africanus, Cousteau’s mother and my first dog, came bursting out of the rows of corn; she sniffed the rigid cadaver before losing interest and wandering away, not seeming to find anything in the dead dog that related to her.  As Aliz searched for rocks to build a cairn, I began to dig. 

The sun beat down mercilessly, and I soon stripped down to my sports bra, sweat rolling down my back as I attacked the red clay hardpan.  I fell into a rhythm, the thud of the shovel head matching my heavy breathing.  A half a foot deep.  A foot deep.  I realized I was crying again, although I wasn’t sure it was only over Cousteau. 

My two dogs, while sometimes an impediment to my fuller integration—I have far fewer visitors than my postmate, and neighbors have told me it is because people are afraid of my unchained beasts—have been one of the most important factors in keeping me sane during my service.  In an environment where I am constantly required to adapt to other people’s culture and expectations, having a dog, unpopular as that decision is, is a way to draw a boundary, to push back, to stake out some territory that is mine.  It is my small way of forcing people to meet me in the middle, which doesn’t often happen here.  The relationship between a Peace Corps Volunteer and her community is not one that goes both ways.  We cannot insist that things be on our terms; our communities can and do.  We must try daily to understand a point of view and set of values that may be alien to us; our communities, unaccustomed to this practice, rarely try to understand our core beliefs or why we think and do the way we do.  The burden is on us to bend over backwards in the name of cultural sensitivity.  Knees are inappropriate in a Muslim village, so skirts shorter than mid-calf are excommunicated from my wardrobe.  Vegetarianism is inexplicable and perceived as rude, so I eat meat.  Never would I insist that my village try and understand that in America, we rock booty shorts in public and embrace veganism.  Don’t get me wrong, I think being forced into this kind of humility is an extremely healthy exercise.  It’s something that we don’t do enough of at home, where trumpeting about Rights in a Free Country often drowns out empathy and respect—but it’s wearing, to so rarely feel comfortable asserting what I really think and believe and stand for.  It’s hard to feel forced to subjugate parts of myself, as much as I understand the value of doing so. 

The dogs, then, have come to be more than just dogs.  They represent a small but public declaration of my values and my culture.  I cannot come out to people here as an atheist.  I cannot be honest about my beliefs regarding gender and sexuality.  I cannot insist that people show me respect equal to that they would show a man.  I can, however, go running every morning with my two dogs bounding along at my side—and if it makes people uncomfortable, which it almost certainly does, well, that’s healthy for them, too.
Obviously I don’t always think of my dogs in these terms; the vast majority of the time, they’re slobbery, dirty animals, who are cute and annoying and loud and eat everything and track mud into my kitchen.  They’re dogs.

But as I panted and sweated and shoveled dirt onto my feet, I felt that it was more than a dead dog in the cardboard box.  It was, for that moment, my right to make decisions based on my internal compass, not on the fear of judgment and gossip from my narrow-minded community.  An Elspeth Huxley quote came to mind: “Africa is cruel.  It takes your heart and grinds it into powdered stone—and no-one minds.” 

If this seems dramatic, it was.  Cousteau was my favorite of the litter of puppies, but she was a dog; she was not a person, and unlike some Americans, I know the difference.  The moment passed, as do all such low points.  I worked my frustration out, the ache in my shoulders cathartic.  By the time Aliz returned, laden with stones, I was in control of myself again, and had settled into a very Cameroonian state of (depending on your point of view) fatalism, or practicality.  She was a dog.  She died, as all things die.  And so we were burying her, and life would go on. 

My favorite friend with my favorite puppy. Rest in peace, Cousteau.

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