It is the start of the rainy season and the threat of rain is omnipresent. The air has been hanging wet and heavy for the past few days. This morning, we awoke to a grey sky and a cold, foggy rain. The water made a soft, misty “shhh” as it blew across our roof. Mae was already awake, rustling around the front yard with buckets of soapy water.
“Dan’s class is coming here today for lessons. We must clean!”
I took a shower in the mist and Dan washed the floor of our casa. Mae scrubbed the kitchen while keeping a deft eye on our ovos fritos. Everything, inside and out, was wet, wet, wet. My hair was wet, my towel was wet. Water fell from the sky while I washed myself with water. I dried myself with a wet towel in the rain.
Mata-biche was a brief refrain from the weather. My short, wet hair was combed back and secured under a headband. It was so cold outside that I wore ski socks and a sweater. I poured myself some tea and ripped a loaf of pao to make an egg and cheese sandwich. Because the Peace Corps pays our families so much money to keep us, we are provided with food more commonly associated with the first world, including cheese and soda. This is wonderful and disappointingly unauthentic at the same time. I shoved together an extra half-sandwich, wiggled into my rain jacket, and did the one-legged hop into my rain botas. It was 7:15. I was late and it was raining. Dan leaned back in his chair and waved goodbye.
At the door, I ran into Chris, the other married volunteer. He alone has to walk as far as I do to get to classes. “Did you use your word?” He asked.
“Oh, Gosh,” I said. “No, I forgot.”
My word was o pastor, a shepherd. The game was to give each other a different Portuguese word each day, and use those words in conversation with our adopted mothers.
“I used my word,” he said. “I asked my mom if she was afraid of fantasmas. She said that she won’t go into the graveyard at night.”
“Hey!” I said. “That’s neat! I will use my word today, I promise.”
We parted ways. Because it was raining, the streets were empty.
“Bom dia, bom dia,” I mumbled, to no one in particular. I was wearing Dan’s old rain jacket, which was far too big for me. I fit my backpack inside the coat with me and I had to roll up a sleeve to eat my sandwich. The hood kept falling over my forehead and into my eyes.
I met one woman on the street and quickly caught up to her. She was older and portly, and I had greeted her a few times before at this time of day.
“Bom dia,” I said. “Como esta?”
“Bom dia, obrigada!” She gestured around and said, in a matter-of-fact manner, “Chuva.” That means rain.
“Sim, Sim.” I replied. “Minha pasta aqui!” I pointed to my backpack under the hump on my jacket. Directly translated, that means, “My backpack HERE!”
I could hear her good-natured laugh as I continued up the hill.
I arrived at Laurie’s house before my language teacher. Today was Cooking Day, a special day for us volunteers to cook lunch for our adopted parents. Unfortunately, it was not going well. Laurie’s Mae was insulted that a group of American girls were going to “teach her how to cook.”
“I don’t need to learn how to cook! I know how to cook. I have been cooking for 40 years!” Laurie’s Mae was stomping around, banging various utensils together.
We didn’t know enough Portuguese to assure her that we were not trying to teach her how to cook, only trying to provide a complimentary meal as a gift. She wasn’t having it, though. In order to show us that she indeed knew how to cook, she was busy preparing a labor-intensive meal of her own.
We stood outside in our rain jackets, taking turns using the mortar and pestle.
“Nao, nao, nao,” said Laurie’s Mae impatiently. She took the pestle out of our hands and proceeded to demonstrate the proper pounding technique.
As we fumbled around the make-shift kitchen, a soft whimpering could be heard from behind a mound of dirt. As we watched, a tiny puppy limped towards us tentatively. No more than six months old, he was nursing an injured front foot. In the rain, he was shivering profusely, his hair clustered in wet little bunches. The top of his head was bleeding from a fungal infection and his shaky body was hopping with fleas. Clearly asking for help but uncertain about human contact, he stood outside our circle and cried, favoring his injured paw.
“Don’t touch that dog,” said Laurie’s Mae. “He will make you sick.”
Just then, our language teacher attempted to enter the compound. Curious, one of the adult dogs trotted over to greet the newcomer. Our teacher jumped back.
“Sheesh, sheesh,” he said. “Shoosh!” He waved his hands in front of himself defensively. “Go away!”
We all started to laugh. Many Mozambicans have a mysterious fear of dogs, even of small breeds like the identical, short-legged, tan-colored “African dogs” found in our village. The crying puppy was momentarily forgotten.
The morning got more and more difficult. The mothers watched us work with a critical eye (“You must learn to cook! How else will you feed your husbands and children?”) and one of the girls gave up speaking Portuguese (“Why should I? My family speaks Xangana around me.”) Our teacher stayed out of the brewing conflict by watching a speech on the television.
I tried to communicate with the mothers by using a combination of hand-waving and terrible Portuguese.
“This is why they love her,” I heard one of my classmates say. I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment. I felt ashamed. Should I be speaking Portuguese or English?
“Why aren’t you cooking the eggs?” The mothers asked, pointing to a few eggs that we had considered adding to our salad.
“Oh,” I said, lightly, in my awful Portuguese. “They said too hard if do more work but you say do it then I can.”
Two of my classmates looked at one another. One said, “Did she just blame us for not cooking the eggs?”
I was embarrassed. “No, no,” I said to the mothers. “I mean, me cook, I can cook, we all decided, I DID DECIDED, that it was too much work.”
The mothers raised their eyebrows and nodded to one another. Lazy American.
I was caught in the middle. I got the materials together to boil the water. In my rush, I dropped the egg in the pan far too fast and promptly broke it. My spirit crushed, I had no recourse but to excuse myself. Under the guise of dumping a bacia of dirty water, I put on my rain boots and walked to the edge of the compound. That’s where I found the mass of baby puppies.
Under a little awning in the corner of the yard were ten puppies, between 2 and 4 weeks old, sleeping in a pile. I put down my bucket and crept closer. The puppies were huddled together under a low tin roof, inches away from the drizzling rain. They sighed and wiggled in unison. When one would squirm, they would all wake up, whimper, and squirm. These puppies were too new to have all the blights that mar the appearance of most quasi-feral African dogs. Their skin was still shiny and uniform. As I backed away from the sleeping litter, I caught sight of the puppy from earlier that morning.
The injured dog had backed up against a cement wall in an attempt to stay dry. He was still shivering. I realized with a start that this was an older sibling of the current litter under the awning. As I glanced over his festering wound and crooked leg, I felt a terrible sadness for him and for the ten puppies that would be cast out of their den in a few week’s time.
Dan and I talk about adopting a puppy here in Mozambique, but we know that we can only take on one. We have to choose just one to vaccinate, wash, and protect from injury and disease. But be sure that we will adopt.
The Cooking Day wore on with no great incidences but plenty of simmering tempers. The mothers sat on one side of the kitchen and glowered at their American “daughters,” who reciprocated by speaking English to one another. An event that was supposed to be a bonding experience drew a great divide between the two groups of women, instead.
Before I left at the end of the day, Laurie’s Mae asked me for 16 Meticais (about fifty cents) to pay for the soda I had shared with the other girls. I dug fifteen out of my pocket and pasta and borrowed one from a friend, handing it all to Laurie’s Mae. I was supposed to ask Mae Atalia for reimbursement, but I knew that I would be too embarrassed to request such a piddling amount.
As I left the compound, two little eyes watched me go. At six months of age, the little puppy mourned the fact that he was too old and too sick for me to adopt. When I got home, I cried. I cried both for the failed attempt at cooperation between my colegas, myself, and the Mozambican women, and for the little dogs that would soon be flea-bitten and broken.
The reason I will be adopting a puppy is this: Perhaps I will make no great difference here in Africa. Maybe I will fail to bridge the gap between Americans and Mozambicans, and maybe I will be a terrible teacher. But at least I will have one happy, healthy African dog on my side and will know that I have made a difference in the life of one, measly little critter.
Start small, right? One day, one animal, one individual at a time.
P.S. This is not the first litter of puppies that I have encountered here in Namaacha. The first group belonged to the family of another volunteer. I followed their story with interest.
The volunteer’s family owned quite a few dogs, one of whom was pregnant. The mother dog first dug a burrow in the yard near a sturdy concrete wall. That night, she retired to her burrow after dinner. The puppies were born early the next morning; seven of them, six black, one white. Soon after the birth, however, the mother began showing symptoms of distress. She wouldn’t nurse, and would leave the burrow for hours at a time. Just two days after delivering the puppies, the mother died. The family buried her under a large, flat rock.
The babies stayed in their burrow for the entire day and part of the night, crying loudly. They were still blind, and about the size of a baked potato. When their mother did not come back, they left the den, one by one, in search of food. Unable to see, they crawled to different corners of the yard, mewing for help.
After this, the puppies ominously disappeared. Everyone assumed that they had been “taken care of.” It wasn’t until days later that we learned what had actually happened. Paige Mashman, relax. It’s a happy ending.
A neighboring family learned of the Great Puppy Tragedy. They come over with a box and sought out the lost puppies, one at a time. The puppies were laid out on a blanket in a cardboard box and brought home to another female dog who licks them clean and continues to care for them. The family supplies the puppies with milk and will shelter them until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Dan and I have already agreed that one of these might be “our puppy.”It’s these small acts of kindness that give me great hope and conviction. I can make a nice, positive difference to the world. All it takes is one little act of kindness at a time. Or, like I told Dan, “tiny pup at a time.”