At home in Colorado, I have a German Shepherd named Willy. She is a companion that knows sounds, habits, and facial expressions. She’s a friend, protector, and baby. She’s also a huge responsibility, taking time, money, and a lot of energy. Before Willy, I had a cat named Johnny. And before Johnny, I was kid who had literally hundreds of pets, mostly feline, but also dogs, horses, and even a pony.
Ugandans don’t really have pets. They have cows that stroll down roads, goats that linger in front of people’s homes, and chickens pretty much everywhere. Some mzungus keep cats, though mostly for pest control. Occasionally, you see mangy, yellow dogs sleeping in the shade or scavenging for scraps on the street, but they’re not the kind of dogs you want to touch, nor do they want you to touch them. There are tiny lizards everywhere, which I’ve decided are akin to tropical mice, but with the added benefit in that they eat unwanted insects.
One night shortly after I first arrived at the Guest House, I laid in bed reading with my headlamp. I looked up from my book and saw a tiny lizard clinging to the inside of my mosquito net. I took a half second to mentally debate the pros and cons of reaching out and grabbing the lizard versus not, the other side of the argument being that I’d be sleeping in an enclosed area with him. I made my decision, grabbed the lizard, pinching him between my thumb and forefinger, and threw him out the door.
I know there are other lizards in my room because I’ve found them, as well as their droppings. I Googled what lizard droppings look like to be sure they were the only animals inside my room. The evidence against the lizards is quite damning because of the unique white tip of the dropping, which is an area of concentrated urine. (They only have one hole.)
I’d been living in my room at the Guest House for almost six weeks when Kaitlin called me into the bathroom and pointed to Chester. I was horrified… It was a gigantic lizard clinging to the outside of the metal screen in my shower window!
For a while after that, I’d look up at the screen every time I went into the bathroom to be sure he was still safely on the other side. In the middle of the night, when it was dark and I couldn’t see him, I’d consider the possibility that he could’ve escaped his cage, entered my bathroom, and was ready to jump out of the toilet and bite me…?
But I became accustomed to Chester. Sometimes he clung to the square of screen opposite the glass, where I could clearly see his silhouette. Other times he clung silently in the dark space above the window, making him visible only if you looked hard for him.
One day when my house matron was in my room doing some cursory cleaning, I asked her if she knew that a giant lizard lived in my shower. She said, “Oh, yesss… the lizards, we try to get rid of them, but they come back.” I escorted her into my shower to see Chester and she belted out, “JESUS CHRIST!!!” and stood there staring, her mouth hanging wide open.
Occasionally, Chester claws his way out of the cracked window to do whatever other business a lizard does. I can hear when he enters or exits because he’s a little too big to squeeze through without hitting the shutter on the outside of the window. It flaps up and down, reminding me of how you know when someone is coming home because you can hear a key in the door. I miss Chester when he’s not there, and it strikes me that this uncomfortably similar to Stockholm Syndrome.
My house matron does most of my laundry, except for my underwear because it is culturally unacceptable. So about every five days, I wash my underwear in a bucket in my shower, then hang it to dry on the bed frame. After leaving underwear to air dry one afternoon, I came home at night and turned over one still-damp item at time. As I picked up a pair of dark purple panties nearest the wall, something fell out and plunked onto the ground. It scampered off faster than I could get a good look. My first impression was that it was a cockroach because it was dark in color and hit the floor with a sound that wasn’t squishy like a lizard. But to this point, I hadn’t seen a cockroach in my room (though there are plenty in the communal kitchen). I told myself it was probably just a good old-fashioned lizard. Nonetheless, I wasn’t taking any chances; the underwear went back into the dirty clothes.
Several nights later, having just gotten myself safely tucked in under my mosquito net, I spotted a foreign object high on the wall, over the bathroom door. I shined my headlamp on it and saw that it was a gigantic cockroach! Even with the supposed safety of the mosquito net, there was no way I was going to be able to sleep with that thing out there.
I got out of bed, rolled up a spiral notebook, and stepped up on the metal bed frame to reach and smack the cockroach. I stunned it, but didn’t kill it. It fluttered to the tile floor, scampered toward the wall, and stopped right next to the power strip that connected my fan. I climbed down off the bed and sneakily moved the power strip just enough to smash that nasty thing into a crunchy, gooey mess. I immediately got up and fetched some toilet paper because if you leave out any dead bug, a parade of smaller bugs will almost instantly appear to devour it. The cockroach got flushed down the [thankfully working] toilet.
I let my dog, Willy, catch and eat the flies and spiders at home. She’s good at it. She’d love to chase the lizards here in Uganda. What Willy wouldn’t love are the people. Meaning: Because people have no pets, they don’t know how to treat them.
A mzungu who lives near me is testing out whether she can realistically care for and keep in this environment a small, white, French dog. The Ugandan kids and the adults in the compound are afraid of the little fluff ball. They don’t know how to interact with it or touch it.
Over the course of a few days, several of the kids are learning and look forward to playing with the dog. Still, you can tell when someone doesn’t know how to treat animals. I cautioned the mzungu about letting the kids “take care” of it.
The companionship and love of an animal is such a mzungu thing. I can’t imagine living without pets—they’re a part of my life and always will be.
Yet another luxury I am thankful for having in my life.
My writing is based on my experience and perspective. The facts are as I interpret them.