May 11, 2013 § Leave a comment
Today was a very sobering day.
Back in 2010 when Stephanie and Kyson were last in Malawi, they spent some time at an orphan care center in Govala, playing with the children and teaching them English through songs. Stephanie wanted to go back to check up on the kids and also to deliver some books, toys, and treats we brought for them. Thankfully we were able to tag along and hitch a ride from some missionaries in town and visit the kids today.
It was my first time in a rural community and at first glance, it was the typical depiction of an African village – something you would see in National Geographic. The 30 children or so were crowded in a small cement room with a thatched roof and no windows. They sat on a tattered, brittle mat on the hard concrete floor and flashed their exuberant faces at the foreigners who came to sing them songs and take their picture. I felt very conflicted visiting because I wasn’t actually doing anything to help the kids and I was simply a spectator, watching them, not with pity, but with a regretfulness at how unfair life can be.
However, the children gave me hope. There was so much potential and so many bright futures ahead of these kids. I started playing catch with one little girl and when other children crowded around us to get in on the game as well, she instinctively picked up on my hand motions and started organizing the children in a circle and directing them on how to toss the ball so that everyone got a chance to play. She did all that at the ripe old age of 4.
Children grow up fast here and there were two year olds walking home alone from the orphan care center. Thankfully the village is safe enough where there is little risk of harm besides the fact that they may forget the way home. It’s a little scary though because bikes and cars do traverse the same dusty roads the children use and it would take little more than a smudged rear view mirror to result in a horrific accident. But all in all, the children were happy, healthy (from what I could see externally), and full of energy.
What really broke my heart today was the dogs.
I saw two dogs in Govala today and both dogs made me tear up. I came across the first one as I was walking through the market. It was so malnourished that I could count all of its bones and it barely had enough energy to stand. The edges of its ears were torn and bleeding and flies languished upon the open sores. I wanted to run to it and pet it and feed it something hearty but all I could do was stand there and stare as tears filled my eyes. No one seemed to care that a dying dog was in their midst and in that moment, the world seemed so cruel.
The other dog I saw was underneath a truck. It was also a walking skeleton and it had taken refuge underneath the wheel of a truck yet when the truck needed to leave for another city, it refused to come out from under the wheel. The situation generated a crowd of spectators as the locals found the stubborn dog hilarious as it refused to leave the side of the tire – as if that tire were its mother. For a while I thought people were just watching the truck struggle as it moved back and forth, trying to get a grip on the road and I wasn’t entirely sure what was quite so funny until a man pointed out the dog underneath the truck to me as his eyes crinkled with glee. Rather than laugh, I gasped, as I saw the poor dog struggle under the truck to stay underneath the covering of the body and I watched fearfully as the truck moved back and forth, trying to get the dog out from under it. At times the truck would run over a part of the dog and it would yelp in pain. I looked for something I could use as a noose to catch the dog by the neck and pull it out from under but I couldn’t find anything and the crowd had blocked the way to the truck so that I couldn’t get through. After a few minutes of watching this I had to walk away because I couldn’t bear to see the dog get run over. It made me sad because I knew that this wasn’t a battle I should fight and I felt so helpless knowing that anything I did would be like putting a bandaid on a broken leg.
Eventually the truck left and I ran back looking for what I thought would be the remains of the dog. I didn’t see them though so I signed to a woman, indicating that I was looking for the dog. She replied in broken English that the dog had gone. Apparently it wasn’t run over and as soon as the truck left, it followed, hobbling along until it no doubt ceased to exist.
After the orphanage visit I ate lunch with Stephanie, three missionaries who worked with the children at the orphan care center, and Pezo, a local Malawian and Reverend of a local church. We ordered a typical meal of rice, goat, and beans each and had an extra plate of seema so that Stephanie and I could try the more typical fare. It was too much food for us and I asked Pezo if I could feed the leftovers to the dog. He seemed confused at my question and said that they would feed the leftovers to the kids. When I repeated my question he assured me that the food would not go to waste and that they would distribute any leftovers to the children. When I protested that the dogs were so skinny, someone else remarked at how the children were also so skinny and often only had one meal a day.
The exchange made me feel like I was ten again when I told my mom that I wanted to become a veternarian and she responded telling me that for that many years of schooling I should just become a doctor. When I protested saying that I wanted to be an animal doctor and not a human doctor, I received a very stern lecture on how people were more important than animals and how I needed to reprioritize my feelings. It’s a speech that I get often, even today, usually from a well meaning adult.
To me, it’s not I think humans are less important than animals. Rather, it’s because I feel like animals have too few people to speak for them while humans have billions of advocates merely in the fact that we are all of the same species. I’ve always rooted for the underdog and in this case, it literally was an under (the truck) dog. Also, my animals have created such joy and happiness in my life and it’s hard to see harm come across something you care about, even if it’s not your own.
Some people have questioned my line of work and asked why, if I love animals so much, why I don’t simply work for a wildlife organization or the Humane Society and work with animals. And the answer to that is because I believe in long term win-win solutions. I believe that I can significantly positively impact a population (human and animal) by implementing sustainable economic practices and raising the standard of living for all. Once people are not starving and have excess food to spare, animals will stop starving. That is the far reaching type of impact I aim to reach with every project that I work on – starting with Bamboo Lota, the Nonhuman Rights Project, Girls 20 Summit, and hopefully many more.
For the time being, I’m doing what I can and trying to learn new skills as quickly as possible so I can turn all of this into a reality. I also take my small wins as they come as long term plans take much patience and planning.
After lunch I snuck a piece of seema and goat meat that had fallen on the floor and peeled off from the rest of the group to try and find the first dog. Once I found it, I dropped the food at its head, trying to attract as little attention as possible. The dog appeared to be blind and deaf as it’s ears hardly twitched when I called to it. I finally nudged the food with my shoe until it was right underneath its nose. It was heartbreaking to see the dog lie there, with no strength to even put the food in its mouth. Thankfully, after a few minutes, it realized that the food was there and slowly started to eat. I teared up as I watched it eat, sorry that I hadn’t grabbed more food, but more sorry that I couldn’t do more to help that one dog and all the other dogs that were undoubtedly in the same situation. It was a sobering view of the reality of living in Africa – one I had been shielded from experiencing firsthand until today. And as painful as today was, I’m thankful for the experience because it further hardens my resolve to truly make a difference. It sounds so idealistic and childish when I say it out loud but I do feel like there are a lot of people and animals counting on me (and people like me) to make a difference and I refuse to let them down.