A Dog blog – and other animals

Cats, dogs, hyenas and other fauna…
In our two years in Mekelle, the nocturnal soundscape was dominated by two characteristic types of din. The first was the chanting of the priests, massively magnified and further distorted by loudspeakers (see rant in earlier blog – I’m under strict orders not to repeat it…). Infinitely more pleasant and tuneful, at least to my ears, was the nightly point/counterpoint of the dogs and hyenas. The dogs would bark and howl, the hyenas hoot and ululate. Those priests could have learned a thing or two about melody and harmony… (sorry, sorry). In the morning, those same dogs whose ferocious voices had split the night like some canine coven would be lying, quiet, cuddly and comatose, lining the pavements.
As for daytime, anyone who has travelled in Ethiopia will be used to sharing the road, the sidewalk and every other space, urban or rural, with quadrupeds of all kinds, vertical and horizontal, from donkey to dog. Pets, on the other hand, are another matter. People keep cats after a fashion, feeding them the odd scrap, but in return they are expected to keep down rats and mice (and repel the dreaded muchew, a mysterious cat-sized garden predator of which people speak with bated breath). Dogs are never pets.
Ferenjis have a different take, a fact which the local cats in Mekelle quickly discovered. Around the end of our first year in Mekelle, a clearly flea infested feline appeared with a broken leg. Big moral dilemma… Well not really. Scruff, as he quickly became known for obvious reasons, became the best fed cat in Mekelle (living primarily on a diet of tinned tuna mixed with bread), though his rivals/hangers on – respectively and eponymously christened Squawk, Squeak and Scrapper – were always ready for pickings from the rich cat’s table. If we were careless enough to leave a door open and turn our backs, it was not uncommon to find one of any four cats insouciantly curled up on a bed, pillow or sofa, generously sharing its fleas. Shabby as he was, and initially feral, Scruff became quite domesticated, and it was a wrench when we had to leave him for our move to Bahir Dar…

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Here, a new experience awaited us. We had been warned that our VSO predecessors, Caz and Crawford, had adopted a puppy. They no doubt faced the same life-and-death moral dilemma as we had with Scruff… Nala, as they christened her, was at the house we were moving to. However, we have no experience of raising a dog and it is clear that Caz and Crawford were in a similar position, and had espoused a 1960s unconditional love, what’s mine is yours, discipline is so uncool kind of approach to her training regime. So far, our attempts to mitigate the results have been largely unsuccessful: Nala doesn’t seem to have read Pavlov.
To be fair, most of the time she is lovely to be with… Just occasionally, her exuberance gets the better of her as she mistakes your leg for a rubber bone.
There are a number of challenges to raising a dog in Ethiopia, especially if you don’t know much about dogs. Firstly, there is no such thing as dog food. Nala essentially lives on a diet of the local staple injera, or bread, soaked in water, with the occasional sprinkling of any protein that happens to be available (raw/cooked meat, cheese rind, scrambled egg,…) plus vegetable leftovers. We suspect that this is not a balanced diet, but Royal Canin reps are thin on the ground.
Secondly, with all the stray dogs around, we decided with some trepidation to have her spayed. The trepidation seemed justified: the operation took place on a Sunday afternoon in our yard, on an old cable reel that serves as our best coffee table, with myself and a young Ethiopian friend assisting. Barbara had retired behind a net curtain. The “vets” we found out later, were respectively an engineer and a lawyer. The amount of anaesthetic was estimated, not all that accurately since she seemed to half wake up in the course of the operation. Despite all this, and despite her staggering around after the operation splay legged like Bambi in the Disney movie, the next morning, when somebody had the temerity to come near our front gate at 6.00 a.m., she was bouncing around and barking on the other side. We then realised that there is no such thing here as a “lampshade collar” (to prevent her pulling out her own stitches), so Barbara improvised something with a luxury airline neck cushion (a tasteful mauve in colour). Remarkably, she wore this without any protest for the necessary two weeks, and indeed seemed somewhat forlorn when it was removed.

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On our last visit to the UK, we bought an extendable lead from the UK, as Nala wouldn’t accept an ordinary lead, and we now elicit a mixture of derision and fear in the neighbourhood as we steer her through throngs of people, animals and in particular children, whose first instinct, annoyingly though perhaps understandably, is to throw stones at her. The stray dogs seem to have absolutely no interaction with people (except when occasional culls are carried out using poisoned meat), so a dog on a lead is perceived as a greater threat than one wandering unattached.

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We suspect that the big challenge will come when we finally leave Ethiopia. We know that it was hard for Caz and Crawford. Will we be able to leave Nala? There are kind Ethiopian friends who will look after her, but all the same… On the other hand, a fortune in freight costs and 6 months of quarantine…

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

Leave a comment


  1. richardsh

     /  30/11/2013

    great post – full of life, sounds, experiences, sensations – when is the book coming out?

    not sure about hyenas ululating, however – thought it was only a human activity,

    • Thanks. Sure you’re right about ululation. Blogetic licence!

    • BTW, did you spot the strapline on the side of the fish truck (third slideshow)? Might give you a laugh. 😉

  2. “Nala doesn’t seem to have read Pavlov.” Classic! Great writing, John 🙂


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