Note: I wrote this story a few weeks ago now, and it was originally posted at Converge.
I yelled that name dozens of times last Sunday afternoon; each time my voice trailing off with a measure of embarrassment.
You see, Sierra is our new puppy that we lost less than 24hrs after we got her. She was given to us by a friend who knew we were looking for a new dog to help control the neighboring chickens that were eating all the crops on the farm of our community centre in rural Uganda. She is a beautiful puppy – a mutt that resembles a German Pinscher with short dark hair and light brown colouring on her belly, legs, and face – but she is also a nervous puppy – having been abused when she was younger.
Therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, when a neighbor rode close by on their bike, Sierra panicked. Still terrified of new people, specifically new African people, she took off having little idea of where she was going or how to get back to where she was. After she failed to return to us immediately, we got that sinking feeling that she may not be coming back.
So, we started to search and holler for this puppy for the next 5 hours amongst huts and homes in the countryside. We tried to explain to our confused neighbors that we were searching for our pet dog but I think our intentions were lost in translation because people here don’t keep dogs as pets. We also tried to explain in broken Lugandan that she was wearing a collar, but since dogs here don’t wear collars most people thought we were looking for a necklace – which would have been just as futile since looking for this terrified dog in the long grass of the expansive Ugandan countryside was very much like looking for a needle in a haystack.
For many of the locals, it would have made more sense if we actually were looking for a necklace. Here, dogs don’t wear collars and people don’t go around yelling for a lost dog. There is too much else to worry about. Last week, for example, 5 children in the village lost their father to an illness that seemed entirely preventable if the right medical attention were available. He was only 41 years old. Such are the worries of life in a village. Such are the worries of life in Africa. This is why many of our neighbors must have thought we were crazy spending as much energy as we did walking, biking, and shouting in an effort to find our dog Sierra.
We searched for hours on end – we have the sunburns to prove it – with no luck. Eventually we regrouped for some food and water. My wife mused that if we lose a dog within 24hrs, how are we ever going to be responsible enough to have kids? And so, with that new found motivation, we launched one last search party – but this time we brought along the centre’s older dog, Cujo, for moral support if nothing else.
As we neared the place where we lost Sierra I thought I might as well give Cujo something of Sierra’s to smell so that she might clue in to what we were doing. Then a funny thing happened: Cujo darted into the long grass with purpose. I followed, not yet making the connection that it had anything to do with Sierra. I struggled to keep up as we made our way through waist deep grass and shoulder deep bushes, but then I heard a whimper come from the bushes not far ahead of me – Cujo had found Sierra. It was difficult to settle Sierra down in her excitement after she spent 5 hours in the heat of the day hiding in one spot, too terrified to move. We were elated to find Sierra, and our neighbors were relieved that we had stopped yelling for her.
Having moved to rural Uganda from Vancouver, I am able to see first hand the differences in how people from different cultures treat dogs. In the West, dogs are a source of companionship; they are man’s best friend. There are hotels and gyms and spas for dogs. People even buy outfits for their dogs.
In the West, dogs are members of a community, but in Africa, they are protectors of a community. People in rural Africa rarely have the resources to treat dogs as another member of the family, and as a result, dogs end up serving a practical rather than relational purpose. They become guard dogs if they haven’t already become a nuisance – which is exactly what most dogs here are.
Having had a few hours to think about the purpose of dogs when we were searching for Sierra, I think the truth about dogs is somewhere in between Africa and the West. We should not value dogs so much that we put their needs before people, which happens too often in the West, but we should not value dogs so little that abuse becomes normative, which happens too often in Africa.
My point here, however, is not to paint Africa in a negative light. There are many people in Africa who do not mistreat their dogs just as there are many people in the West who do not overindulge their dogs. My point is this: we must determine how to appropriately care for all things in creation – dogs, animals, people, and plants alike. If we reduce creation to raw material it will become a tool for use to use and abuse, and if we elevate creation into a deity it will become an object of worship. The truth about creation, like the truth about dogs, is somewhere in between.