In this excerpt, a journalist from Lagos has just arrived for a stay in the Washington, D.C., area.
Americans in general are in love with pets, and dogs appear to be especially popular. This happened to be one of my earliest encounters and discoveries, and I have since gone beyond this to contemplate how the sociology of dog-owning, dog-keeping, and dog-walking is a possible measure of the temperament of this society. I may in fact add that a dog was one of the first Americans that I encountered--indeed, one of my first hosts.
After a few airline delays, I found myself in the warm embrace of my host family: Stanley Meisler, a journalist; his wife; and their dog--a nine-month-old robust beauty of a puppy. Dog Meisler also understands human language: He sits when he is asked to do so, and he loves to be taken for a walk. For the 72 hours or so that I stayed with Stanley and Elizabeth, Dog Meisler proved to be a significant American presence.
He has a whole room all to himself. His owners (they prefer the word "parents") speak of his "pen," but I thought a room should be called what it is.
I confess that I am indifferent to dogs. I am so busy thinking of tomorrow that I refuse to be tied down to the present by the friendship of animals. Dog Meisler, however, failed to understand. Determined to be a good host, anytime he saw me, he came jumping, struggling to lick my clothes, feet, etc. "He does not bite and he will not," I was repeatedly told. "Sit, sit," his owners say. And they stroke his hair. And soon, he is taken for a walk.
You need to see Dog Meisler take his meals. He has his own plates and his own kind of food. He drinks milk and is cuddled like a human being. I have never seen such a level of rapport between an animal and human beings: The entire process seemed to me like the humanization of Dog Meisler--a point that was played out the day I was supposed to leave. We woke up that morning to find the dog with a bad cough. He growled more deeply than usual, and soon he began to vomit. His owners were immediately depressed and concerned, and I was sympathetic. A veterinary doctor was contacted, and Dog Meisler received prescriptions over the phone. Stanley was to go to a pharmacy to pick up the drugs. I went with him. And behold, a set of drugs were handed over, with a receipt issued in Dog Meisler's name.
In his "The Theory of the Leisure Class," economist Thorstein Veblen argues that dogs are items of conspicuous consumption, acquired for aesthetic reasons by a select leisure class, and hence, like horses, cats, pigeons, and cage-birds, they serve no industrial purpose other than to highlight social contradictions. What I find, however, in the near-obsessive fraternity with animals in these parts is a sure cry for companionship, the demolition of the last walls of alienation, and the extension of boundaries of contact among living things.
Africans also keep dogs and other pets, but we tend to do so in a different manner--one that is sociologically instructive. And the pattern is the same, irrespective of social or educational status. Having not learned to live together as human beings, in a continent where man's inhumanity to man is the norm, it is sheer piety to speak of animal rights.
For us, then, a dog lives a dog's life; he is the victim of our frustrations and the cannon-fodder of our aspirations. This is why the classical hunter's dog is important in fables and in the rural community only for his genius in helping the hunter find food.
In modern times, dogs have remained hunters. They help us hunt for intruders and thieves. All over Lagos, the fashion is to put a label on the door saying "Beware of Dogs." We use them as shields in the volatile contact with other human beings.
The dog is therefore the enemy, not a friend--or perhaps a servant. The owner is not a parent, as Stanley and Elizabeth described themselves, but a master. In our own context, it is hard for dogs to be so humanized; rather, they are "thingified"--that is, a dog is a thing, a property. It is perhaps why Dog Meisler could hardly reach across to me, in spite of the genuine assurance of his good-naturedness.
What I'd known up to this point is the idea of baby-sitting. Dog-sitting? I gather it is an important job for which American dog owners are willing to pay more than the minimum wage. I remembered, on the contrary, thousands of children back home in Nigeria in dire need of baby-sitters. Due to the limited resources of Nigeria's baby boomers, who have to hold down a job in the face of triple-digit inflation and high-percentage unemployment, children are left in the care of neighbors, distracted relations, hypochondriac housemaids, or at the mercy of day-care centres. Often, parents return to confront the agony of a missing child, brutalized perhaps or fatally injured by the inattentive maid or the overworked day-care nurse.
Here, dogs seem to get a better deal. An ad conspicuously displayed in the metro in the Washington, D.C., area puts a crown on a dog's head and a garland around its neck. A popular videocassette is entitled "All Dogs Go to Heaven." An elderly man of about 60-plus who lives about four apartments across the corridor lives alone, all alone, with his dog, and I've yet to see him in a lonely or desperate mood.
Americans share this love of dogs with Mongolians, among whom the dog is the most sacred of all animals. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is believed that dogs are closest to human beings. When dogs die, so the philosophy goes, they reincarnate as human beings. In Nigeria, however, dogs are dogs. To be called a dog is perhaps the most denigrating form of social put-down.
What we are left with is that our situation has become so objectified, we are at a level below that of animals. Dogs will remain dogs as they will, but perhaps there is a lesson in the empathy between the dog and its owner: the exploration of human kindness or its opposite, and a search, possibly, for moments when men and animals spoke the same language.