When I first came to country, I told myself I would NOT under any circumstances, get a dog.
My rational was simple: I have no money, no permanent address, and no idea what I’ll be doing with my life in two years. I was in no way prepared for dog ownership.
And then I got Chipapai, or PoPo for short. Both are Chitonga words for Papaya. It was the best decision I’ve made in my Peace Corps service. So here are ten reasons why you should have a dog in Peace Corps.
Ideally, you’ll find your new companion early on in your Peace Corps service, shortly after you arrive at site. This is beneficial for several reasons. First of all, it gives you the opportunity to get outside and chat with your neighbors. They’ll be more than happy to help you find someone with a litter of pups. And what better way to practice your new language skills than to compare and contrast the advantages of adorable, wiggling puppies?
Secondly, the first three months at site tend to be the hardest. Known as “Community Integration Period” by the office and “lockdown” by volunteers, you’re not allowed to leave your village for the sole purpose of forcing you to make friends in your village. In this time volunteers fluctuate between actively seeking and actively avoiding social interaction.
The thrills of new puppy ownership help to moderate these extremes. You get all that snuggley, loving energy to compensate for the fact you’re daily questioning why the heck you decided moving to Africa was a good idea. Everything about dog ownership is new and exciting, and you’re guaranteed at least one friend in your new home.
2. Instant celebrity
When you join the Peace Corps in Malawi, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll have people shouting names at you wherever you go. At first you’ll get hoards of children screaming (with impressive synchronicity) “MZUNGU, MZUNGU” (white person, white person), or “SISTER, SISTER”. Eventually they’ll get to know you as mzungu-in-residence, and shout your name at you and every other white person who comes along.
But when your dog follows you everywhere, something magical happens. Your friendly, American-raised dog becomes more famous than you are. People aren’t used to dogs behaving like pets, so your dog becomes more of a novelty. Wherever I go I get people shouting my dog’s name “PoPo, PoPo!” regardless of if she’s with me or not. Sometimes I even get refereed to as “Ama wa Chipapai” or “mother of Chipapai” and it always makes me smile.
3. Cooking for two
In a world with no electricity and afternoon temperatures pushing 110 degrees Fahrenheit, leftovers do not exist. And cooking for one isn’t fun in America, let alone when you’re cooking on a firewood mbaula. There’s nothing worse than making too little food and having to start your fire again, so you generally grossly overestimate the amount of rice and beans a person should consume in one sitting. But you feel guilty throwing away the excess, what about the “starving children in Africa”? But you quickly learn that feeding village kids is exactly like feeding a gremlin after midnight.
None of this is a problem when you have a dog! Whatever leftovers you have get tossed on top of the dogfood you laboriously transport all the way from the capitol city. African village dogs eat just about anything, unlike their picky American cousins.
Some of PoPo’s favorite foods include; fried termites, beans, lake flies, cabbage cooked in oil, beans, stale bread, oatmeal, avocado pear, fish bones, chicken bones, pig intestine and various internal organs, cow hoof, apple cores, and (to my amusement) papaya.
4. Transport is more fun with company
Let’s face it, transport is the bane of every PCV’s existence. Nothing is worse than being crammed into a 16-passenger minibus in 100+ degree heat with; 25 people, three goats, four chickens, two babies, a basket of fish, and one drunk guy, while the conductor clings to the outside of the car as you speed along at 90 kilometers and hour. I’m not at all exaggerating. My idea of hell is a minibus ride that never ends.
The only thing that makes it a little more bearable is good company, and who’s better company than your furry friend! Some vehicles may not stop for you with a dog, but the ones that do are sure to find it hilarious when you put your puppy on your lap like a child. All of the minibus conductors in my area know me and PoPo by now, and if I’m traveling alone they ask “Ma’am, where is Chipapai today?.” And waiting for a hitch is much more fun with a friend.
5. A friend of my dog is a friend of mine
Peace Corps Volunteers LOVE to talk about their pets. It’s as popular a conversation starter as food, gossip, and gastrointestinal disease. Once you get the conversation rolling you’ll hear all about who’s dog killed a chicken last week, decided to take a nap in the school urinal, chewed up their owner’s only pair of dress shoes, or contracted sexually-transmitted penile cancer and is receiving chemotherapy in the capitol (all true stories).
My site mate also happens to be a dog lover, so whenever I go to visit PoPo comes along. Watching our puppies play provides hours of entertainment, and our nights usually involve long conversations about how our love lives will improve in America, while we pick ticks off our dogs and squish them with our water bottles on the concrete floor. At least once in each conversation we wonder out loud how PCVs without dogs stay sane.
It doesn’t matter how sweet or small your dog is, anyone who doesn’t know them will be terrified. Dogs are used for protection in Malawi, not pets. All dog owners should know how to say “my dog doesn’t bite” in local language. “my dog doesn’t eat goats” is also a useful phrase, “galu wangu waluwyiacha mbuzi!”.
However, not everyone needs to know that your little fuzzball isn’t a fearsome killer. Drunk men don’t need to know that. Neither do children that follow you on runs, strangers coming to your house, people trying to overcharge you in the market, or men shouting marriage proposals from across the street. When I have PoPo with me, I feel safe walking anywhere.
When I go to the beach, she lays on top of my backpack and waits for me to come back. One time a man tried to steal my phone from my bag, and she bit his hand. For being a little thing, she’s got great protective instincts. I feel safer at night with her sleeping on the hem of my mosquito net.
7. Endless social media opportunity
I have far more pictures of my dog in Malawi than I do of myself. My instagram is pretty much one big homage to Chipapai. I don’t have much to say about this except that this provides me with endless entertainment. It has also helped my family back home to develop a relationship with my dog.
A few months ago PoPo challenged our relationship when she ate my Kindle. I texted my sister furiously,
“that’s it, Chipapai lost her green card!” to which she responded,
“You can’t do that, I’m too emotionally invested in that dog. How would you feel if your mom left you in Africa?”.
8. Changing perceptions
One of my overall favorite parts of my Peace Corps service has been watching my friends and neighbors change their perception of dogs. Most Malawians just don’t think about dogs as pets or animals capable of emotion. It’s common to see people casually beat or abuse dogs. PoPo has gone a long way towards changing that in my community,
My neighbor kids love playing with Popo. They pick her up and carry her, play a kind of fishing game from the tree with a plastic bag tied to a stick, include her in football games, take her for walks, drag her into the lake to go swimming, snuggle with her in the shade of the mango trees, and chase her around the village until she retreats into my house. Then they’ll come knock on the door and ask “can PoPo come out and play?”
One time I came home from work to see my friend Alimoney, seven years old, sitting in my yard reading a book with PoPo. He was leaned up against a tree, her head resting in his lap, as he stroked her fur. I overheard him crooning “nditanja inu PoPo, bwezi wangu PoPo, nditanja inu ukongwa PoPo”, or “I love you PoPo, you’re my friend PoPo, I love you so much PoPo”. Their friendship melts my heart.
9. It’s okay if your dog is your best friend
Who else is going to keep you warm at night? Skin hunger (the craving of human contact) is a reality when you live alone in the village. But who needs friends or a boyfriend when you have a dog? Your pup is always happy to snuggle up next to you and watch Game of Thrones until your laptop dies. You’ll never hear them complaining having rice and beans for dinner five days in a row. Who else are you going to speak English with? For that matter, how else are you going to justify talking to yourself?
Owning a dog means you’re never alone. They’re up for whatever adventure you scheme up in the hours of boredom alone at site, as happy to explore new hiking paths as they are to lounge around and read a book. In all the ups and downs of the Peace Corps experience, you know there’s always a wagging tail for you when you get home.
10. You get to bring a part of Peace Corps home with you
I don’t know much about what my life will be like after Peace Corps, but I do know that PoPo is coming with me. She’s helped me through some of the hardest moments in my life, and for that I owe her as much.
I can’t wait to introduce her at the dog park as a “Malawian village mutt”, or see her reaction the first time we go to PetCo. She’s going to loose her mind at the abundance of treats and squeaky toys. I wonder how she’ll react to a world of drive-through windows, lap dogs, and apartment living. As one of my Malawian friends put it “You’re doing a good thing, taking PoPo to America. Not many Malawians get such opportunities.”
Not only will I get to bring my best friend home with me, I’ll get to bring a little part of Malawi too.