If you know me at all, you know I love dogs. I really love dogs. I love dogs in a possibly-more-than-I-love-humans way.
I knew going into Peace Corps that I would be living in a place where attitudes and treatment towards dogs (and animals in general) would be wildly different than what I’m used to. That’s definitely true in Lesotho.
Dogs are everywhere here. Most families have at least one, often several, and the same goes for herd boys who are away from home for months at a time. It seems like someone is always selling puppies.
I’ve spent 5 months trying to figure out why Basotho have dogs, and honestly, it’s still confusing to me.
The easy answer, the answer you’ll get from a Mosotho, is that dogs provide security. My ‘M’e says she feels safer with dogs at her house, and my students have told me that they believe dogs eat thieves.
But dogs here are terrible guard dogs. They aren’t trained at all, although generally, they are beaten. As a result, they’re often indiscriminately aggressive and scared of everyone they meet, be it a visitor or a criminal. If a dog does begin to attack, everyone knows they all respond to the same trick – pretend to throw a rock, and they’ll run away.
So dogs don’t provide great security, and hardly any Basotho look to them for companionship. Like I said, I don’t quite get it.
I adopted a puppy during my first month in-country, and I plan on taking her back to the US when I finish my service. Raising a dog the American way in Lesotho has been an interesting experience.
I met my dog at 3 weeks old. She was the puppy of my host family’s dog during training. My friends adopted her two sisters, and we became pretty obsessed. At the end of training I was awarded the superlative “most likely to own a dog farm,” maybe because I tried to bring my puppy to class a few times.
Now, everyone in my new village knows Motsoalle (I named her a Sesotho word for “friend,” with bonus adorable nickname Mo), and they seem to like her, although most people are afraid to touch her. This isn’t helped by the fact that my Me’s other dog, a dog left to her by the previous volunteer at my site, is aggressive and has been known to bite people.
I’m training Mo to do the usual things – sit, stay, come – and my neighbors get the biggest kick out of it. I’ve tried to explain that a dog who is well trained and rewarded instead of lashed will behave better, but that feels like a losing battle of opinions. My older brother tried to take a stab at giving Mo commands, but clearly showed he had missed the point when he asked her politely to “please take a seat.”
I also care more for the health of my dog than the average person here. I’m lucky that I have the resources to feed her healthy food every day (usually oatmeal, papa, eggs, and meat). If you and your family doesn’t have enough food on the table, you’re not going to feed your dog well, and that’s fair.
I also take Mo to the vet and stay up to date on her vaccinations, which is rare here even though rabies shots and worms pills are free. Again, it makes sense why many families can’t prioritize their pets’ health when they are dealing with the stressors of poverty and HIV and when the animal in question isn’t even a source of food or income. I’m not demonizing what I’ve seen here – it’s just different!
In terms of a vet, I’m really lucky. There’s a Zimbabwean man who lives in town that works mostly with livestock but also treats several Peace Corps pets. He loves Mo! He’s also close friends with most of the volunteers in town, so Mo’s checkups end with braai (barbeque) and beer.
It can be hard to explain why I treat my dog the way I do, but Mo has been an enormous comfort to me here. One of the hardest parts of Peace Corps service is isolation, and a lot of volunteers struggle with their mental health. With a dog, I never feel alone, as silly or cheesy as that may seem. It’s also comforting to know that when I make the difficult transition back to American life in several years, she’ll be with me to bridge the gap between my two lives.
A friend and fellow volunteer also has a dog, and she’s had similar experiences as me. One of her Mosotho friends told her that he wished more volunteers had dogs, because he was glad for the opportunity to learn how to treat animals with kindness and love. I don’t have a dog for some kind of behavior-changing mission (and I understand that there are way bigger problems to address in Lesotho than dog-beating), but it’s nice to know my love for my pet might be contagious. It makes my heart melt every time I see my students or my host brother play with her!