Thu 5 Feb 2009
The painted-white iron gate that hovers a few feet from my front door squawked deep and metallic as I slid back its bolt and swung it out into the bright light of the morning. Outside of it sat Hastings, a mutt of medium stature who, in his quivering excitement and nervous demeanour, failed to mirror the brutal command of his namesake. The president Kamuzu Banda, whose Christian name had been borrow’d and delivered upon this ocher mongrel, had died long before the pup was born. He had in his two years lived only on this small plot in this central precinct of Lilongwe together with his bantam father Tiger who had perished less than a year ago. Hastings, eternally befuddled by my morning lethargy, was unconcerned with the details. His enthusiasm for my appearance bubbled over and he nearly cartwheeled as I greeted him under the glare of the September sun.
He stiffened as I slipped the catch of the leash around the ringlet in his studded red collar whilst adorning him with the undulating crooning of refined pooch talk. His timidity results from his limit acquaintance with the geography of the surrounding neighborhood, his tiny cosmos usually bounded by the walls of gray and ruddy brick that beleaguer the place.
The locals were frightened of this honey-shaded hound. Upon my entry and exit, when one of the staff wrenched open the steely gate to let my vehicle past, the little tyrant would have brief, tempestuous skirmishes with passing drunkards and ferals of every breed. For the less dangerous sort he still maintained a vicious bark, scattering men and women and sending packs of barefoot children packing, crying with palmed stones lest he decide to pursue.
I did not enjoy harboring terror like that, yet what little more was there to do for a neutered wretch other than guard his dominion? Hastings, along with his late sire, maintained a respectable image of rabid savagery. Had the rest known that his bark was little more than a show, that he was truly impotent despite his growl, they might be less frightened. In a city where walls are easily scaled and guards dream quickly, a vicious-looking dog had value.
I had not walked the dog much before. The gardener Daniels occasionally led the two canines to a nearby market where they would be dipped for plague-bearers and worms along with hundreds of other dogs who were more likely not pets but sentry beasts. I was still uneasy taking him out given his nervous nature, yet, like before he grew quiet as we stepped beyond the tall aluminum scaled gateway up onto the pockmarked asphalt of the nameless street.
A wheeze of dusty air frolicked around the neglected pavement. It felt arid and warm despite our proximity to the solstice; September was marked for its steep gradient from a mild winter to the feverish state which began in October, a dry heatwave only quenched by the capricious rains of the late year, when all the land’s colours would invert to a tropical palette. I would not see this again, for the next day I would leave that city and that tiny country, to unwrap a new life outside, exciting and comfortable, yet predictably lacking in the bittersweet seduction I had known for two years. The dog and I stood there for a moment, betwixt the seasons.
I listened to the murmur of the morning; the distant sounds of trucks and four-wheel drive automobiles shifting on the nearby highway; the eternal lovesong of the birds who nested in and around the sporadic foliage of my plot; the braying call of the fruit merchant as he wandered the grit of the neighbourhood; the delicate whine of nearby guard dogs, mutts clasped to stakes in the dirt, fueled and serviced less often than the sputtering cars seen creaking down the road, whimpering as they sat in starvation; the laughter of men and women and little children as they went about their day, bicycles and noggins topped with timber or sundries.
I and two other denizens had long ago been marked by the national census, yet I felt this to be an empty tally; in this quarter of town I was a recluse. After two years, I had not even met those living next to me; our staff had relayed any imperative communication. Yet despite the palisades of ragged glass and sparking that protected me, I did not consider myself as embattled as many of the expatriates did.
I walked down the road with the dog at my side. Apprehensive from his displacement, he stayed near, shedding the wanton curiosity that would become him. Around us trotted the native Malawians, wandering to their given vocation, be it certain or elusive. It was difficult not to feel like an interloper on that street, my peachy visage, typically seated behind the windscreen of a car, contrasting with the quizzical faces of those idle urchins that sat and studied the mzungu and his pup.
I could see the gulf left by the lack of understanding between us, by the continued languor of that common empathy that ought to be nurtured. Spare me a moment the void that I embraced when faced with the worst this country had to offer, the images that are so popular with those who have succumbed to a nearly pornographic worship of poverty. I had long ago lost all feeling at the sight of hungry moppets who would scream appeals over their knotted, empty paunches; of the lame masses who scrabbled the dusty city streets on their knurly legs and moan for the absolution only I could give them; of the mothers who, with their waxen cherubs adorned would beg for my intervention. Those bridges had been wrenched asunder long ago.
I speak instead of those around me in Area 14: the well-fed, the infrequent middle class who, despite their relative difficulty, were still on the spectrum of my limited comprehension. I was leaving the next day and I had still not spoken to them. Yet I decided solely to walk my dog and take in what I was to leave behind, not to vindicate myself through late conversation.
The dog and I walked. I exchanged my fair share of greetings, as was customary, as well as the occasional grin. I spoke just a smidgen of their natural tongue; enough to say hello.
After a time I conceded and steered Hastings onto an avenue leading back. As we passed a cluster of dwellings, I noticed a middle-aged man standing by his gate, dressed for work and clearly in command of the ragged staff around him. He was busy directing the loading of a vehicle when I began to pass. He noticed me as I drew close.
“Hello!” he said.
“Hello there,” I replied. “How are you?”
“I am fine,” he said. “And you?”
“I am well.” I replied.
“Very good.” He regarded me for a moment. I smiled.
“That dog there,” he said, motioning at Hastings. “That is your dog?”
“That is a fine-looking dog,” he said.
I looked down at the mutt, who had likely not received such impartial praise before.
I thanked the man and went home, the dog clearly content over our return.
Sometime less than twenty-five weeks later I stood in an airport in another distant nation. Around me were folk that spoke a common tongue to mine. I had been raised with this sort, yet the greetings that followed were curt and the smiles were not eager, but mere reflex. I did not know them any better, and they knew me not a bit.