He greeted me at the gate. tall and muscular, a rich, deep, tan color with black ears and snout, he was gentle and curious, yet reserved — a stoic African giant. I wanted to become great friends and yet wanted to remain detached, to avoid the inevitable heartbreak when I left.
I had arrived in Kampala, Uganda, a few days previous to begin my field assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. I was excited, energized, curious and anxious to meet the people I would be living and working with over the next six months. Though I felt well qualified for work as a nurse in a large HIV/AIDS project in northern Uganda, I was less certain about my ability to live with 10 complete strangers and adapt to the extended separation from family, home and pets.
I have great difficulty with leave-takings and goodbyes. Yet over the previous decade, I had shifted my career toward international work, knowing it meant leaving the comfort, security and love of family: my husband of 31 years; my aging mother; my sisters; my dog, Helen; and my cat, Netty. I have left them behind on numerous occasions in the past, first for three- to four-week volunteer assignments, then for twomonth stays during my summer break from academia. The longest I had been separated thus far was a three-month stint in Ethiopia. The six-month commitment required by MSF was daunting. Yet, it was my opportunity to satisfy a lifetime passion — to use my nursing skills to help people in all parts of the world. Working with MSF was a dream come true, and I could not pass up this opportunity.
While it may sound irreverent, it is much more difficult for me to leave my pets than it is to leave my spouse. I rationalize this as follows: My husband understands the concept of time, and knows exactly when I will return. He has been involved in the decision making and the preparation, and we maintain contact on a regular basis through email and weekly phone conversations. For him, I am not totally gone, as I am as far as my pets are concerned. For them, the anxiety begins with the onset of packing. Helen, dejected, stares at me, her head resting on her paws. Since she doesn’t understand the concept of time, I am simply gone — returning? or not? It isn’t until the plane is in the air that I begin to look forward to my destination.
When, after introductions and a brief orientation in the capital, I learned that one of my housemates in the field (an eight-hour drive north) was a dog, I relaxed, becoming less anxious, confident that all would be OK. I knew it would feel more like home because of the dog. Even then, I had no idea how helpful the dog would be.
His name is Tasia. The story is that he had been born in the MSF compound in this large town in northwest Uganda about seven years previous. His mother, also an MSF dog, had died of cancer a few months after Tasia and his brother were born. Tasia has been living with the rotating team of ex-pats that come and go at various intervals ever since. Stability is provided by the support staff (cooks, watchmen, housekeepers), who feed him daily and provide companionship.
Our relationship began slowly enough … I was happy to greet him each morning and at the end of a long working day. He was always there at the gate, nose through the slats, anxious to see who was arriving home. He knew who belonged and who did not. He was not permitted in the house and rarely attempted to test those boundaries. In the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa, the unscreened doors were left wide open day and night. We all spent the majority of our time at home on the veranda or in the yard, so Tasia had lots of company.
He came in the house just two times in the six months that I lived there. One day, when it was raining, windy and cold, I came out of my room to see him lying just inside the living room door, never venturing to move farther into the house. Another early morning, I found him chasing Maay, our goat, out of the house — these two were generally good and tolerant partners on the outside. It was Tasia’s role to keep the other animals in line, and one of his favorite games was to run in circles with the ever-present lizards that scampered around the yard.