Saturday, 21 June 2014

The dog it was that died

The dog came as a surprise.

It had been a long day, a day spent in pretty intensive meetings in Blantyre, in the south of Malawi, followed by a drive of three hours or so to pick up a colleague in Dedza, then another drive of hour and a half to reach our destination, Lilongwe. It was therefore about nine o'clock and had been dark for several hours when we reached the Crossroads roundabout. We drove into the complex to drop off our passenger and five minutes later reached the junction with the main-ish road which would, by various turns, lead to my hotel.

I was comatose, for I had been up at between five and six o'clock most days the previous week and had worked full tilt through every daylight hour and beyond. I was not prepared therefore for what happened next.

We pulled up at the junction behind another four-by-four, chatting desultorily in the way one does when one has already been engaged in deep discussion for several hours and now just wants to get back 'home'.

'Oh, there's a dog on the road,' said my companion as he noted the frustrated hesitation of the vehicle in front. I glanced up and there, sure enough, was a dog, the usual yellow half-feral dog, lying on the tarmac.

Then, 'Oh no!', he exclaimed in horror, 'He's run it over, he's deliberately run it over!'

I glanced up and then immediately covered my eyes, but not quickly enough to avoid the ghastly sight of the back wheels running over the dog's abdomen and then making off to the left. A terrible agonising yelping ensued as the dog tried but failed to raise its broken back off the ground. On the opposite side of the road, other, probably feral, dogs barked excitedly as they too grasped what had happened.

My companion pulled round the site of the 'accident' and we made off in stunned silence.

'That was cruelty, sheer cruelty,' my friend observed.

A few minutes' silence.

'I bet that man goes to church,' he added, to my surprise, for my Malawian friend is a committed Christian and staunch churchgoer. 'It's a problem with Christianity. People think the world belongs to human beings and animals don't matter.'

He was alluding, of course, to the almost universal church membership among his fellow countrymen.

Now, I hadn't seen Christianity in that light at all. On the contrary, I had thought of the Christian universe as one presided over by St Francis, arms raised in blessing above a harmonious fellowship of humans, birds and animals.

Though by no means an excessively sentimental animal lover, my own affection for the species very largely derives from my affection for our family's dogs, an emotional relationship which goes back well over half a century to our first pet, Bobby, a small black and white mongrel. He was followed by our wonderful long-haired half-retriever-half-spaniel, Brunig, and then the loveable but untrainable Cavalier King Charles siblings which my parents still had when I left home.

Even now, dogless myself for some decades, I enjoy my intermittent relationship with my brother's collies and my sister-in-law's terriers, relishing my role as visiting 'aunty'. Never has it ever occurred to me that a religion ostensibly based on love for creation could be responsible for the kind of callousness I saw last night.

But yet, but yet...  My colleague has a point. A country which reads the Bible and takes its words literally will not have failed to have found in God's words to Adam a powerful statement of the essential rightness of a world dominated by human beings.

And God said unto them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." (Genesis chapter 1)

Now, when God used the word dominion, was he bestowing power, or handing over guardianship? That is the crux of the matter.

To those of us who see in Genesis a glorious poetic attempt to explore the origins of mankind through the medium of myth, the question may seem of little relevance. To those, however, who believe that the Bible was dictated by God to one writer as a template for life and a manual to be implemented unchanged until the end of time, it is a very pertinent question. The fact that the word dominion was chosen by the sixteenth century English translators rather than the original Hebrew wordsmiths just makes the debate even more complicated.

There is, of course, another angle that has nothing whatever to do with the Christianity or otherwise of a country's population. I am sure that many British readers of this post, most of whom will be animal lovers to a man and woman, will see the incident as a horrifying if mundane example of the casual cruelty of a country which isn't Britain. Other people - foreigners - just don't love animals as we do, goes the self-satisfied script. From camels in Arabia to donkeys in Spain, only the British really demonstrate love and care for the creatures with whom we share this wonderful world.

Well, actually, no.

A popular television programmes in our animal-loving country follows the activities of a team of inspectors who follow up cases of animal cruelty and neglect. Week after week they come across beaten dogs, tortured cats and poisoned birds.

Every few months our news broadcasts tell of farms where starving horses are left to die. Reporters describe kennels which churn out psychologically damaged puppies torn too early from their mothers. The impatient brutality which runs over a dog because it doesn't get out of the way quickly enough is really no worse than the gradual neglect and abandonment of pets which have merely become inconvenient. Turning a puppy out of doors in January because it has nipped the children or left a mess on the floor is just as callous as running over it, it is just that the victim dies round the corner out of sight.

The more I visit other countries, the less easy I find it to cast judgement even in situations such as the one with which I started this post and which left me shaking with horror and disgust. I learnt my lesson when we left Uganda eighteen months ago. We had spent the previous few months seething with rage as we observed the blatant corruption of that country's political regime and public services wreck the lives of its citizens, particularly the weak and vulnerable, and above all the children. As our placement drew to a close, the fetid tide had crept gradually closer and closer, eventually even soiling our own toes. We came back to Britain sorry to leave such a beautiful country but relieved that we were back, as we thought, in a land where gross injustices of the kind we had witnessed did not take place.

As you might expect we were wrong, and not just wrong but naive. We came back to a city council whose entire Buildings Department had been accused of taking bribes and to a country where corrupt dealers fixed the currency rates, where reckless bankers juggled with the savings of trusting customers and where tax-dodging millionaires blamed the poor for the nation's financial difficulties.

Cruelty, callousness and greed are not qualities which can be ascribed to any country or culture in particular. Sadly, they are human qualities and have been among our characteristics, no doubt, since the beginnings of time - or the creation of the world, depending on one's perspective or beliefs. Fortunately, human society is made up of more than the exemplification of our worst characteristics. Of our positive features I am sure I will have more to say in subsequent posts.

But for now, I just regret to say the dog it was that died.

The title of this post and its final line are taken from An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog by Oliver Goldsmith.

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