Dogs and humans in Addis Ababa

“How can I talk about a hit-and-run incident involving a dog when I see on daily basis the suffering of fellow humans?”

Where does the idea of a just society begin? Perhaps in a sudden moment in the morning traffic. Author and chairman in Ethiopian PEN Solomon Hailemariam sees the biggest change in the smallest thing on the way to school with his son—and has hope for the coming generation. It happens in Addis Ababa, but could be anywhere in the world.

April 8 2015 Text: Solomon Hailemariam Illustration: Saadia Hussain

The new sun is coming out one early morning in September. Since the long rainy season frustrates the Addis dweller, they welcome and enjoy every bit of the New Year’s September morning sun. Whilst taking my son to school, undertaking my parental responsibility, I was giving him advice: “Listen to your teacher properly. Ask questions if you don’t understand. Do your class work and ask the teacher to correct it, etc.” Suddenly, we heard a disturbing noise from a dog, and the horrifying sound seized our attention. A speeding minibus taxi had hit a dog, and drove away carelessly as if he had just ran over an empty plastic bottle. However, he had hit an animal which had a life like all of us. The taxi must have hit the dog in the middle of its belly, as its head curled in to its legs, resembling someone jumping on a sponge mattress. The dog growled 2-3 times in extreme agony, and after a sharp heart-breaking yowl, it collapsed as a human would just before death. All the bystanders showed sympathy, some sobering as if the accident happened to a fellow human being. Most were accusing the taxi driver and calling him “a criminal.”

My son observed the entire event with great shock and disbelief, and began expressing his saddened emotions over and over again. The incident struck him immensely as he loves animals, and constantly asks me to get him a pet dog. He suddenly started asking me: “Is there a veterinary hospital in Ethiopia where dogs are treated? Where do dogs go when they are sick? Why didn’t the police arrest the taxi driver for killing the dog? Why didn’t anyone take the dog to a hospital?” The final sharp heart-breaking growl of the dog was certainly a call for help but none of us helped it. My son continued questioning: “If it was in some other country, do you think they would have taken him to a hospital? Do you think the taxi driver would have been arrested if he had done this in some other country?”

While my son was asking me those questions relating to the dog, my attention veered off to another subject. I was observing a few homeless people around the corner who were struggling to warm their bodies after the ferocious cold and windy night. Most of them wore very dirty clothes and covered their bodies with rugs. But, what surprised me most was that some of the homeless people were sleeping with dogs to exchange body warmth. There were children, adults and elders, yet no girls or women amongst them, although during the day one could see them begging here and there.

The dog’s unfortunate incident made me think about many other social problems in the city. How do we Ethiopians perceive dogs in general? The literal meaning of “dog” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, is an animal whose life is not worthy, dishonorable, and a slacker. If someone calls you a “dog”, it is a very offensive term. I am not sure how “dog” is defined by the popular Desta Teklewold Amharic dictionary but I’m sure it won’t be much different. We know very well that both in history and in practice, dogs are very loyal and have been living harmoniously with human beings for centuries. The police and law enforcement authorities have been using them for their own beneficial purposes. In Ethiopia, few dogs are fortunate enough to have lived a luxurious life. Emperor Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, had a puppy that was spoiled to the extent that if it didn’t like a particular government official, that official would have been viewed suspiciously. Other than that, the majority of dogs have been treated brutally in this country.

Presently, when children see dogs on the streets, they tend to throw stones at them, no matter what type of dog they are. Why do children consider dogs an enemy? Is it because children naturally act pre-emptively before the dog has a chance to attack them? When I travelled to Europe and other developed countries, it was quite normal to see people approaching the owner of a dog as if they were approaching a person with a kid, petting their dog, asking its name, etc. Then, why are dogs treated like an enemy in our country? Are children throwing stones at dogs because of rabies, and fear being bitten? When I previously worked as a journalist, I interviewed the head representative of the United Nations in Ethiopia. When asked of her family status, she said she had a family of three and even told me the names of her two family members. After the interview, I found out that the ‘family members’ she referred to were her two dogs. In the developed world, occasionally someone would leave his/her entire will to a dog upon death. If citizens of the developed world think like this, why can’t we?

That day’s incident made me to ponder on numerous other issues. Dogs are living beings like any of us, however, as the saying goes, “Jesus showed sympathy to his flesh”. For now, let’s forget the dogs and consider those human beings living like dogs (and sometimes worse) on the streets of Addis Ababa, leading a life that is below the living and above the dead. While fellow humans are living in such horrible conditions, would it be fair to lament for dogs only? In a city where human dignity is lost, what is the logic in writing about dogs?

For some reason, the city’s administration and residents don’t seem to care about humans who are suffering from lack of food, shelter and clothes to protect themselves from the brutal cold nights. I don’t see any meaningful plan or action that will bring change to the suffering of these homeless citizens on the streets of Addis. I am not underestimating the efforts of a handful of non-governmental organizations. However, as a citizen of Addis Ababa, as Ethiopian, and as government of this city, what have we done to make a difference? Neither dropping coins to the beggars to fulfill one’s religious duty nor feeding the needy during religious rituals will change the current situation. If so, it would have solved the problem a very long time ago, as Ethiopians have been doing this for centuries. Rather, it has only sustained the situation.

These needy people, whose eyes look like ours, who share the same skin color as us, and whose facial features resembles ours are suffering like hell. Every day they walk through the valley of death and yet we don’t want to notice them. How can we walk with dignity and honor through the same streets of Addis Ababa while overlooking such sufferings? Well, how can I talk about a hit-and-run incident involving a dog when I see on daily basis the suffering of fellow humans?

To see kids care and weep for the suffering of a dog is a generational development compared to that which throw stones every time they encounter dogs. However, the increasing number of homeless people on the streets of Addis Ababa, and on the front and back lawns of churches and mosques desperately calls for more effort. We Ethiopians are known to relish going to war to protect our country from invaders. In a similar vein, we need to declare an all-out war against the suffering of fellow human beings on our streets. Otherwise, the generational evolution I just mentioned will be overturned, and begging, homelessness and suffering will become our badge making it difficult to live an honorable life. How can we have dignity and honor when our fellow humans are suffering on our streets?

My 10-year old son helped me notice the suffering of animals on our streets. My generation and I are still watching the suffering of humans on those same streets. The dilemma is how can we talk about the rights, protection and care of animals when human beings are still suffering the same? How can we worry about dogs when humans don’t have the basic essentials of survival, such as food, shelter and clothes? When a humans’ dignity is still compromised, how can we do anything for animals?