Dogs were at best tolerated, at worst despised: How an American teacher in Tanzania changed hearts a
I grew up in the Northeastern part of the USA. There were dogs in my life ALWAYS. As a child, we had a beloved family dog who made me laugh and who comforted me through my tears. As an adult, I taught at a school where a dog lived in the headmaster’s office and I was allowed to bring Guiding Eyes pups into my classroom to be socialized. All these animals who made up the fabric of my life were cared for well, loved and appreciated.
So imagine my learning curve upon moving to Tanzania, Africa. Frankly, it took me a while to catch on to the fact that here, dogs were at best tolerated animals, at worst despised creatures. In my early stages of being in TZ, I thought I was doing a great thing by rescuing two street pups and bringing them to the orphanage where I worked. Well, I still think it was a great idea, but not all shared my perspective on this adventure. The directors told me that dogs are the second dirtiest creatures on the planet so how dare I expose the children to them?
These tiny 5-week-old pups HAD to stay outdoors and the children were never allowed to touch them (that rule was broken often). If the dogs pooped outdoors, the entire operation of the orphanage came to a standstill as every child ran to find me because the director stood looking disapprovingly at the poop and wanted to know what was going to be done about it. I found it interesting that all the young children were pooping everywhere (no diapers worn here) and that was acceptable, but not for the dogs.
As the dogs grew and entered their challenging adolescent years, the situation grew untenable. Often, people here threaten to poison dogs, I was not allowed to walk the dogs on the day of their Sabbath as that is considered work and work is not allowed on the Sabbath. Nor could I find a vet to neuter or vaccinate them. I had no choice, but to leave my beloved children and find a safe place for my dogs and myself. The dogs had been so hated for the first two years of their life, which just broke my heart.
Then I found Mbwa Wa Africa and felt like a light had been turned on. Sandra and Jens liked my dogs! Sandra and Jens liked all dogs! Sandra and Jens even SAVED dogs!!!!! What was this all about? In a country, where dogs are not fed, often beaten, many times killed, suddenly I found people who made it their life’s work to care for canines. Animal rescue centers are few and far between here, they receive no governmental support and the locals consider anyone who does this work to be crazy. None of this stopped Sandra and Jens. Instead it spurred them on driven by the belief that SOMEONE needed to help the dogs and so it was going to be them.
So I jumped on board because I wanted to be part of this positivity. When I joined this organization, MWA was in its fledgling years and had focused on the development of the rescue center. Soon after, it was decided that MWA needed to spread its wings and to head in two more directions: cooperation with international groups regarding vaccination and spay/neuter campaigns as well as education of the youth to begin to change attitudes and perspectives.
As a veteran teacher, I was eager to address the students and discover more about their feelings towards dogs. At the time, I had zero books with me about dogs and no curriculum to follow so I decided to develop one. It took quite awhile as Internet connections and power are extremely intermittent so it was difficult to access material. However, once completed, I was now ready to approach the first school. When I asked the Headmaster if I could present to the children his response was, “But what real thing are you going to teach?” I had to think quickly and responded, “English.” That captured his interest and I was granted access to the students. Granted, all of the English I was going to instruct would incorporate dogs, but it was still English.
Students in Tanzania often do not have books- any books. Therefore, the educational style in Tanzania consists of teachers writing the words from the one classroom textbook on the chalkboard, and the children sit and copy these sentences. There is very little interaction between student and teacher. Some of the government schools are bursting at their seams with students. I visited one school wherein each class had approximately 150 children. Per class. Imagine 150 six year olds together in one room with one teacher. They did not even have enough space to have an exit row so the children would just climb over each other’s chairs to get out.
Now picture this American teacher entering such scenes and incorporating different teaching techniques. My initial curriculum included art activities, but it soon became apparent to me that these would be very difficult, as I would need to provide all the supplies, which would be used up quite quickly. The one technique that would be best under these circumstances would be interactive teaching wherein mini role-plays were incorporated. Quite frankly, the students did not know what to make of me and the teachers thought I was ridiculous to encourage the children to get out of their seats and to sing and dance. But I was spurred on knowing the students were finally smiling in classrooms and remembering the information.
In general, the students are afraid of all dogs. They do not discriminate based on body language. So, my 14 year old, arthritic fellow would cause people to scream in fear. This is a country wherein rabies is still prevalent so mothers teach their children to stay away from all dogs. They pass on the myth that if bitten, the children will need sixty injections to the stomach because the parents either truly believe that information or they want their children to be terrified so that they will steer clear of all canines. In one class, I pulled out a small stuffed dog and a little girl ran out of the room in terror. I knew I had my work cut out for me.
And so under these conditions, I plunged in. Mbwa Wa Africa believes in the One Health concept, namely, what is good for animals is good for people also. There is a synergy between them. We began the lessons by talking about the fact that dogs are so amazing because they are one of the few animals that can adapt to 6 out of 7 continents. Then we discussed the present treatment of dogs in Tanzania. When asked how many children had thrown stones at dogs, almost all raised their hands. They were then shown a Power Point presentation of what dogs looked like when they first arrived at Mbwa Wa Africa (starving, damaged) and then what the same dogs looked like after they received food, water, medicine and love. The children could not believe that I was showing them the same animal.
From there, the children were shown pictures of different breeds of dogs because they have seen only the Tanzanian mix and they are fascinated to know that there is such a variety of dogs around the world. Then we talked about 5 basic needs of dogs. Almost no dog in Tanzania is given water. Actually, Tanzanian people drink very little water themselves since they still fetch it from far distances. So we talked about the power of water for the body. We discussed healthy foods although I found that I had to be very basic in this topic since many Tanzanians are hungry so they do not have the capacity to give well balanced meals to their dogs. We discussed the importance of shelter, exercise and medicine.
Another important unit focused on the body language of dogs. Tanzanians think every dog is ready to bite them all of the time. They are fiercely afraid of the face of the dog, as the mouth is not only a source of biting, but also of potential disease. The highlight for the students was when I would bring one of my dogs to the classroom and show the children how a dog can learn to follow commands. This demonstration resulted in many exclamations of congratulations from the children even for something as simple as the sit command.
Additional units included highlighting the importance of dogs with disabilities so that they are not killed immediately and the concept of overpopulation so that the students could understand the importance of the spay/neuter campaigns. Finally, the semester ended with a focus on possible careers that the students could pursue that would incorporate animals.
Since very few of the students have electricity in their houses, I did not give them standard homework. Instead, they were encouraged to build love by going into their communities and finding an animal that needed help. They were also told that since they had been taught information, that now they had become the teachers and they needed to spread the information to family and friends. One boy told me that he saw a man beating a dog so he went over and took the dog away from the man and brought it home. I was not sure how to feel about that one because I did not mean to promote stealing, but now the dog was safe and the man never came after the dog so he did not care about it anyway.
And so, the journey continues. The next educational goal for Mbwa Wa Africa is to reach out to the adults and to speak at community meetings. Bit by bit, we will try to change some long established viewpoints so that the animals are treated in a more kind and caring way. Perhaps this generation will not be the ones to see dogs as friends, but we are hoping to curtail the depth of abuse.
None of this can be accomplished without all of the help that you have provided to us through Animal-Kind International so thank you for all of your generosity. If you find that life brings you to Tanzania, know that you are always welcome to come visit us.