I love animals and I have never met a dog that triggered an ounce of fear in me.
Growing up in “Isolo Gardens,” the name of our home in Lagos, we had dogs, a cat and a rotating carousel of animals. I don’t remember it, but family lore still maintains that my father housed a camel for someone he knew for a few months. For years, I remembered it as a giraffe. But it was a camel. I remember stories of chimpanzees and monkeys that we cared for, and the story of Jato, the insomniac chimp who kept the whole compound awake with his chatter and rattling until my mother soothed him with a blanket which he promptly pulled over his head and went to sleep. By the time I came along as the youngest of three, their cage was empty in the far most corner of the compound. Jato would break out of his cage and escape the compound. He would accost women going to the market and yank off their wrappers, the colorful cloth women tied around their bodies as their normal mode of dressing. The women would flee in embarrassed nakedness. The wares on their heads would fall as they ran off and he would greedily eat all the food. Jato always went for bananas and plantains. Belly full, he would dutifully return home. Later, the women would come to my father and complain about Jato and Daddy would have to pay them for their lost earnings. Daddy would then put reinforcements on Jato’s cage but, smart guy, he would break out again.
There were alligators and tortoises in a couple of ponds on the compound. I remember that. But the dogs were the owners of the compound, running around and chasing small animals and outrunning cars, as they marked territory and alerted us to any intruders, human or not that tried to access the compound. The cat maintained the house as her domain and the dogs would periodically try to run in the house and she would corner them and scratch their noses. Contrite, they would howl and escape but a few weeks later, they would try it again and they would be in pain.
I was probably about seven or eight and I remember when one of our dogs had puppies, I was her self-appointed doula. As she pushed, I would help her gently pull the pup out and bring the newborn to its mother. With low-grade growls, she let me know that I was only slightly welcome and then she would lick off the placenta casing and I would wipe the pup down with a towel and then put the pup to her nipple. My parents were scared to death because the dog, Mandy, would not allow anyone in her vicinity as she neared the birthing process. I was fearless, and I knew she loved me and I, ever helpful, had to be her birthing champion. I petted her, cooed to her, made sure she had water and cheered her along.
We moved from that home and still, the animal-loving nature of my parents found expression in their lives. One year, I came home from college and encountered a plethora of pigs in pens on the compound as my father had decided to create a piggery. A section of this three-acre compound was sectioned off with pens built for pigs too numerous to count and the smell was insane! The boars (male pigs) were separated from the females and copulation was strategic and intentional. All the adult pigs had names and my father allowed the farm workers to name the pigs. Therefore, some of the pigs had Muslim names, Yoruba names, Igbo names and then there was Henry.
Turns out pigs are kinda monogamous!
Henry was in love with Sikira. Henry would not mate with any other sow. He was in love! When he impregnated Sikira, he would break out of his pen at night and go to Sikira’s pen and lay on the outside of the cage wire. Sikira would lay on the inside and the bodies of these two pigs would touch all night as they lay back touching back, with only the cage wire in between their huge 250 to 300-pound bodies.
Well, unfortunately, Sikira died in childbirth. Henry kept breaking out of his pen every night and would go to Sikira’s pen and lay like he did when she was pregnant although her body was not there. When they tried to put another sow in there, he grunted loudly all night, and nobody got a wink of sleep. For weeks they had to leave that pen empty. And Henry went there every single night and moaned and grunted lowly through the night as he missed his beloved.
In the meantime, my mother housed the litter of twelve baby piglets in her study and diligently fed each one with a feeding bottle, cradling it in her arms, swathed with an old towel. I tried to help her, but the hard-bodied piglets were so wiggly and not cuddly and did not conform to my body like a cat or a dog.
I must say, dear reader, my family was considered very strange with all these animals, and people back home probably held their tongues and most likely silently blamed my mother as they would have considered it a “white” thing to house that variety of animals in an exterior home space. I know of no other person who housed animals like we did in Nigeria.
Back home, people say, “Puss na witch!” meaning “A cat is a witch.” Most Nigerians consider cats as evil and sneaky. Dogs are for guarding the outside of a house and should never be indoors. That is about it!
Nevertheless, I do love animals and I thought I knew all I needed to know about them. Yet this week, I had a most shocking and unique experience for me.
Since living in the States, I have had two cats and my sister has had three. My brother has had the only dog in the family. Both my cats had major illnesses but were pretty low maintenance and I loved them so. These pets were for my benefit only as I lived alone when I got them but pretty much all my interactions with them was in the privacy of my own home.
I have not had the experience of owning a dog or a pet that allows me to have encounters in public.
However, this week, I found myself dog sitting for my podcast partner. Whenever I go to her home to record, Captain, her Brittany Spaniel/lab mixed male dog, loves me and gets very happy to see me. In the meantime, I live all alone in my wonderful home in Clarkston with a fenced backyard and a doggy door.
I am scared of the expense and the time commitment required to own dog. My cat was diabetic, and I had to give her shots. Therefore, to get my animal fix, dog sitting seems like a reasonable thing to do from time to time for loved ones, with amazing dogs, right?
For a few days, Captain has pretty much gone everywhere with me. He is beautiful, calm and very well behaved. He stays very close by. I wake up at night to go to the bathroom, (I know, TMI!!!) and he goes with me. As I type this newsletter in my sunroom office, he is snoring on my right side. In the mornings when I put on my sneakers and he realizes that we are about to go for a walk, he loses his mind and gets so excited, jumping on me and makes yips and squeals of excitement, anticipating our time together. He is so well behaved on these walks that he does not even chase after errant black cats on our walks!
Late last week, Captain and I met someone at an outdoor café for lunch and it was an experience like I have never had. I have lived in this country for 37 years and this was truly a unique experience.
As Captain, my lunch partner and I sat on the outdoor patio of a restaurant in Decatur square, under a shady umbrella, the lunch crowd teemed back and forth. Captain lay between our chairs with a bowl of water poured by the kind waitress at Raging Burrito, Avery. We chatted away and could not get into a groove with our conversation because of all the interruptions.
I was stunned by how many strangers spoke to us. I literally cannot count how many people walked up to us and said,
“Can I pet your dog?”
“What is his name?”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“How old is he?”
“He is so pretty.”
“He is so soft.”
And on it went. I basked in Captain’s glory. I felt like a proud mama. (As if I have done anything to contribute to his amazingness!) LOL. He did not bark. He allowed all the kids to touch him. He was his calm, low keyed but friendly self. He loved every minute of it.
My lunch partner noted how all the little children knew the “protocol” of dogs in public spaces:
- Ask for permission to pet the dog.
- Walk up to the dog.
- Stand very still.
- Allow the dog to come to you.
- Let the dog sniff you.
- Turn your hand over and let the dog sniff or lick the back of your hand, not your palm.
- Then pet the dog.
She also mused on what it would be like for children to have a “protocol” for engaging with human difference as they meet people of different races, nationalities, and abilities of their bodies in public spaces. She wondered if they would have as much respect for the dignity of the person as was given the dog.
Men stopped and spoke. Women “oohed” and “ahhed.” Children squealed with delight. It was a party!
One thing I said at this lunch, was that if I got as many compliments in one day as Captain received, I would NEVER have any self-esteem issues. Nobody would!
As the meal continued, I was just amazed as I sank into awareness of being fully seen in public. All of the people that approached Captain would ask my lunch partner or me, “Is this your dog?” and my lunch partner would point to me and I would tell them about Captain and give permission for petting.
I felt seen. I felt I belonged. I felt that I was contributing to a shared community and I felt that the community could see my presence as well as my contribution.
I told my lunch partner, “I have lived in this country for 37 years and since I came to the US, this is the most numbers of white people that have ever initiated conversation with me in public, and they are not asking me for directions or anything like that.” She howled with laughter. Of course, I am sure I was exaggerating. But only by a little bit.
When I first came to this country, I would look people dead in the eye, smile broadly and genuinely and say “Hello.” I am friendly like that. And I soon discovered that I was mostly invisible.
– No eye contact.
– No acknowledgment.
– Gazes firmly fixed directly ahead.
If they happened looked my way, their eyes were fixated, somewhere two inches right above the dead center of my head.
Soon after I came to this country, while I was in college, I remember feeling stunned, then offended that so many people would just look past me and not make eye contact and not speak when I would acknowledge them cheerily. Not everyone but most. When I am in Europe, I do not generally have this experience. In Africa, I certainly do not have this experience.
As I sat with Captain and my lunch partner, I recollected that over time, I stopped smiling and attempting non-verbal and verbal communications with strangers. I gave what was given to me. I assimilated into what I saw reflected around me.
These days, I only really initiate greetings and conversations when I see other women of color in public spaces. And, 99% of the time, it is received with a warm reception.
My sentiment is, “Why bother?”
On Thursday, the feeling I experienced with Captain was strangely new. It struck me that a dog bridged not just a cultural gap for me, but a racial gap. In the minds of those that stopped, my identity shifted from stranger to friend. Because of a dog.
There are many ways of looking at this:
- Decatur square is a friendly place.
- Decatur square is a progressive environment.
- A dog at an outdoor café is a non-threatening animal.
- A good number of the folks that stopped by were kids.
- This dog has good vibes and a healing presence.
- I was sitting with a white woman and thus other white people may have felt safe.
I have no clue if any of the above is relevant.
What I do know, for sure, is that it was a NEW and never-before-experienced occurrence for me and it felt surreal.
Captain was an equalizer. This dog allowed me to extend my identity beyond my own body. He allowed others to perceive me as safe and approachable. Captain gave my presence permission in a public space for me to be planted and become integral to the larger transient flow of humanity as humans paused to appreciate their surroundings.
Captain gave strangers the opportunity to interact with me with a lens of dignity as they wanted to “enjoy” and “appreciate” something that they could not buy, or that did not benefit them in a tangible way.
I had the opportunity to interact, on a very humane level, with strangers about something that was important to me. The strangers listened, asked questions and gave of the largess of their compliments. Result? We bonded over this precious loving animal. There was an exchange. There was sharing. There was equality.
Beloveds, this was not a transactional experience.
Nobody wanted anything from me. No one felt threatened by me. No one queried my ownership of this perfectly groomed and healthy dog. I was perceived as having something of value and beauty that added to the charm and cohesion of the community.
Folks, that is what dignity in community looks like.
As I reflected on this powerful experienced, I realized that this was the first time that I had experienced dignity, pride, and acceptance from white people as a collective in this country. Just because I have been present in predominantly white institutions does not mean that the space collectively reflected dignity to me. All my reflections of my dignity have been from my Nigerian heritage, (therefore, black), African Americans collectively, other immigrant groups.
The reflections of dignity that you receive, especially in your formative years, significantly ground and shape you.
Don’t get me wrong, many white people have reflected dignity to me in very significant ways. I think of my professor at Candler School of Theology, Dr. Elizabeth Bounds, and all my white friends, and of course, even my precious mother. However, these are individuals and our encounters have been one on one and differ from this experience in its collective nature.
Dignity resides within a person and should never be based on how others perceive you. You discover it within as it is an internal aspect of your humanity. It is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect” and “a sense of pride in oneself; self-respect.”
Yet, that honor and respect also comes from others. When your essential humanity is recognized, others reflect back to you what already resides in you.
So often, when we engage with humans that are so different from us, we become so busy trying to protect ourselves as we assume many untruths about the stranger and we end in isolation from such a person. We “other” them. We distance ourselves from them. Yet, because of our shared humanity, they need us to hold up a mirror that reflects back to them our dignity, as much as we need to also look in their mirror to see our own dignity.
I wonder, precious souls, what are you doing with that essential aspect of being human that accords you the ability to hold a mirror up humanely to others, so they can see their dignity reflected back to them? And in what contexts are you intentionally doing this? Do you only see the dignity of some and not others?
It is your superpower, you know?
How, you might ask?
O, Beloved, the more you help others see their dignity, the more you see your own.
We all need more dignity in our lives as it is an expression of the Divine in our own human flesh.
Beloveds, this week, I implore you to develop your own protocol for engaging with human difference:
- Look into the eyes of a stranger.
- Smile warmly.
- Ask a person his or her name.
- Be friendly.
- Show love.
- Appreciate beauty in people (and dogs).
- Bask in the giving and receiving of a reflection of dignity.
Peace unto you in your wanderings on this precious journey we call “Life.”