When I scanned Uganda’s morning paper in April 2001 over my almost burnt toast and black coffee, I noticed a story – or maybe the picture. An American living in Kampala who worked on conservation projects inspired the Uganda Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (USPCA) to make big changes, set up Spay Days and Community Education programs, and helped build a new animal care center in an impoverished neighborhood. She faces serious challenges, I figured. Most likely just another doer whose idealistic dreams will soon be smashed against the rocky shores of reality.
Later that night, in the quiet of my room, I was reminded of the story again. My window was open and through it came a sound common in many East African cities: dogs barking. Their vocalizations pierced the night, moving in waves, coming closer, moving away, sometimes howling or high, sometimes yippy, sometimes singing like the cries of wild animals. I never thought much about these urban dogs and their lives, even though I’d lay awake many nights listening to their howls.
Dogs are highly respected in much of rural Africa – I’ve often come across a shepherd or hunter who cradles his dog’s head in his lap, pats it gently, or scratches its ears, and I know a man in rural Tanzania , a market trader. who carries his crippled dog everywhere with him. But life in cities is different for dogs. This closeness, this warmth of relationship is often lost in the hustle and bustle of the city.
face to face
A few weeks later, in Kampala, I met with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the authority responsible for the country’s national parks. Across from me sat Karen Menczer, the woman from the newspaper, the maker, the person I had imagined as an overly idealistic “junkyard warrior”: She was short, had muscular arms, a shock of dark hair and a water bottle on hand ( an obvious fitness fanatic). After the meeting, she approached. “Hello, I have a great favor asking you.” Here it comes, she wants a copy of one of my books, I thought. But it wasn’t. Instead, Karen asked me to look at her “Simba Collection,” about 500 pictures of Ugandans with a dog named Simba.