Trigger warning: This one is not for the faint of heart.
The morning of the 22nd, my Khufu started growling at me whenever I approached him, and when the vet came he cornered him and tied him up on a short cord. It didn’t quite look like rabies yet but who knew? The next two days were pretty painful. Khufu got worse and worse, eventually coming to a point where he was in a constant state of delirium and pain, wandering around my courtyard on his short leash in between violent and terrifying seizures.
I often ask the Burkinabe about their families, both out of interest and because I love to hear their reaction when I tell them I am an only child.
“How many children in your family?” I asked my fourteen-year-old friend during one of our first conversations.
“We were nine,” he replied, “but many are with God now. My father too.” When I asked Madame Dioma the same question, she replied
“We are eleven.” But then tells me that at least two of her siblings died as children. I got a similar response when I asked a friend if my neighbor’s daughter was her first child. “No,” I am told, “she had others, but they passed.” Every couple of weeks or so I hear about a terrible accident that stole the life of someone’s brother or sister, or the occasional case of a child who died in the night of a mysterious fever. A friend in the health sector here in Burkina called me once to tell me that the baby she had just seen delivered died the next morning.
You’d be hard pressed in this country to find a village-dwelling family that hasn’t lost one or more of their children. Nearly every family I know has had to deal with a dizzying and senseless loss, whether it’s from a preventable ailment or a freak accident. Death in this country is something nearly everyone has been in close contact with. In my manicured middle class United States life, I think I’ve been to one funeral. (Although I did accidently kill my goldfish when I was two when I tried to save it from drowning, and I had two parakeets that died on the same day).
That is why, sitting in my doorway on the morning of the 24th, watching my dog erupt into a violent, delirious barking fit scared me to bits. He writhed around, halfway caught between a seizure and some terrible waking nightmare, and then he stumbled into my compost pit were he twitched and grunted for almost an hour. Just before nine o’clock, he wheezed and died. Thank goodness for the privacy of my courtyard, because I burst into tears. Once I had pulled myself together I approached the body, but I wasn’t prepared for the way the head flopped when I picked him up or the way he became all stiff and hard after about 20 minutes. I wrapped him in a bit of plastic and called the nuns. The girls stood outside the weaving building looking at me somberly.
“Sister Jean-Marie? Yes, it’s Khufu, he just died. Shall I…shall I burry him here, at the Center? I can dig the hole myself.”
“No!” She told me, “Don’t dig! Women don’t dig graves. And dogs aren’t buried. But because he’s your Khufu, and because we don’t know what he had, we will call someone to bury him for you.”
The young man that came an hour later smirked when I told him he was digging a grave for a dog. He helped me carry Khufu over to the corner of the Center where the hole was dug and he tossed my dog’s body down like a sac of millet. I gritted my teeth.
“Why did you bury him?” a friend asked when I told her the news later that day, “I would have eaten him.” (At least two people told me this). When I went to tell the family from whom I had bought Khufu, the wife declared that she’d give me another puppy in no time. I told her I’d rather wait.
It wasn’t until I truly put Khufu into perspective that I really understood the reaction of the Burkinabe. In a country where modern medicine can’t reach everyone, where food isn’t always sterile and water is often contaminated, the death of a relative, father, mother or child is an ever-looming reality. Watching the life just sputter out of someone, as I had to do with Khufu, isn’t a once in a life-time occurrence for many people here. To grieve for a dog, therefore, is not just silly, it’s insulting on some level. A dead animal is meat for a family of fifteen who, especially with the drought conditions in Solenzo, is likely to be lacking in healthy vitamins anyway. Thank goodness I didn’t go through with planning a puppy funeral.
What I experienced with Khufu is what I imagine many families experience ten fold when they watch a family member suffer and are powerless to help because there is no hospital or they cannot pay the bills. Despite this, many Burkinabe were gracious in recognizing my lack of finesse that day, however bizarre they found my attachment to my pungent, excitable quadruped. My little pharaoh may have no pyramid to mark his grave, but I do believe all dogs go to heaven. Just don’t tell the Burkinabe I said that.