My young nephew says, “You’ll never guess what’s in the freezer!” and everyone laughs. We had just been discussing the birth of eight Irish Wolfhound puppies, my mum and dad proud and exhausted parents, up at three in the morning to the whimper and scuffle of little paws as they make sure that the canine mother does not inadvertently squish a puppy beneath her enormous frame. I wonder about that and, if I had eight puppies hanging off my teats, whether I wouldn’t inadvertently roll over on top of one or two.
“What’s in the freezer?” I don’t want to ask the question or hear the answer but my nephew is so excited about it, he’s bouncing on his skinny knees next to me on the couch, grinning. I have helped weigh the puppies and am aware that we only weighed seven little bundles of joy. So I think I know what is in the freezer.
I have come home for two weeks to Pope Valley California from Tanzania for a holiday, but specifically to be part of the rare event that all my family members are in the same place at once. It took me three days to get here and I am unsure if people should be allowed to travel so far in such a short space of time, without transport, without any process to account for time and space changing so drastically. Not to mention my bowels’ adverse reaction to additives, preservatives and e numbers.
I knew it would be a sort of circus. My mum fore-warned me that, ‘things will just be crazy’ and ‘ you’ll just have to bear with us’. Family circus aside, the shock and awe of America never softens no matter how many times you return. Culture shock manifests itself in many different ways, conscious and sub-conscious, external (large shopping malls and thousands of TV channels) and internal (longing to talk to someone who understands the meaning of hali halisi or why I went to Africa in the first place).
So, somewhere in the freezer, wrapped up and sitting snug in a ziplock bag, is the small frozen body of the eighth puppy. My parents are amused by the look of disgust on my face and the shock in my voice, “Are you serious?” My nephew, bouncing and grinning, nods his head frantically. “So, if I dig around in the back of the freezer looking for frozen peas, I might actually come across a frozen puppy?” My mum says, “No, no. He’s right at the front, just under the ice cube tray.” She finds this hilarious. I find it disturbing. I wonder if my parents are considering cryogenics.
There are many times on trips back to England or America from Tanzania, when I find myself asking, perhaps unfairly, “What would Tanzanians think?” At my parents house it is no different. I find myself wondering what Tanzanians would think of our massive American fridge, well stocked with all sorts of foods, drinks and condiments. But it is not a fair comparison. Some people have a picture in their heads that Africans live in ascetic simplicity in mud huts, that they are somehow nobler because of their lack of fridges and drinks and condiments. But Tanzanians are just like the rest of us – they like TV, big cars, money. What is noble about the Tanzanians I know, is that they do not give up their sense of humour about the absurdity of life, even when everything is shit and the Big Potatoes remain Big Potatoes despite rampant corruption and impotent politics.
And yet, as I watch my nephew go to open the freezer, I do feel fairly justified in asking myself, What would Tanzanians think about keeping a frozen puppy in the freezer?
The Wahehe, the local tribe, are reknowned for their ferocity (they successfully battled the Germans’ canons and guns back in the day, before being slaughtered), their tendency to commit suicide (Chief Mkwawa killed himself before the Germans could get to him) and the rumour that they eat dogs.
Some people say that the Hehe word for beans “dogi” was misunderstood by colonials. Others, say it is just a myth. I once came across a band of street kids trying to kill a scabby dog. Almost all the dogs here are mangy and quite often dangerous, rarely cute and cuddly, probably because people do not treat them as pets. Most dogs are locked up in small wooden ‘bandas’ during the day and let out at night when they become ferocious guards. The kids had tied ropes to the dog’s legs and were banging it against the pavement. I wondered how kids can be so cruel to animals. I wanted them to stop. But when I asked them what they were doing, the kids looked up at me and said, We are hungry.
I think about the frozen puppy in the freezer at my parents’ house. I think about the litter of puppies that were born near the rubbish hole in our garden here, under the papaya tree. One died of something mysterious and awful and I remember coming upon him in early morning, his body hard and taught, eyes open, vacant. I was heartbroken. And besides, what do you do with a dead dog?
Our Tanzanian freezer is tiny and anyway it never crossed my mind to put him in the freezer, even if there was a ziplock baggie big enough. Luckily for us, we have a night guard who helps us with the things that we didn’t grow up with – dead dogs, big rats, massive cockroaches, robbers. Valentino, an old and cheeky Hehe man, laughs bronchially every time we shout for him to throw out the body of a poisoned rat or tackle the black wasps that sting your eyes and temporarily paralyse you. He chuckles when he sees me, near to tears, as I show him the puppy corpse. He loves the fact that we need him. He says we are like his grandchildren.
My eight year old nephew is back to bouncing on the couch next to me, cackling. He wants me to look in the freezer, he wants me to look at the frozen puppy. He has all the enthusiasm for gore that his age demands. My brother is reading a book but I can see him smiling out of the corner of my eye. Everyone is vaguely amused by my repulsion and I know Valentino would be laughing, too, though perhaps for different reasons.
I disappoint my nephew and start pulling ingredients out of the cupboards for lunch. I would rather spend my time in California enjoying the family circus and appreciating the easy comfort, the kitchen appliances and the beauty of the oak speckled valley where my parents live.
Several months later, I am back in Tanzania, and it occurs to me to ask my parents why they were keeping the eighth puppy in the freezer. I am used to their eccentricities now, though it still disturbs me to think that I have been replaced by four Irish Wolfhounds, or that the cost of feeding such mammoth dogs is inappropriate if you plug it into my worldview. It seems somehow wrong to me when there is so much need elsewhere.
I have never directly said this to my parents for fear of upsetting them but also because it sounds unbelievably self-righteous. They have built their lives around their dogs and they love them without apology or embarrassment. So I am learning to do the same, to accept my parents for who they are and realise that long before dog shows and irish wolfhound paraphernalia, my parents devoted their entire lives to the two little blobs that became myself and my brother. They made us and then helped make us who we are and for that I am only just starting to be grateful.
My dad tells me the reason the eighth puppy was in the freezer. The ground was too hard to dig a grave deep enough to stop the coyotes from exhuming and munching on the body. Fair enough, I think.