As some of you may have already heard, my cat, Nulty, had a really close call last weekend when she was attacked by three dogs right just outside of my house.
It all started last Saturday evening. I had stayed at site for the weekend, working on lesson plans, doing laundry and taking care of some other projects around the house. Nulty had been going out in the courtyard all day to get some sun and (as usual) she kept jumping over the wall to do some exploring in the area around my house. So (also as usual) I kept going out, tracking her down and bringing her back in. At around 6:30PM, I was hanging a poster in the kitchen. I didn’t realize that she had jumped over the wall again until I heard the sound of dogs fighting. I’m still not sure if I actually heard her make a noise or if I just heard the dogs and automatically assumed they had her, but I ran out the door, grabbing the key to the back gate on my way, and saw a little grey fluff ball and a tangle of dogs right outside my courtyard. They were just on the other side of the gate, so I imagine that she was trying to outrun them and jump back over the wall and they caught her at the last second. I remembered that the lock on the back gate always takes a long to open (it’s rusty – I’ve already replaced it once but it keeps rusting because of all of the rain here) so I tossed the key on the ground and ran back in the house and out through the front door. All of this probably took less than a few seconds, but I felt like it was in slow motion. I had started screaming, “No! No! No! Stop!” as soon as I heard the dogs, and my shrieks just got louder after I saw them. There were three of them and, obviously I didn’t stop to take a picture, but trust me when I say they looked like this. One of them had her head, one her midsection and the other had her hindquarters. They were all pulling at her, as is they were fighting for a piece of meat (which, of course, they were – she might as well have been a furry pork chop to them). By the time I made it out the front door, they had dragged her little body towards the front of the house (I think they were trying to take her away so they could devour her without any interruption from me). As soon as I ran towards them, still screaming like a banshee, they dropped her and scattered in several directions. When I saw her little body on the ground, I was sure she was dead. Her eyes were wide open and she was on her back, looking petrified (literally and figuratively). I grabbed her and ran back into the house with her, where I was incredibly relieved to see that she was still alive. I didn’t see any blood or bites on her but I put her down on the ground to check her over, and she immediately hid under my bed and started growling. I went outside to get some water to try to clean her up with (she was covered in dirt) so I could check her wounds and I saw the dogs outside the courtyard, still milling around and growling. I was still pumping with adrenaline (Crazy Cat Lady powers activate!) so before I even realized what I was doing, I grabbed a big stick and ran back through the house and outside, slamming the front door behind me. One of the dogs immediately ran off down the hill and towards the neighboring village but the other two dogs were still rooting around the spot where they’d first caught Nulty, looking for any scraps that remained. I screamed at them, swung the big stick (banging it on the ground occasionally for emphasis) and chased them down the path towards the school.
This is probably a good time to mention that I was wearing shorts, a tank top (I had been planning to do yoga before this whole thing happened) and had put a short bathrobe over them while I was working in the kitchen. Generally, I try to dress modestly when I’m in public but I’m a little more lax around the house, especially when I’m cleaning or exercising. In the excitement, I’d run outside in my short robe and flip flops and was now standing in front of my mkuu’s house wearing next to nothing, swinging and smashing a large stick and screaming “&*#@$ you, you &^#!@ dogs! Get the #$%* out of here!” So much for Peace Corps Core Expectation #9 (Recognize that you will be perceived, in your host country and community, as a representative of the people, culture, values, and traditions of the United States of America).
I went back in the house to check on Nulty and she was still cowering under the bed and growling. I managed to drag her out, which caused her to whine loudly, so I realized she was probably in a lot of pain. I couldn’t see any bites then (it turned out that she did have one right on her behind that was bleeding) but when I touched her she felt sort of squishy, or crinkly (if that makes any sense) so I thought she might have internal injuries and/or bleeding. She was very resistant to touch, only let me clean her up a little bit and cowered under the bed. Eventually, she came out to pee (on the kitchen floor – I gave her a pass on that one, considering the circumstances) and drink some water. I put her up on the bed, but she kept moving and shifting, as if she wouldn’t find a comfortable position. Her heart was beating very quickly, and she kept up a steady stream of growls and whines, so I knew she was miserable. I Googled a variety of cat-related terms and all the information I found said the same thing – that I had to get her to a vet as soon as possible. This would not be a problem in most places in the United States, where there is probably a 24-hour emergency veterinary facility within driving distance of most people. But at 7PM on a Saturday evening in Ilembo veterinary service is not an option.
I was convinced that she was bleeding internally and I was hoping that I’d be able to take her to town the next morning and find a vet that would see her on a Sunday. She eventually settled in a spot on the couch, and I stayed with her most of the night, only moving to my bed when I realized my presence was probably just making her more uncomfortable. But I got up and checked on her every hour or so, just to make sure she was still breathing. Mubalikiwe does its morning run out of Ilembo at 5:30AM (although, like all transportation in Tanzania, that time is variable), but when my alarm went off at 4:30AM, it was freezing cold and drizzling and I was exhausted and I didn’t know if the long trip into town in the cold would be worse for her than keeping her at home and stable. I decided it was safer to wait until I could talk to a vet and see what they recommended I do. Finally, at 8AM, I couldn’t wait any longer and I called all of the numbers I had for the vet clinic (most of which were cell phone numbers – very few businesses have a land line here) where I’d had Nulty fixed back in February. The first number I dialed was answered by someone that didn’t speak English, didn’t seem to understand my (crappy) Kiswahili and ended the conversation like many Tanzanians do, by saying “well…” and hanging up. I didn’t know if he was going to call me back or what, so I waited a few minutes, sent a text and then started call the other numbers I had. Finally, I got an answer on the third number. “Hello! How is Ilembo?” the voice on the other end said in greeting. I recognized it immediately as belonging to the vet that had fixed Nulty. I explained the situation briefly and he said, “I can see her at 10:30AM”, which in Tanzania on a Sunday is nothing short of a miracle. I explained that I was in Ilembo and didn’t have a car so it would take me a while to get to town, but that I would call him as soon as I was on the road. He said that was fine and that he’d see me soon. I quickly got dressed, through some items in a backpack; got out the fluffiest towel I own and put it in Nulty’s carrier and, as gently as possible, lifted her in to it. She immediately started meowing in protest but I ran out of the house before I could change my mind. We got up to the center of town in a few minutes but there were only a couple of lorries parked and one that was being worked on (it looked like they were soldering something on the undercarriage) and didn’t look like it would be going anywhere any time soon. I walked up and down the road, just to make sure there weren’t any transportation options I was missing but realized I could do nothing but wait.
As the only mzungu in the village, I already attract a good deal of attention on my own but carrying a cat in a bag multiplied it times ten. Nulty and I settled down on a table (they are used by vendors to display their goods on market day) so everyone could casually wander by and gawk at us. Some people asked why I had a cat with me and when I explained we were going to the doctor, they thought it was hilarious. Sick people here sometimes aren’t able to go to see the doctor so the idea of taking a cat to the doctor is viewed as ridiculous (and, perhaps, rightfully so). After about an hour, the lorry that was being fixed was deemed as ready for travel, and Nulty and I managed to score a seat up front. (This is one of the many perks of being a teacher- and, who are we kidding, a mzungu; we are usually able to ride up front with the driver, depending on the amount of passengers and availability of seats.) The driver and another man sat in the front seats, and Nulty and I and a woman with her own sick child shared the bench area behind the seats.
We started out for town pretty quickly once the lorry was loaded up, but the trip was a very slow one. The driver was being very careful not to break whatever had just been fixed so we puttered along to town down the long, bumpy dirt road (none of the lorries have great shocks, but this ride was particularly rough) and I tried to keep Nulty as comfortable as possible. I started feeling more hopeful about her chances when she started looking around and being interested in the (slowly) passing scenery, but I was also worried that the rough ride could exacerbate her injuries if she had any broken bones or internal injuries.
Unfortunately, we broke down about half way into town and all of the passengers had to get out and sit by the side of the road while the driver and kondas attempted to fix the problem. Nulty was getting quite worked up from all of the excitement, so I started petting her and talking to her soothingly, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers. A very nice older man started talking to me, asking about Nulty and where we were going. He even petted her, which most Tanzanians aren’t interested in, and complimented me on how big and strong she was. He explained to me that the other passengers were saying that I must love the cat very much because I was obviously so worried about her. (I think he was just being kind to me – I’m pretty sure the other passengers had decided that I was completely certifiable.) After about forty-five minutes, the lorry was fixed and we started off again. We had just settled back into our seats when Nulty decided to pee. Miraculously, she managed to get none on herself or the carrier and a only little on the towel but soaked my skirt, shirt and backpack. So the last two hours of the trip were stinkier and slower (the driver was being even more cautious after the breakdown) but we eventually made it into Mbalizi a little after 2PM.
Nulty and I took a cab into town, where we met the very patient veterinarian at his office. After I explained to him what had happened, he looked her over, listened to her heart and announced she had muscle trauma and would need antibiotics and some vitamins to help her muscles heal. I was sure I had missed an important part of the conversation due to my poor Kiswahili comprehension so I switched to English and asked him how bad her internal injuries and bleeding were. He explained that he did not believe she had any internal bleeding because you can usually hear the blood very clearly and he didn’t hear any at all when he listened to her heart. Then he handed the stethoscope over to me and had me listen.
“So, she’s okay? She’s not going to die?” I asked.
“Of course, she will be fine!” he said.
I almost cried from relief. And, despite it being a Sunday and having already waited over 4 hours for me to arrive at his office, the vet then informed me that the other doctor that worked with him had used all of the antibiotics from their stock and asked would I mind waiting while he went to a duka (store) to get some more for Nulty? And then, when he returned an hour later, he apologized for making me wait so long and explained that he had to go to 5 different dukas to find one that was open and had the antibiotics in stock. This would be above and beyond the call of duty even in America, but in Tanzania this is really nothing short of miraculous. To top it off, he charged me a very reasonable rate (less than $30 USD)! All I have to say is, if you ever find yourself in Mbeya Town and in need of a veterinarian, Dr. Mwakalukwa is your man!
Of course, after the good news, Nulty and I now had to figure out how to get back to site that evening so I’d be able to teach my classes the next morning. After thanking Dr. Mwakalukwa profusely (and getting instructions on how to administer the antibiotic and steroid shots Nulty would need for the next few days), we hopped on a very crowded daladala (is there any other kind?) and headed back to Mbalizi.
We pulled into the junction town at 4:45PM and I was sure we were out of luck, as both Mubalikiwe and most of the lorries have usually departed for their journey back up the mountain long before. However, as Nulty and I around the corner to the spot where the lorries load up before they leave, I saw that there was still one parked there. It was almost full, so I starting jogging towards it, hoping to be able to jump in the back before it took off, and was met halfway by one of the kondas. It turned out that it was the same lorry we’d come to town on and they’d saved a seat for us up front! Everyone was quite happy (and still quite amused) to hear that Nulty had been given a positive diagnosis by the doctor. And everyone was polite enough not to mention that I still smelled like cat urine.
We started our trek back up the mountain at about 5:30PM. It was slow going and it was well after dark by the time we were approaching Ilembo. I was exhausted (as was Nulty) and happy to be almost home but, this being Tanzania, I should have realized we’d already used up more than our fair share of transportation luck for the day. We were about a mile or so from Ilembo when we had to stop because another lorry had gotten stuck in the mud (apparently, there had been heavy rains in Ilembo that afternoon) and was blocking the road. After several men attempted and failed to free the stuck lorry, the konda announced that I’d have to walk the rest of the way. He was kind enough to find another passenger (a woman who was riding in the back) to walk with me. Her name was Sala and, as we walked in the dark, she carried on a long conversation with me, speaking in what I’m pretty sure was a mixture of Kiswahili and Kimalila . I tried to explain to her that I was still learning Kiswahili and was having trouble understanding her but I could barely speak English at that point, much less Kiswahili, so she just kept chatting on and I just decided to nod and say, “Ndiyo” (Yes), “Sawa” (Okay) and “Nzuri” (Good) at what seemed like appropriate intervals. Nulty chimed in with an occasional meow to contribute her 2 cents.
As I mentioned, it was very dark at this point, so it was difficult to see. One of the great aspects of Tanzanian cell phones is that most of them have a torch light feature, so you basically have a flashlight with you at all times. Of course, when I upgraded to my fancy internet-capable phone in December, it had many wonderful, advanced features but no torch light option. I still use my old cheap phone that I got when I first arrived in country – both as an alarm clock and for the torch light- but in my hurry to get out of the house that morning, I’d left it behind. Sala’s phone had a torch light, and she guided us as far as the Secondary School, where I turned off for home and she continued on to her neighboring village. I assured her that I’d be fine, and demonstrated that I’d use the screen of my super fancy smart phone to light my way. Needless to say, about 3 seconds after we parted, I stepped into a giant puddle, and was covered up to my ankle in mud. By the time I got to my front door, Nulty and I were completely exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I was struggling to fit my key in the padlock when I realized that I hadn’t had a chance to use a restroom all day. And I had to pee very badly. And the padlock was not opening as quickly as I’d like it to. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say I didn’t just smell like cat urine by the time I got the door open.
The good news is that Nulty is well on her way to recovery. She finished all of her (unfortunately, quite painful) shots and is healing a little more each day. Here’s a photo of her on Thursday, just five days after the attack:
And, to end things on a lighter note, I rode into town in the back of a lorry yesterday with a chicken that was wearing what I’m pretty sure is a really bad toupee: