Where I’m from dogs are known as man’s best friend. This cannot be said for Rwandan dogs. As a ‘mzungu’ arriving in Kigali, I soon posted a picture of my beloved terrier on the desktop of my computer.
“What’s that?” a colleague was quick to ask. I detected a hint of antipathy.
“My dog,” I replied, proud as ever.
“Oh.” The response was derisive.
A few days later, on enquiring about the possibility of buying a dog, another colleague informed me that “Rwandans don’t like dogs.”
“There are words you have back home which are the worst thing you can call a person,” he continued.
“Here the word is ‘ibya’ – ‘dog’.”
“If you call someone a dog, it’s serious,” another friend confirmed.
I’m told that to call someone a dog in neighbouring Uganda is also deeply insulting but here people seem to have a particularly complex relationship with dogs.
When the Genocide came to an end, dogs were found eating the corpses of the thousands of dead and unburied. They were ordered to be shot. Even the blue-helmeted soldiers of UNAMIR were shooting dogs on sight in the late summer of 1994.
If Rwandans don’t like dogs that explains why they are a rare sight in Kigali. But if dogs are not seen, they are most definitely heard.
Owning a dog is not customary in Rwanda. In fact, as Joram Murangira, a dog owner from Kigali explains, the culture of keeping dogs came from outside the country.
“I started living in the city in 1961 and no dogs were kept by Rwandan city dwellers then. They later started keeping them after copying the white settlers,” he says.
Rwandans began keeping dogs in their homes to protect themselves against thieves. Others kept them as a sort of status symbol.
So despite a dislike of dogs, people do own them. Their presence in the city, though not visible, is unquestionable. Each night at around midnight, I am woken by a choir of howling dogs.
A lone dog sets the tone and then gradually others join until the night belongs to the dogs. And they are crying, not barking as one might imagine, but howling.
“They used to do it during the Genocide but then I don’t understand the reason why they still cry and howl,” says Stephen Gasore, a Kigali resident.
My immediate reaction was that they must be hungry.
Lee-Roy Salaza, a Mexican living in Kimihurura, believes his dog does not cry at night because it never goes hungry.
“A dog is like any other animal and needs to be catered for. I think if it fails to be fed, that’s when it starts crying,” he says.
“I normally tell my house maid to feed him every three hours. My dog has breakfast with me,” he added.
Others believe dogs howl when they are confronted with strangers. If dogs are kept for security, perhaps the howling dogs are alerting their masters to thieves or intruders.
Jode Garbe, a veterinary doctor working with The Rwanda Wildlife Sanctuary and Science Education Centre, explains that “dogs hear stuff we don’t.”
“They are very sensitive to sounds…Sirens for example will hurt their ears and make them howl,” says Garbe who has extensive experience working with dogs.
Robertson Muangui, a South African doctor, came to Rwanda with his dog. On arriving in Kigali he soon experienced the howling dogs and approached his neighbours to find out the cause.
“People told me it was because of night thieves moving around, which I did not agree with. It sounds like communication,” he muses. And indeed according to Garbe this is a common reason that dogs howl.
“They talk ‘dog’,” the vet explains. “Dogs are sociable animals, in the wild they live in groups.”
Dogs when left alone for long periods of time howl because they are lonely. The original purpose of the howl in the wild is to gather the pack so that they can face impending danger together.
Domestic dogs that howl, especially those that howl excessively, are usually bored and lonely. The group howl is a type of bonding experience.
Garbe confirmed that Rwandans do keep their dogs at arms length explaining that “they see them more as farm animals.”
“There is not the same level of animal care as in other places,” she continues.
However, believing that Rwandans are a caring community, Garbe is confident that it won’t be long before animal welfare institutions and a deeper understanding of animal protection take root in the country.
The question is, will the dogs still cry at night?