The Last Vet
First you notice the dogs. In all other ways Freetown is a West African city like any other, of red dust and raised cries, forty-degree heat and a year neatly segmented into two – hot and dry, hot and wet.
Today water tips from the sky. Beneath the canopy of a local store three street dogs and a man holding a briefcase stand and contemplate the rain. Another dog shelters beneath the umbrella of a cigarette seller. A fifth follows a woman across the street, literally dogging her footsteps, using her as a beacon to navigate the traffic and the floodwater.
In the dry season the kings of the city are the dogs. They weave through the crowds, lie in the roadside shade watching through slitted eyes, they circle and squabble, unite in the occasional frenzied dash. For the most part the people and the dogs exist on separate planes. The dogs ignore the people, who likewise step around and over them. On the road the drivers steer around reclining animals. This city has more street dogs than any I have known.
It is eight o’clock on a Wednesday morning. Torrents of water sluice off the hills and rush down the cross streets. The force of the rain has swept the traffic off the road, and now threatens the battered Peugeot ahead of me. Inside his clinic Dr Jalloh has placed his plans on hold, waits for me in his tiny surgery surrounded by dogs, waits for the rain to stop.The whole city waits for the rain to stop.
It was the dry season of 2004 and I was home working on a novel when I first met Gudush Jalloh. My friend Rosa called, concerned that her dog, at that moment whelping, was in trouble. The dog in question was a snappish bitch, a street rescue by the name of Corre whom I had so far failed to befriend. I was in that selfish space of writers and the interruption was unwelcome. Could she not call a vet? She told me the vet was upcountry. Call another vet? There was no other vet. Someone who knows about dogs, then? Yes, she replied, and waited for my answer.
I know a bit about dogs. I do not pretend to know a great deal. I enjoy the company of dogs and keep them, but know nothing of whelping bitches. I consider myself something less than an expert. An interested amateur.
Eyes closed, half in, half out of this world, the puppy looked dead. I had no idea what to do so I telephoned my husband in South East London, who in turn called our vet and relayed his instructions via mobile phone and satellite to reach us six thousand miles away, at a pound a minute. Try to free the pup’s shoulders. Olive oil might help. Corre, by now docile in her distress, allowed me to try to hook my forefingers under the puppy’s forelegs. I tried. Nothing worked: not the olive oil, the bitch’s efforts, or my own fumblings. At last we obtained the home number of the local vet. He’d travelled overnight from the Provinces, been asleep less than an hour and his telephone manner displayed the lagged thinking of the abruptly awoken. He told me he had sent his car away. I offered to collect him.
Dr Jalloh is the only vet in the country. No, that is not quite true. There are three government vets, employed by the Ministry of Agriculture. They wear rubber boots, but mostly deal with deal with figures, with capacities, stock and yields. There are also a small number of charlatans. Gudush Jalloh is the only qualified vet in private practice. The single person in the country to whom you might bring your sick dog, cat, monkey or goat.
The pup had never, not for an instant, known life. The body cavity was a huge fluid-filled sac, devoid of vital organs. By now we had moved Corre to the surgery and Dr Jalloh prodded at the dead puppy with a long pair of tweezers, declared this the second instance of such abnormality he had seen. Rosa turned away. I, whose paper-mask fantasies had never found expression, leaned in.A second pup suffered the same deformity. Another was stillborn. Four survived.
That first meeting made a deep impression upon me. In the years that followed I met Gudush Jalloh on one more occasion which was significant, and then socially perhaps five or six times more. At one point somebody mentioned his work with the street dogs, in which they thought I might be interested.
This is the country where I grew up. It was the 1970s. Here, as a child, I gathered, rescued, raised and lost more dogs than I can now recall. I have some of their names: Jack. Jim. Tigger. Apollo. Pandora. Bingo. KaiKai. Jupiter. Pluto. The turnover was so fast there are many more I have forgotten. My dogs died of disease, of being hit by cars, of falling off balconies, generally of life expectancy in the Third World. Sometimes they were lost or stolen. When I was nine Apollo disappeared. For months I scanned the streets during every car journey. One day, a long way from home, on the other side of the city, I saw Apollo. The driver stopped the car. We opened the back door, pulled Apollo inside and drove off at speed. I never found out who had taken him or why; he had not been mistreated. Nor do I know whether we were seen as we effected his rescue. I imagine whatever witnesses there were remained silent for fear of being disbelieved.
The third child and the youngest, I passed my earliest years as the beneficiary of what the experts call benign neglect. When I was three my father became active in politics. He was detained several times, once for three years. Amnesty named him a Prisoner of Conscience. My stepmother kept the family together. I collected dogs. My parents, if they noticed, did not pass comment, even when the household total achieved a high score of six. I read White Fang and Peter Pan and longed for a wolf and a dog which slept at the foot of my bed. Ours were strictly yard dogs.
Other animals passed through my life: a mongoose, a green parrot, a fawn. They interested me, fed my ambition to become a vet, but I did not love them. I loved only the dogs for reasons too complicated to elaborate upon, and yet also painfully obvious. In a time of lies, I found honesty and loyalty among the dogs. And if the memory of particular dogs has grown unreliable, then the memory of what they offered me in that time has become indelible: a retreat from the mutability of the human world, a place of safety.
There were a lot more vets back in those days. In the intervening thirty-odd years they have all gone: pursuing opportunities overseas, fleeing a civil war that lasted ten years and killed countless and uncounted numbers of us.
We arrive late. It is nine o’clock. Outside the school building people and dogs wait beneath a steady drizzle. The dogs are collarless, held on lengths of electric cable, nylon rope or string. A woman in pink holds on to a brown-and-white dog. A boy cradles a furious pup. A man arrives with a large black-and-white dog, which leaps and twists at the end of a long rope. Another man leads his dog on its hind legs, holding on to the front paws, like a dancing bear. Inside the schoolroom a line of people and dogs wait upon on a bench and impassively watch a technician gently shave the balls of a sedated dog.
This is a street clinic. Bring a dog here and you can have it sterilized for free. On other days Jalloh’s team rounds up dogs from the streets, puts them in a wagon and takes them to the clinic to be vaccinated and neutered. The first time they tried to remove dogs local people chased them, demanding to know why the dogs were being taken and allowing them to leave only after the team promised the dogs’ return.
‘In Thailand,’ Dr Jalloh told me from the wheel of his Land Cruiser on the drive across town, ‘the authorities have a “keep your dog at homeday”. Everybody has to bring their dogs inside. Afterwards they go through the streets and shoot any dog they see.’ A few years ago the Freetown municipal authorities decided upon a similar cull of the street dogs. Dr Jalloh elected himself the dogs’ representative and spoke during a public meeting. Though the odds were stacked against him, he argued that most of the dogs weren’t stray but belonged to the community, that they – the dogs – performed a function and a service by offering security and protection. The mayoral dignitaries told Jalloh the dogs were dirty. Jalloh retorted that the opposite was true; their scavenging kept the streets clear of rotting rubbish. He had a point. There had been no systemized rubbish collection in the city for decades. The authorities backed down; the dogs were reprieved. ‘They say we are crazy…’he paused to answer his phone. The ring tone was a puppy’s whine. They said he was crazy. And that was just the beginning.
In 1952 Konrad Lorenz published King Solomon’s Ring in which he set out the terms of ‘the Covenant’. The Covenant describes the relationship between human and canine, its beginnings and the stone upon which it is founded. A pack of jackals followed Stone-Age man’s hunting expeditions and surrounded his settlements, were tolerated, accepted and ultimately encouraged. Firstly for the warning note they sounded at the advance of predators, secondly for their ability to track game. The jackals, who initially followed the hunters in the hope of scraps and entrails, began to take the initiative, running before instead of behind the hunter, bringing to bay larger animals than they would be able to hunt without assistance. And so the covenant was created, an interdependent exchange of services.
This is how, fifty years earlier, Rudyard Kipling described the origin of the Covenant in ‘The Cat that Walked by Himself’: ‘When the Man waked up he said, “What is Wild Dog doing here?” And the Woman said, “His name is not Wild Dog any more, but the First Friend, because he will be our friend for always and always and always. Take him with you when you go hunting.”’
For Lorenz, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, the contract between human and animal was: ‘signed…without obligation.’ Jalloh, closer to Kipling than to Lorenz, would disagree. There is an obligation, it is unequivocal and one-sided. Having brought the jackal into his sphere, having bred the wildness from him – man owes dog.
Four, then five, then six freshly neutered and comatose dogs lie in a neat row, the paw of one lies across another, strange babies sharing a bed. An assistant tattoos the ear of each dog. There is a general air of understated chaos. Dogs roam the room. Outside a circle of children gather to watch as recently anaesthetized dogs stagger, circle and crash to the ground. The technician with the tattoo machine clips the ear of a reclining dog which, far from being sedated, is merely sleeping. The astounded animal jumps to its feet and stalks huffily away. Elsewhere a technician attempts to inject a dog. It tries to bite him. The owner’s efforts to hold onto his dog are so ineffective that the technician suggests the dog doesn’t belong to him. The man insists otherwise. The waiting crowd wades in. He’s afraid of you,’ the woman in the pink top points out. A small boy steps forward and takes the animal. To me Jalloh says: ‘Some people think they are the owners, but they are only the proxy owner. Usually the children are the true owners of the dog.’
Sitting on the plane halfway across the Sahara two days before, I had suddenly remembered my rabies vaccination. I pulled out my yellow international health certificate, relieved to find there was month left before it expired. ‘Ah,’ says Jalloh, cheerfully, ‘but it is an inexact science.’ He tries to keep himself inoculated, but the vaccine is rarely available in the Sierra Leone. The staff wear doubled gloves. They have two or three muzzles in the surgery. That’s the sum of it.
On our way back to the surgery we stop at the government veterinarian offices, which Jalloh is keen to show me. He jumps from the vehicle and leads me inside, introduces me to three men dressed in overalls and wellington boots. The room is virtually empty of furniture and equipment. Dusty glass cabinets house aging texts. The sole piece of equipment appears to be an old freezer. In one of the cabinets I find an elegant wooden box.
‘Post-mortem kit,’ says Jalloh. ‘It will be empty.’ I open it. Nothing, save the abandoned chrysalis of a moth.
As a child I’d owned a dog that overnight turned suddenly affectionate. Soon afterwards his hips locked. I carried him to the vet, walked him up and down to demonstrate the strange gait. The vet instructed me to bring him back if anything changed. The dog wandered and late one evening returned, his hind quarters split open to the bone by an axe wound. Through the night I tended him, feeding him raw egg with my fingers and following him around with a bowl of water, from which the wretched animal heaved itself away time and time again. I remember the episode now and recount it for Jalloh. The dog was rabid. I worked it out for myself later. The vet had refused to admit it.
‘“Craze dog” they call it,” says Jalloh. And tells an everyday story of his own. Some months ago, a woman brought three dogs to him for a regular check up. In one Jalloh saw the telltale paralysis of the lower jaw. By the time the owner returned Jalloh had destroyed all three. He had no choice. It happens sometimes. In the slums the cry goes up at the sight of a drooling dog. Occasionally somebody will call him, but often by the time he gets there the dog is dead. Now that frustrates him, for diagnosis on a dead animal requires a post-mortem of the brain. If the dog were alive he could gather a sample of blood. Jalloh likes to keep accurate records of such things. After all, nobody else does.
Gudush Jalloh was born in Kono, Yengema, in the Camara Chiefdom. His parents were Fula Muslims, the nomadic cattle owners of West Africa who drive their herds through Mali, Senegal, Guinea and Nigeria. By the time Gudush was born in 1959, the first son of the first wife and eldest of twenty-two, the family had abandoned their pastoralist ways. Still, the knowledge of his heritage interested the young Jalloh. His early ambition was to own a herd. His mother reared chickens and the occasional goat, dogs played an early role in his life. When Gudush was fifteen his father arranged a marriage to a local girl, told his son it was time to leave school and join the family business as petty traders of gasoline. Gudush refused either to marry or to leave school, finished his education with the help of a scholarship and a former teacher who employed him as a part-time lab assistant. He began to apply for government scholarships to read engineering overseas. In 1978, he was one of a dozen who won scholarships to Hungary, but then, on the eve of travel, the scholarships were withdrawn and awarded to candidates with government connections. A year later he won a scholarship to Moscow. The African students arrived in Rostov in late September, without a word of Russian between them. They worried about how to make their stipends last, how to cook potatoes. Some time during the year-long induction, Jalloh was persuaded by a colleague to switch courses and join him at the Moscow Veterinary Academy. He returned to Sierra Leone in the mid-1980s, the rift with his father healed by the prestige of having been chosen to study abroad. Jalloh tells me his father didn’t mind that he had become a vet; he didn’t know what a vet was. Later people said: ‘So your son spent six years in Russia just to treat dogs?’
That year, the same year Jalloh returned, his younger brother, the second son of his father’s third wife, was bitten by a dog. By the time Jalloh heard the news in Freetown, the boy had died of rabies.
Thursday. We are standing in the yard of an ocean-view house in the west of Freetown, close by the Mammy Yoko Hotel, where the great siege of the civil war played out. Guests hunkered down while the rebel troops of the RUF fought Nigerian-led ECOWAS troops and American helicopters said to hell with the no-fly zone, landed on the beach and evacuated their citizens and a few others as well. My stepmother was among those who escaped. She told me how she was on the ship with a dozen working girls, scooped from the hotel bar and set down on the ship along with everyone else. They were excited. They thought they were going to America. Briefly, and for the first time, the world became aware of what was going on in our country.
From where I stand I can see terraced lawns reaching down to the waterside and an ornamental pagoda. No sign of the owners, a Sierra Leonean businesswoman and her European husband, or so I am told. There is just a watchman with a squint, a pronounced underbite and a diploma in passive aggression. The steward, who was supposed to fetch the prescription shampoo from the pharmacy and meet us back here, has still not shown. Teddy calls him. The guy swears he is on his way, but Teddy says he hears the sounds of a bar behind him. Dr Jalloh is not with us. He hates this kind of job, hates owners who don’t know how to handle their own animals, who won’t come to the clinic. Sometimes, he says, people just show him out to the yard, to a couple of half-wild beasts, and leave him there. He hates that more than anything. He’s a vet, he says, not a dog whisperer.
Teddy, Zainab, Nabsieu and I are here to wash the dogs, but nothing is happening. We are standing in the eye of sun while four dogs circle us, demonstrating various degrees of animosity. ‘Here, in this situation, the relationship between owner and dog has reached total breakdown,’ pronounces Teddy. ‘These dogs no longer trust human beings. They will not allow themselves to be touched.’ The dogs are flea-ridden and one has a skin infection. The exception is a tall, slim brown-and-white dog with a cropped tail. It looks healthier than the rest and allows itself to be petted. The dog came from next door. His Colombian owner turned out to have been the mastermind behind the planes local people would hear landing in the dead of night at the airport on the other side of the water. Motorboats from a small jetty in front of the house ferried the cargo to the mainland and from here the cocaine was loaded onto mules bound for Europe. Neighbouring Guinea has already turned into a cocaine state. After the Colombian’s arrest the abandoned animal jumped the wall to join this pack. Teddy nicknames it ‘the gangster’. One thing you can say about the Colombian though, he looked after his dog.
Twenty minutes on we get started. The watchman, who has been asked not to give food to any of the dogs because we are about to administer an anaesthetic, is now giving one of them a plate of food. What is it with this guy? Poorly paid staff take out their resentment on the dogs, says Teddy. They sometimes feel the owners of the house care more for the animals than they do for them. Here the householders have been away for some months, which might explain the neglected state of the dogs and their hostility to humans. Ten more minutes more are spent persuading the watchman to fetch soap and towels. Finally we begin. Nabsieu inserts a dart into a hollow pipe, raises the mouthpiece to his lips and stalks the dogs with the quiet footfall of a hunter. The gangster goes down first. Nabsieu fells the remaining dogs one by one, a single dart each.
An hour later the job is finished. We have washed and scrubbed four dogs, searched for two in the nearby bush after the watchmen opened the gate and let them out into the street. Now four dogs sleep it off in the shade. Zainab, Nabsieu and Teddy sign off on the job, telling the watchman they’ll be back next month.
Back in the surgery Jalloh asks how it went. I say the whole thing is crazy. Jalloh shrugs and shakes his head. What to say? They service about twenty elite households in this way. The clinic needs the money. Maybe he’ll dig a dip out back. Even so, he muses, people like that still wouldn’t bring their dogs.
He says that the main problem here is neglect. People don’t have the money to care for and feed all these dogs, which I feel is broadly true, though the last two days have produced a strange, more complex picture. The slum-dwellers’ dogs are ten times healthier than the dogs of the country’s most wealthy.
Lunch in a nearby restaurant and a conversation begun the day before is reprised. Jalloh has a television crew arriving from Holland in a week’s time. On the drive back across town from the street clinic I’d asked whether he planned to allow the crew to film a clinic. Jalloh nodded. Some of what I had seen, I’d suggested, might prove unpalatable to Western viewers.
A small silence. Jalloh wrinkled his nose and sighed: ‘Oh dear,’ and then, ‘Europeans are so emotional.’
Ordinarily his tendency is to talk about the West in uncritical terms: as an animal nirvana where pets exist as legally protected family members. I wondered if this was a habit borne of the need to flatter, to treat everyone who visited from overseas – including me – as a potential donor. At the seminars and conferences Jalloh attends on his funded trips to Europe and America, the face the West wears is typically humane, rational, superior. Next to the representatives of international animal welfare programmes such as the RSPCA whose reserves of £150 million represent twice our nation’s annual revenue, Jalloh is the beggar at the banquet.
What the West reveals of itself at such times, naturally, is less interesting than what is concealed. In our street in London the kids with pit-bull crosses; the dead pit bull in a bin liner; the dog fights. Now, sitting over steak sandwiches and Fanta, I detail none of this. Instead I tell him about a photographer employed by a national newspaper magazine in Britain who was sent out to work with me on an assignment some years before. The woman suffered culture shock such that she was virtually catatonic, only showing signs of recovery within sight of the airport. Jalloh chuckles, his chuckle deepens into a laugh. Then for a moment he is quiet.
An American came to Sierra Leone to work for the Special Court responsible for trying war criminals, one of hundreds of lawyers and support staff employed by the American-backed court. She wanted to fly three street dogs to the United States and asked Jalloh to prepare the dogs for travel. He suggested she give the money to his programme instead. For the same money he could help a thousand dogs. She refused, spent 3,000 US dollars to transport the dogs He remembers her name and repeats it. In time it will become a running gag between us, a byword for solipsistic sentimentality. It made him think he should be doing a ‘sponsor a street dog’ programme, like those for sponsoring children. Send a photograph of the dog and a monthly update.
That would work, I agree: ‘She wanted to be a hero.’
Jalloh repeats her name. Shakes his head and laughs.
Then there are those dogs, larger than the other street dogs, who roam the streets, tattered collars hanging around their necks.We call them the ‘NGO dogs’, adopted by aid workers, abandoned when the contract is over. Not so very different to their relationship with the country. A departing staff member at the British High Commission recently left two dogs in Jalloh’s compound before flying home for good. Last year the High Commission denied visas to two of his staff members who had been offered free training places at an animal centre in Britain.
And yet some people think it’s Jalloh’s enterprise that is misplaced in a country officially the poorest in the world. Seventy-sixth out of seventy-six in the United Nations Human Development Index – a ranking we sometimes switch with Bangladesh. When last that happened, the President announced a national celebration. In the early days Jalloh found himself turned away by the World Health Organization and other international funding agencies, who told him animal welfare was not a priority. He argued, with incontrovertible logic, that human health and animal health were inseparable. He won.
The deputy Foreign Minister, lunching at a table nearby, comes over to say hello on his way out. The minister donated the old trailer Jalloh has converted in to holding kennels behind his surgery where a small shanty town is growing. Part of an old truck is being fashioned into a second unit. He keeps his vaccines in the freezer of the restaurant where we are lunching: the surgery is without electricity.
His is a makeshift existence. Before I arrived Jalloh had e-mailed asking if I might help him obtain consumables for a VeTest, an elaborate piece of diagnostic equipment someone had given him. The cost would have come to €2,800, the materials required an unbroken cold chain between the factory in Holland and Freetown. The VeTest sits, unused, beneath his desk.
He tells me of a British woman who wanted to set up a dogs’ home in Sierra Leone. ‘Who would pay for it? Who would adopt all those dogs?’ Of the international companies who offer him vast sums to exterminate the strays that roam their compounds.
The conversation will range over days: African pragmatism and reality, Western sentiment, the schism between the values of the two and the West’s own conflicted treatment of animals. Of Jalloh’s lot in trying to embrace, negotiate and reconcile so many ways of thinking.
Here, a man presses a knife against a bull’s neck, croons as he looks the animal in the eye and slits its throat. I have seen it happen many times and again. One occasion was a family celebration, the ‘opening’ of a house rebuilt after the war. A cow was to be slaughtered, cooked, and fed to one hundred people. In the forest behind the house five men prayed and held her until she died. The killing of an animal is attended with all the ritual of an offering. Indeed ‘sacrifice’ is the word we use. In Britain factory-farmed animals, strung up by single hind leg, inch along a conveyor belt to the screams of those who went before, emerge stripped of hair and skin, wrapped in cellophane.
I will ask Jalloh what he thinks of the dogs he sees in Europe, bred beyond the point of deformity for the show ring and the fashionable, a million miles from Lorenz’s noble working dogs. Jalloh will smile and shake his head: ‘And now they call our dogs mongrels.’
I will repeat the conversation I had with my London vet, about the link between the physical abuse of animals and the physical abuse of children. Vets are under instruction to report every incident of animal mistreatment. Jalloh will listen, ask questions. Who are the perpetrators? What sector of society are they from? He frowns. No, he has never heard of dogfights here. In England he once trained as an RSCPA inspector, although he never went out on patrol. He read about the torture of animals. He found it ‘interesting and very strange’. Another time he says: ‘People here believe if you do something bad to an animal, something bad will happen to you.’
Once, I remember, I visited a hotel looking for a place to house a writers’ conference the following year. A wild goose chase, as it soon became evident. The hotel had been abandoned since the war and was in an impossible state of neglect. In the bathrooms of a collapsed bungalow I found a litter of puppy corpses. The caretaker who accompanied me covered his mouth with his hand. ‘Bad, very bad.’ Nobody had seen the bitch for days, they’d searched for and failed to locate her pups. Perhaps she had been hit by a car. He shook his head, sure this was a portent of something terrible.
Says Elizabeth Costello, protagonist in J.M Coetzee’s The Life of Animals, in which the author uses a fictional setting to explore the moral argument about the treatment of animals: ‘I do think it is appropriate that those who pioneered the industrialization of animal lives and commodification of animal flesh should be at the forefront of trying to atone for it.’ Trying to atone for a crime she compares to the Holocaust, a crime of ‘stupefying proportions’.
Costello’s response is an ethical vegetarianism so extreme she is unable to sit at a table with meat eaters. On the other side of the table, Jalloh has just completed work on his steak sandwich. I have never met a vegetarian in Sierra Leone. Perhaps because there isn’t food enough to be fussy about protein sources. Or perhaps simply because there is a great deal less to atone for. In places where the distance travelled from Wild Dog and the creation of the Covenant is shorter, one finds neither the gas chambers nor the need to expiate, but rather a middle ground between the world of humans and the world of animals: A rough-and-ready equilibrium.
Still, it would be disingenuous to suggest crimes never occur. Jalloh chides me for my romanticism, reminds me, via e-mail in our continued conversation some weeks later, that sometimes the knife is blunt. There is no singing. In Britain he finds people who care. In Sierra Leone they tell him he doesn’t have enough work to do, to be wasting time on animals.
The Sierra Leone 1960 Animal Cruelty Act, a parting gift from the departing colonials, sits unchanged upon the statute books. Jalloh wants it updated and enforced, he tells me. In the lifetime of the Act there have been only two known attempts to bring a prosecution: Jalloh. Once against a man who beat Jalloh’s dog. The man was a neighbour who had taken a dislike to the dog, a sentiment the animal heartily returned. The dog barked. The neighbour, when nobody was watching, took a stick to it. Another time Jalloh attempted to prosecute a man who stoned a goat to death. The man claimed the animal had destroyed his crop, he’d warned it several times. Neither case reached the courts. The police treated both incidents as crimes of property. What struck me as I listened to Jalloh’s telling, what strikes me still, was the history, the very personal enmity between victim and perpetrator at the heart of both crimes. There existed a relationship, a warped and angry one, but one that existed – something no law of property could ever take into account.
There were those who disapproved of Jalloh’s actions, of the primacy he would give animals such that a man might be imprisoned. Jalloh would like to see rights for animals enshrined in law. Limited rights. The right to food and shelter. Not the right to life that animal activists in Britain would advocate. No, he shakes his head and thinks some more. Freedom from mistreatment, yes. An animal ombudsman, someone to enforce those rights. Someone like him.
Soon after his return from the Soviet Union Jalloh collected fifty signatures on a petition, called a meeting and launched the Sierra Leone Animal Welfare Society. A young engineering student, Memuna, attended the first of those meetings. Two years later they married. An afternoon in the surgery they sit side by side and reel off the names of the other attendees by heart, produce the original minutes on translucent onion paper, offer them for my perusal, laugh and touch hands.
And then came war.
Jalloh and Memuna fled across land to Guinea. They carried nothing but his vet’s bag and some antibiotics. Memuna was pregnant. ‘I was worried she would abort,’ he says. Abort, the terminology of a vet. In the Gambia they found sanctuary, Jalloh offered his services to the government, working on food security and cattle farming and once, administering an NGO-funded programme to neuter the street cats that clustered in hundreds around the tourist hotels.
Two years later Jalloh and Memuna returned in time for the rebels’ big push on Freetown. The street dogs grew fat feasting on the corpses. People thought the dogs would go mad, Jalloh tells me, from eating the drug-addled flesh of the rebel soldiers. Though who could deny they did the city a favour? A doctor who worked at Connaught, the city’s main hospital, described to me days spent collecting corpses during pauses in the fighting. He found people’s loved ones shoved down pit latrines, rebels left to the dogs. Once he tried to move the corpse of a young girl, a commander in the rebel forces, but furious locals refused to allow it. Leave her for the dogs. The fate she deserved.
The city was overrun with dogs. Jalloh chose that year to launch his campaign to protect them. More than once I have heard the story of how it all started. Now I hear it from his wife: ‘He gathered eighty dogs and brought them to the compound,’ says Memuna. ‘I had to cook rice three times a day to feed them all. That night it was a full moon. The dogs began to howl. Next day I had to go to each of my neighbours to beg.’ She laughs for a long time.
Today is Saturday. We are sitting together in the surgery and Memuna enters with wet hands, touching the back of hers to the back of mine. She excuses herself to return to the kitchen and oversee the cooking of tonight’s feast. It is the first day of Ramadan.
It vexes Jalloh – the new fundamentalism spreading from Saudi Arabia has now reached even Sierra Leone. It breaks down the relationship between man and dog, he says. Teddy gives an account of a cleric who told one of his congregation to scrape the skin away from his arm where he had allowed a dog to touch it. At that Jalloh jumps up, begins searching for the papers upon which he has copied Hadiths about animals from the Koran. He talks fast and waves a finger in the air. He went on Radio Islam to talk about the treatment of animals under Islam. Now he’s persuaded Alhaji Sillah, the city’s chief Imam, to read out some of the Hadiths during Friday prayers at the Central Mosque.
In all the years of his life Jalloh has never been diverted from his faith or his love of dogs. Only one thing came close to defeating him. His right eye, when it catches the light, contains a diamond-hard glint. I remembered hearing, when I was far away in England, that Jalloh was going blind. The glint is an intraocular transplant, an artificial lens. He is functionally blind in his left eye, having suffered severe optic-nerve damage and the resultant loss of ninety per cent of the sight. Two years ago he looked at the world through a tunnel, a six-inch span. He couldn’t drive, could barely work although he carried on. The cause was cataracts.
On a trip to the United States, a friend, an animal-lover and supporter of his, persuaded him to visit an optician. The optician referred him straight to a specialist who gave Jalloh six months before he lost his sight altogether. Jalloh had no money for the operation. The Dutch animal welfare agency who fund his work with the street dogs declined to help, informing him their funds were reserved for animals. Calls were made and the surgeon, who loved his two Labradors, agreed to waive his fees. Jalloh underwent the surgery but found he had overlooked the $10,000 hospital bill. The surgeon persuaded the hospital to cut the bill by half. Then came the $1,500 anaesthetist’s fee. A phone call and he too waived his fee. So it went. This is how his sight was saved. For the love of dogs, says Jalloh, stands up and spreads his arms. But for the love of dogs, he’d be blind.
Saturday is the day the responsible middle classes bring their dogs to the clinic. Jalloh cleans out ear infections, administers antibiotics and vaccines. The vaccines carried a half-dozen at a time in an ice-packed Thermos from the restaurant down the road. At my behest he demonstrates the correct way to remove a tick: burst the body and let it detach naturally. Make the mistake of pulling and the head will remain inside. Dogs, his own, move freely in and out of the surgery. Jalloh, his assistants and I circle each other in the narrow space between his desk, examining table and shelves labelled: Orals/Endoparasites and Ectoparasites/Emergency Injectables/Injectables for Infectious Diseases, Catgut Suture Needles/Surgical Gloves. New supplies have been stuck in the port for two months now. His wish list for a far-off future: an orthopaedic surgical kit (most dogs are hurt in traffic accidents); a binocular microscope (he can’t use his old monocular scope because of his eyes); an auroscope and – dreamtime now – solar power to run lights and a fridge.
We treat Emaka, Joffy, Fluffy, Cannis, Tiger, Rambo and Combat.
At two Joffy’s owner comes to collect her dog. Jalloh springs up and hands her a form for his latest initiative – a licence scheme – tells her to go to City Hall and license her dog. Later he outlines the scheme for my benefit. There is now a municipal by-law, thanks to Jalloh (one begins to believe the City Council has given up denying him anything) which states every dog must be vaccinated and licensed. The funds collected from citizens like Joffey’s owner are diverted to vaccinate and license the community dogs. That’s the plan anyway. The tax amounts to around two pounds for a sterilized dog and three pounds for an unsterilized dog.
Me: ‘Is the law enforced?’
Jalloh: ‘No. But it’s enforceable. This is a test run. First we’ll find out how much voluntary take up there is.’
Me: ‘Has anyone actually licensed their dog yet?’ There being, in my view, no real possibility of enforcement in a state still struggling towards a functioning police force.
Jalloh pauses, gives the habitual headshake, which I now know signifies disbelief. ‘No.’
And now I will tell you about the second time I met Gudush Jalloh. It took place a few months after our first meeting, less than two years after the end of the civil war. I had taken into my home a street dog, a yellow-coated bitch. I’d noticed her searching for scraps along the beach, checked with some of the beach boys who confirmed that nobody took care of her. With their help we bundled her into the back of my car where she stood on the parcel shelf and howled. The other strays, who’d scattered at the moment of the kidnap, gathered around the car, some howled back. A boy said: ‘Dis ’oman dae cam take you na heaven and you dae fom?’ This woman has come to take you to heaven and you’re complaining?
I named her Mathilda and wooed her with corned-beef sandwiches, just as I had on the beach. By five o’clock of our first afternoon together she sat to my command. By six she had learned to lie down. She became my companion during the long days of writing. Several people asked if they might have her when I left, for I had earned a reputation as someone who knew a good dog. And Mathilda was a good dog, though she never lost her skittishness around strangers, she gave me her devotion entirely.
Then Mathilda was hit by a car. In the early morning a man on his way to work passed a wounded dog lying in a ditch, recognized her and brought her to my house. I drove her to the only place there was, to Dr Jalloh’s surgery. Mathilda had two dislocated hind legs and, he suspected, a broken pelvis. He could try to slip the dislocated legs back into their sockets, but not if the pelvis was indeed broken. With no X-ray machine it was impossible to give an exact diagnosis.
The injured dog lay silent and still upon the table. A solution seemed unreachable. To attempt to relocate the bones into a broken pelvis would be agonizing and ineffective. I thought I knew what Dr Jalloh was saying, I might have to put her down. I stroked the top of her head. Then Dr Jalloh said he knew one person with an X-ray machine. It was possible they might let us use it. He offered to make the call.
Haja Binta, a Fula like Jalloh and recently returned from twenty years working for the NHS in Britain. Now she was the proud owner of a small private clinic on the other side of the city. I arrived, carrying Mathilda who was partially sedated and wrapped in a towel. The people waiting to see the nurse thought I was holding a baby, but when they discovered it was a dog, they gathered around:
‘Hush ya,’ said an old man.
‘Sorry-oh!’ said someone else.
Haja Binta led us to the X-ray room and laid Mathilda on a steel bed, beneath the eye of the giant machine. Several times she repositioned the dog, pausing only to adjust her hijab. Afterwards she offered to develop the prints while I waited. I returned to the waiting room. After twenty minutes Haja Binta came to find me. She smiled as she held up the X-rays. There was no fracture to the pelvis. The old man surveyed the images and gave a grunt of approval at the outcome. Somebody else said: ‘Na God will am so.’
Mathilda recovered over time, retaining a distinctive sideways skip. One day, during dinner at the British High Commission, I told the story. My audience were mainly expats, people sent to the country in the wake of war for one reason or another. One man took exception to the waste of time and resources on an animal in a country where people had so little. He told me so as he walked away.
But, you see, here’s why I think he was wrong. The people who had helped Mathilda: the man who reached into the ditch and brought her out, Dr Jalloh in his makeshift surgery, the Haja and her patients – they were Africans. They lived in the poorest country in the world. We were, all of us, two years out of a decade of civil war. We had survived the darkest place and we had all lost a great deal.
This is Milan Kundera’s test of humanity:
‘True human goodness can manifest itself, in all its purity and liberty, only in regard to those who have no power. The true moral test of humanity lies in those who are at its mercy: the animals.’
I did not see foolishness or indulgence in all those people coming together on a single day to save the life of a street dog. What I saw was compassion, a sense of community, the sweetening of a soured spirit. In other words: I saw hope.
to see a photo slideshow related to this piece.
Aminatta Forna is an author and commentator. Her official website is
To contribute to Dr. Jalloh’s work, email him on firstname.lastname@example.org