Our new house came with a dog. He’s a sweet little village mut who has probably guarded this property his whole life. Affectionate and well-behaved, he hadn’t eaten much since the house became vacant at the beginning of the year, and he didn’t have a future outside the protection outside of this neighborhood where he was known and accepted. Compared to him, and by all local standards, our dogs are monsters. Entitled and muscular, they have never known hunger, have never lost a fight, and are so spoiled that they might not even realize that they are dogs. We knew that keeping the new little one would not be easy. Just the sight of our boys terrified him, but he wouldn’t back down from a fight and even growled at them when they got close to me, his newfound meal ticket. We tried to impress to our giants the importance of gentleness and tolerance with actions they usually wouldn’t put up with from strange dogs less than a quarter their size. After a couple scuffles, the little one exiled himself to the corner of the property, refusing to come out even with coaxing and food. He was afraid for his life and re-defined his domain as a tiny space where he felt safe. It probably didn’t help that our boys barked excitedly from the window any time they saw him. We’ve had good success with running together with all 3 dogs, creating non-threatening interactions, and reinforcing the importance of gentleness. The little one is now enjoying chasing other neighborhood dogs, knowing that he has incredible muscle backing him up. But he’s still a bit hesitant turning around corners and walking through doors, not wanting to surprise the monsters that could mangle him with one bite.
This process keeps reminding me of a proverb about an elephant who decided to dance with his friend, the mouse. The elephant had a wonderful time dancing with abandon, but in the end, the mouse was crushed. Our dogs intimidate, threaten, and induce panic in this little dog just by existing on his property. He has to adjust his life around them if he wants to survive, and even then he could be hurt at any moment. Without meaning to do the same, foreigners from high-income countries can create the same panic for locals in Malawi as we step into their communities with our monstrous footprint. There is a guard who served this house for a long time before we moved in. We want to continue his contract so he can continue providing for his family, but we know it can’t be easy for him because our habits and mannerisms are unique and we can easily offend without even trying. Due to cultural differences, he is probably afraid to ask for things he needs or clarify misunderstandings. I’m sure our new employee is constantly trying to accommodate and co-exist to the new normal so he can survive, even though he was here long before us. I wonder if he sympathizes with the little dog, trying to get along with monstrous new normal, trying to survive a dance with elephants.