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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

Who owns whom?

Monday morning and time has a babelaas as outside Jeppe Prep bodies wriggling with anxiety are throwing satchels over their shoulders and rushing to catch the morning bell. My son crosses the line of prefects like an athlete at the kiddie olympics, a smile breaks over his face, a wave of relief. In South Africa time is not indigenous because the time that we keep is always ahead of us, frowning disapprovingly as we struggle to keep up with it. Time is a white man, possibly German or Swiss. African time is an entirely different creature. African time is not human, it is elemental. It moves with the rhythm of the universe which is why all musicians have a faraway look in their eyes when they arrive half an hour late for dinner appointments. Australopithecus africanus did not have a deadline – we took time to evolve.

I have a two-faced chip on my shoulder that whispers in Ga and Zulu and Afrikaans and English.

Most people call me umlungu but when I throw stones at dogs I feel my African genes. Watching their little paws dodging the lump of stone: I always get them. I don’t even have to aim, it just happens. Not to say I have anything against dogs. Dogs are my best friends. I just show them where they fit in. As soon as they start acting too human, I let them know that they are dogs. We are all happier that way.

Growing up in the suburbs, I was bitten repeatedly. I became one of those people who is scared of dogs. A number of experiences have changed me. Owning a dog has given me confidence.

When we were given our first dog, Papalaps, I was intimidated. For a year I cooked chicken for her, only introducing her to dog food when she had six pups as a teenage mother. I was worn out and exiled her to the outside room. Until then she had slept in the house, but her habit of leaving foul-smelling little presents for me and my son to pick up was finally too much for me. Even now when she gets a bowl of superwoof dog chunks put in front of her she looks up as if to say: um… is this for me? but… it’s dogfood.

The secretary of the vet is very delicate about the words she uses about dogs in front of them. Instead of talking about human food versus dog food, she says “table food”. It’s one of those euphemisms that give me a quick bout of hives like “community” and “informal settlement”. Our sweet South African way of not saying what it is that we’re talking about, couching it in softer words. Air-freshener in a pit latrine.

We kept one of Papalaps’s six children because we wanted to break the cycle of giving children up for adoption. Jonathan is a feisty little fellow, now just a little taller than his mum. He’s quite sure that he’s a dog, even carefully lifting his leg from time to time. Then about a year later, Barney Simon, named for the legendary director of Black Dog Njenyama, moved in. A dog from a broken home, he strayed into our yard and was kept because he looked vicious and I wanted to have two barkers and a biter. He looks like a cross between an African hunting dog, a beagle and a labrador, with a fierce ridge down his back and a brief, blunt nose. He overpowers burglars with his monumental cowardice, leaping into their arms slobbering with terror.

These companions join me on my jogs (which become increasingly more like brisk walks as I rediscover the pleasure of smoking) through Troyeville. Proudly pulling me forward with their leashes, they own the area between Beelaerts Street and the David Webster Park, and all the way down Nourse to the park at the top of Benbow. Barney, the sole holder of a valid pair of testicles, marks his territory as we progress: that tree is mine, and this tyre, and that gate-post… which makes me wonder, how can one dog have so much urine to dispense? It’s an unstoppable flow. If only he could turn his prodigious talent to writing we’d both be able to retire.

I think that dogs are barking at one another because they’re exchanging insults. “your woman can’t jump!” “your man has a big ass!” etc. And our dogs bark back to defend us. They boast to one another about our achievements: “My person gave me chicken scraps yesterday.” “She bought me a new bed. I hate it.”

I set out to write a much more serious piece on diversity and languages, but this is what came. Like the media tome of the same name, this little article attempts to deconstruct the power relations within the pet relationship. We used to have a cat, who owned all the dogs until he decided to move on to a different home. I miss him and his narcissism.

My boyfriend reckons I should put them to work. Teach them how to open the gate. Clean up after themselves. He’s falling into the same trap of seeing them as human: children with chores. I reckon, let dogs be dogs. When they act human, get them to dodge their paws and run. Who’s paying the bills around here, anyway?

Dogs teach us about time as they have so much less than we do, and they spend it more wisely. Lying about, eating, humping legs and other dogs, they have other priorities. They also don’t see race. “Race” in French is the word for “breed” so once in the metro a kindly old lady asked a clochard with a pack of dogs what breed the fluffy one was. The homeless lady rose and raved: “You racist! who cares what race the dog is! it’s a dog! that’s enough isn’t it! but no, you people have to put everyone into a box! shame on you!” Shame on me with my chips.

Perhaps we are dogs’ spokespeople and service providers, their PR people and their agents. What the hell am I doing writing about them anyway? They’re only dogs. The Tanzanian at the end of our street had ten gigantic puppies that have grown into massive dogs. They burst through the fragile fence and rush up to people snarling. Now I know they’re only dogs, I am not intimidated. When a dog confronts you, don’t be diplomatic. Show Bush-style aggression. They will leave you alone. They know they are only dogs, but sometimes they forget. We should not, because we own them.

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