Childhood pets

When we moved into Kengeleni, there were a lot of leaks from the roof into the bedrooms on the 1st floor and one of the first things that Pappa did was cover the roof in a black tar to seal the gaps. It dried unevenly and because of the heat in Mombasa, it always seemed like the tar had remelted into a swimming pool of sticky black oil. 

Walking on it – with or without slippers – was a brave thing to do but my sister and I were always up to the challenge. We’d walk up the rickety wooden staircase – which swayed with the sea breeze because the water and the ants had gorged sections right out of it – and sail across the black lake to the other end of the balcony, and stand on the balls of our feet on the other end, in the shade of the cement parapet.

The view of Mombasa island was at its best from here and with our diminutive 8 and 11 year old heights, we stood on tiptoe and looked across at the ripples of sunlight on the silver blue, shimmering sea. We would stand for as long as the balls of our feet and then our toes could hold us, and enjoy the strength of the breeze in our short hair. And then we would cross the black lake again and head inside to play in the shade.

During Ramzan, Pappa would say his maghrib namaz on the roof; he would be a silhouette against the rays of the setting sun in his white topi and white kurta, and the double layer of his masallah provided enough insulation against the heat of the tar. It was mine and M*****’s responsibility to go to the roof five or ten minutes after the Azaan – which could be clearly heard at his height and at this hour – giving him enough time to say his three rakat, and then have the honour of proffering a small glass bowl of salt forward, from which he would take a pinch and break his fast.

It was probably on one of those days – while waiting for the Azaan to crackle out  out of the throat of a parched Muslim in a neighbouring masjid  – that he had the idea about the pigeons. And so one day Pappa woke up, found a carpenter and asked him to build a pigeon house for the inside right corner of the roof. Then he filled it with 12 pigeons, six pairs of brown and white pigeons.

To start with, it was a lot of fun: climbing up the stairs in the morning with a fistful of grain to sprinkle inside the house, and a jug of cool refreshing liquid for the containers, as only water can be in the heat of a town like Mombasa. But then some of the pigeons flew away. And never came back. And so the numbers reduced from 12 to eight pairs. We kept hoping to hear the chirping of some baby pigeons suggesting that at least these eight had settled down and made a home on top of our home, but we never did.

And then one day we realised why.

Our neighbour’s cat, a fluffy white creature called Snowflake that our dogs used to chase and torment – with good reason it now seemed – was visiting the pigeon coop, and not just lapping away at the water that we so religiously poured into the side containers  but actually attacking the pigeons. We caught her in the act one day, with grey and white feathers hanging out her mouth and her pink cat’s tongue futilely licking away at the evidence that fluttered from the side of her mouth.

We never again tried to stop our dogs from chasing Snowflake, and when a couple nights later, Jacky attacked and permanently maimed her when she was trespassing onto our property, there was no scolding or punishment for Jacky.

But the pigeons never recovered from Snowflake’s reign of terror and gradually they dwindled to a solitary three. Not even enough for 2 couples. We gave up the project, and a few years later when the coop was empty, dismantled it and threw away the boards

The pigeons weren’t the only animal adventure we had. There were also the rabbits. We started with four – I can only remember the names of the 2 females, Bobby the brown and white one who belonged to M*****, and Red Eyes, the pure white one with, yes, red eyes, which belonged to me. We would feed them cabbage leaves and all sorts of leafy vegetables, and they were nice and healthy.

No, pregnant.

Unlike the pigeons the rabbits needed no assurance or sense of security before reproducing and before we knew it, the entire hutch was full of them. Too many to count let alone name. Tiny fluffy creatures, with long ears and really sharp teeth.

But a couple of months later, the monsoons came and because the rabbit hutch was out in the open, they all died. My sister M***** and I wept for days over the tiny funerals.

Kengeleni saw its fair share of animal funerals though; the most tragic were those for the dogs.

When we moved to Kengeleni, we were finally able to have our own dogs, and soon after Pappa got a shenzi (a mixed breed) from Talib uncle of Mercantile Traders who lived near State House in Mombasa. He had a dog called Jacky who it seemed was very unhappy. Jacky kept running away during the day and howling all night, and Talib uncle asked Pappa whether he would be interested in taking him. Pappa agreed and so on Saturday we bundled into the Range Rover, with the back seat flattened, to pick up our first dog.

Even though Talib uncle had a beautiful house and compound, most of it was cemented and without any children in the house, it seemed that Jacky was lonely. Our hearts went out to him immediately.

Jacky was nearly full grown but timid. We put him into the car and the whole way home he was terrified having never been in a car before – the movement and the sound made him go haywire and nothing my sister – the dog whisperer in the family – could do to calm him down. He barked and peed all over the back. But once we reached, he seemed okay and settled in quite quickly, with enough room to run around and play. The compound had never had a dog before so the entire space was his to brand.

His running away habit wasn’t quite broken yet and so whenever we left the main gate open, he would go for a stroll. But eventually even that stopped, and he would run around the garden all night, and when morning came and the house woke up, sit next to the front door, all curled up, and go to sleep – raising his head every now and then for a quick pat on the head.

Jacky was so docile and gentle that we never had to tie him up when visitors came. The joke in fact was that when a stranger did come onto the property, Jacky would lead the welcoming committee. He would stroll up to them, give them a good sniff and then escort them all the way to our front door. The first we would know about a stranger in the compound is when the door bell pealed – not a single bark from Jacky. But cars, which pretty much announced themselves, Jacky would announce with gusto – and run alongside them from the gate, barking all the way.

Jacky was the first of many dogs we had at Kengeleni, but he was the only grown dog we ever brought home. Many times we brought a puppy: like the silky black labrador Labby who died while tied up near the well, and the short haired golden retriever Plug who would sleep under the Range Rover and was crushed under the wheels of the 4wd one morning.

The Indian superstition is that when there is a heavy grief on the house, the animals bear the brunt of it and give of their lives. Sadly, these innocent puppies made the ultimate sacrifice for the heavy pall that our house was under.

But somehow Jacky survived the curse, and a couple of years later when a classmate, Shaman, had Alsatian puppies, we bought two of them.

M***** picked a male and promptly named him Shane after the 1953 Western starring Alan Ladd. (Our media consumption was limited to Pappa’s favourites and so we were raised on American Westerns, reruns of LA Law and long tedious innings of a five day cricket match). I picked a female and named her Cuddles. Shane and Cuddles were absolutely adorable, and we spoilt them.

Shane was a very good natured, happy go lucky character, Sandy brown and black with a beautiful swishy tail. Cuddles, golden and black, was a little smaller and tried to make up for her short stature with sharp nippy teeth and a shrill bark … but anyone who had known her as a puppy could never take her seriously. She tried. To scare us that is. She would chase us into the house if we were alone, but because her back left leg was slightly shorter than the rest, whenever she ran it would be at an angle and the back of her body would swing froward. And her long pink tongue would never hang out straight and always lolled to the left over her back teeth. So try as we did, we could never take her seriously.

After she died, that was the one memory I found it hardest to get out of mind. That and the way she and Shane would peer at us from between the cement bricks in the kennel when they saw us coming towards them.

When they were still quite small, I would carry them around in my dungarees – one in each pocket and let them hang their heads out of the top, or snuggle deep inside and fall asleep. Mum would make rotli for them, and because the fragrance of roasted brown flour has a way of clinging to the skin, every time they saw her they would be looking for more. They would also jump up onto the window sill at the main door, with their nails tapping at the glass louvers, calling us to play.

When Cuddles became pregnant, she became so heavy and docile that there was no need to put her in the kennel during the day and she would sit at the main door all day, passing by the kitchen to sniff at mum when it was time for rotli. She was so comfortable with us that she had no qualms about my sister moving her puppies around seconds after their delivery, checking that they were all healthy and breathing.

We gave all of Cuddles’ puppies away except the runt of the litter, Dusky, who we always suspected to be Jacky’s and not Shane’s.

Dusky and Jacky moved to Lamu when Pappa rented out Kengeleni and moved to a smaller flat on Makadara road in the town centre, closer to his office.

They moved to Lamu; we moved to boarding school and after sharing our childhood with them so intimately, they were completely distanced from us. When we went to Lamu for our school holidays, Jacky would panic every time we left the shamba to buy groceries in town. Once he even chased us all the way, a distance of at least 5 kms, terrified that we were leaving him again. He never adjusted and a couple of months after that day he had chased us to town, he died. Dusky, younger when he moved there, and not a part of that wonderful relationship we had with our animals in Mombasa, took to Lamu life better but he too died a couple of years later.

I was never able to return to Kengeleni without being haunted by the thought of my darling Cuddles, Shane and Jacky. I still get tears in my eyes every time I think of that spunky little dog who puffed herself up and pretended to the whole world that she was so much braver than she was, and have never forgiven myself for leaving her, for leaving them and going away to school.

They too were victims of everything that happened in my childhood, and they too bore the brunt of my parents’ repeated separations. Eighteen years later, Cuddles’ memory is still fresh. I can see her small face peeking out from behind the cement blocks, her pink tongue lolling out the side and it brings a lump to my throat when I remember how soft her fur was and how I would bravely stick my hand out and pat her knowing that she would never bite me. That she remembered how I had once carried her tiny body in my dungaree pocket.

My darling Cuddles.



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