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Mama Dar cover is a little girl clutching her mother's kitenge (special wrap cloth skirt) at the beach © Heather Pillar

Tales of Family Life in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Mama Dar

Twenty-seven authors from nine countries wrote short stories about parenting while living in Tanzania.  All proceeds from the sale of this book benefit the House of Peace, a shelter for survivors of gender-based violence in Tanzania.

NOTE:  This book is currently out of print

© cover photograph by Heather Pillar

Life’s Lessons Come Wrapped in Fur


Heather Pillar

© 2010


My husband called me from Tanzania, where he had just interviewed for a job, to say he was taking it. When he returned to Bangladesh, where we were then working and living in an apartment, he told our two daughters all about the house in Dar es Salaam where we would live. He reported that the house came with a tortoise and chickens that roam around the yard. We were all excited at the prospect of living in an interesting new place, seeing African animals on safari and of course, meeting the yard pets.


Pets. They're complicated when you live an expat life.  Where do we buy pet supplies in countries that don't have Petco? When we go off for long holidays and to our home countries for the summer break, more problems arise: Who will take care of the pets? Will our nanny take the animal to the vet if it falls ill? What if the animal dies while we are away? What happens to the pets when we move after a few years?


Our own situation is further complicated, or perhaps simplified, by the fact that I am allergic to the dander on furry animals such as cats, dogs, horses, etc., much to my daughters' dismay. I have asthma, and I feel much better without animal fur around the house. So, the obvious pets - dogs and cats - are ruled out. Still, that doesn't stop the girls from exclaiming how unfair life is that they don't have a dog or a cat. We soon found that the tortoise and chickens were not good substitutes for a furry animal to hold, to pet, to love.  Have you ever tried to cuddle up with a chicken? They peck.  And six-year-old tortoises are big and hard to hold.


Yes, the simple answer would be to not have furry pets or even pets of any kind.  We would be free to travel without worries and see African animals in the wild.  After observing animals on safari, I find it troubling to think of such wonderful creatures locked in cages.  We have a family discussion about why we don’t visit zoos.  Why take animals out of their natural habitat and then try to recreate a mere shadow of that habitat in a cage?  Many cultures have no concept of keeping pets to cuddle and love.  It’s very Western, this pet thing.  I am curious about other cultural norms and conveniently conclude that it suits our family not to ‘own’ an animal.


But my daughters beg, plead, cajole, "Pleeeease, can we please get a pet?” They earnestly press on with words I know they can't live up to: "We'll take care of it. We promise!" They think of ways in which they can have a pet and keep their mother too: "The pet will stay in our bedroom and you won't be sneezing 'cause of your allergies." They think about moving to someone else's house where the mother is not allergic. It's a close call who they would prefer to live with: an animal or me. Luckily, I win by a hair; it's probably full of dander, though.


What changed my mind was reading The Childhood Roots to Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Creating Lifelong Joy, by Dr. Edward Hallowell. I took a piece of his advice: get a pet. If you can't get a pet, then get stuffed animals. Since the girls already had loads of stuffed animals, I realized that I needed to get a pet to make them feel comfortable in their new home in Dar es Salaam.  A timely solution presented itself. A teacher who was moving was giving away her child's two guinea pigs. She told me, "We just feed them long string beans and some cucumbers." It sounded easy enough. Guinea pigs live in a cage, so there wouldn't be fur all over the house. A deal was made! Unfortunately, one of the guinea pigs died during the bumpy ride on the unpaved, potholed roads back to our house: Well, we had added one furry animal to our family, and one was better than none.


It was time for some research, as we knew nothing about the little critter. I enlisted my daughters to help.  They took many books out from the library about the care and feeding or guinea pigs. Learning about guinea pigs provided a great motivation to READ! Did you know that in South America, where guinea pigs are originally from, they are a delicacy?  This fact started another family discussion about why we eat some animals but can't bear to think about eating others.  On a more practical level, we found out that guinea pigs need lots of exercise, a large cage, and hay to eat. We learned that cucumber seeds are not good for them. We discovered the Olga da Polga series, a set of funny books about a guinea pig's adventures, written at just the right level for a third grader.


In our extensive research, we found out that guinea pigs are social animals. Which meant we needed a friend for our lonely guinea pig. We started out at the local pet store, called Paws, Claws and Jaws, and found out that they only have jaws,' by way of fish, to buy as pets. No paws or claws in sight, my daughters observed. On the way home, we saw more fish for sale as we passed a man balancing an aquarium on top of his head along Touré Drive. Water sloshed about in the tank, but not a drop spilled out. It's fascinating to watch this scene but I must keep my eyes on this narrow road and watch out for crazy drivers.


We regroup at home and think again; where can we get another guinea pig? One of my daughters remembered seeing a man, arms outstretched, holding a guinea pig and a rabbit along the busy section of Haile Selassie Road. The girls begged to go in search of him. For two weeks, we took the long way home from school in hopes that he could solve our pet problem. Alas, when we found him only one hand was held up high - and it held a rabbit. We stopped to ask him when he would have another guinea pig for sale. He promised to get one for us the following week for 20,000 shillings - price non-negotiable. No amount of bargaining would work as he probably saw the look of desperation in my eyes. I agreed to this price since I am tired of driving up and down Haile Selassie in search of guinea pigs while my children complain in the backseat.  The following week, he didn't show up at the appointed time. We start the search again.


A friend of a friend of our askari (guard) came through with a perfect guinea pig. One small catch: it was of the opposite sex. We soon learned how to tell which was which. On Valentine's Day, the girls reported that the animals were ‘acting weird.’ I put them on my lap to examine them and the male jumped on the back of the female. The girls crouched down and upon closer inspection, one of them exclaimed, "Oreo has a purple penis!" Yes, our daughters had quickly become guinea pig gender identification experts.  These animals have been instrumental in teaching the girls about the birds  and the bees.

After a seventy day gestation period, two adorable mini-guinea pigs appeared in the cage one morning. Baby guinea pigs are born fully formed and already have hair. They are incredibly cute. The girls were in heaven with the arrival of the babies. I went out for a couple hours and came home to find the newborns sprawled on the dining room table dressed in doll clothes! I quickly put them back in their cage, and explained how babies need their mommies. Just like you girls need me, right?


We've also learned that guinea pigs apparently have weak hearts. A storm came through and sadly, Oreo died due to the low pressure. At least, that's our unofficial diagnosis; he was otherwise healthy. My husband and I were away at the time, so a friend was babysitting our children. Our older daughter was learning about ancient Egypt and told the friend how an Egyptian mummy would be put in a sarcophagus. So they made a sarcophagus for Oreo out of newspaper and stickers. They talked about how mummies don't decay because their blood and guts are removed. Since the girls didn't remove any of that stuff from the guinea pig corpse, the friend explained that Oreo would start smelling bad in the heat.  The obvious solution? Put him in the freezer, of course! Well, some cultures do eat them, after all. Instead we had chicken for dinner and the guinea pig sarcophagus was defrosted and buried to decay some more.


I can see why Westerners are crazy about their pets and why people go to such care and expense to bring a furry friend with them overseas. Children can learn so much from taking care of an animal if parents guide them. Too often in situations like ours, nannies and other hired help, rather than children, are the ones feeding and cleaning up after the pet. When it's time to move, pets are often left behind without homes. Caring for pets can be one of the best parts of childhood memories, and the lessons learned carry on throughout life.


We all want our children to be happy. Hallowell's five step process to creating lifelong joy can apply to any skill: playing an instrument, reading or doing math, playing a sport, etc.  In our case, having pet guinea pigs helped our girls feel connected to something, which is the first step. The girls love the animals and the guinea pigs love them back, in their guinea pig way. The second step is to play and learn about your chosen skill; the girls play with the guinea pigs, and try to train them to do tricks. We sit and watch the guinea pigs do ‘popcorn' jumps and read that they do this when they are happy. The third step is to practice; in our case, this means practice taking care of the animals. It's taken a lot of reminding and helping, but it is the girls' responsibility to feed and clean up after the guinea pigs in the morning and at night. This leads to the fourth step: mastery of your subject or skill. The girls now feel that they are experts on guinea pigs. They would like to find a profession that allows them to work with animals in some way. The fifth, and final, step is recognition. The girls have been told that they are good with animals because they know how to approach them. It becomes self-reinforcing and is applicable to all creatures; now they don't shy away from, scream at or kill bugs indiscriminately.  They understand how animals are connected and depend on each other, and on us.


Having pets has gotten our daughters interested in all sorts of animal-related topics. They wonder and discuss "How can we help animals?" and "How can animals help us?" These questions are the foundation for scientists and other professionals upon which to build careers. Our daughters are well on their way to becoming caring individuals who know about life-cycles and quality of life issues.


Looks like more fur is in my future

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