Addis Ababa’s public transport system is complicated, especially for a dog like me. There are taxis and contract taxis and buses, and it’s hard to keep them straight, confusion reigns. Over time the picture becomes clear and the method comes into focus. Taxis are actually minibuses that carry 11 sometimes 11.5 people. Contract taxis are private automobiles, usually Russian Ladas, and buses are big orange and red, heavy-duty buses, so jam-packed with humans, a dog wouldn’t fit in edgewise. The three make up nearly half of all traffic in Addis Ababa and clog every artery of the city.
Taxis, painted blue and white, are easy to spot from a distance, even for a dog. The weyala—usually a teenager—hangs half way out the window to advertise the service’s destination. Potential passengers can stand on the side of virtually any road and with the right signal, get the taxi to stop. Jump in, jump off, pay the fare.
For a dog living in Africa, chasing taxis is much easier than stopping them. Most minibus drivers won’t hit the brakes for a dog, especially one standing with a farenji. So Nico and I mastered the taxi sneak, running quickly to a parked taxi and jumping in before questions are asked. When you’re a dog on a bus in Addis Ababa, questioning is inevitable and trouble sometimes follows.
Wusha albalem (dog doesn’t eat) Nico would say quickly. Chigger yelem, wusha aynakasem. (no problem, dog won’t bite). Assuage the human’s illogical fear of dog is critical to not being thrown off the bus.
I rode the city’s network of taxis for three years with Nico. Every day passengers stared at me. Many jumped and spurt out yelps of surprise while slowly backing into their creaky seats. Some squirmed and screamed, others froze completely fraught with fear, perhaps believing that a taxi with a dog must be a taxi going to hell. And the rest laughed, pet my head and accepted me as one of the many animals from the streets of Addis Ababa.
On one of the first bus rides, after the weyala asked Nico to pay my fare (and Nico protested) taxi chatter eventually turned to me and why I’m in the taxi in the first place. Passengers, especially Muslims, were puzzled and even sometimes angry, for a dog is an affront to Islam, and a black dog is the worst possible dog. I reckon the prophet Mohammed had it in for dogs because he didn’t know much about friendship. Still, I wasn’t surprised, because this wasn’t my first time with superstitious Muslims.
Somebody in Nico’s shoes might have gotten nervous with the sudden attention and confrontation, but he remained poised, kept his cool and did his best for my species.
The first interaction went something like this… I remember like it was yesterday.
Please move your dog. I cannot touch dog because I am Muslim.
Why not? Nico asked.
They have dirty mouths.
Do you keep chickens at your house?
Do you keep goats at your house?
So you could say you live with your family and with some chickens and a few goats?
Your goats and chickens eat everything including garbage. You live with them. My dog eats rice and meat and I make him clean with shampoo. Your question about what animals are clean is important, but the answer is not easy to say. Dog is not the answer.
Many passengers couldn’t fully understand his poorly spoken Amharic, and I had a feeling that this particular speech wasn’t reaching the intended audience. Most of the time, they nodded, mumbled and looked away, and we rumbled on towards our destination. But Nico almost never paid an extra fare for me, 99% of the time I rode for free.
Then one day, Nico had prepared a new speech for the dog doubters on the daily taxi commute. There had been a breakthrough in his Amharic, he had mastered numbers, some prepositions and enough words to give his audience a commuter’s summary of anthropology and the history of religion, two things I had studied as a young dog.
This dog is unnecessary! Dog does not ride in taxi. I cannot ride next to dog.
Are you Muslim?
And you hate dog, just like Mohammed the prophet hated dog?
Dog is friend not enemy.
No. Dog is bad.
Dog and Man have been friends for long time. Do you know this?
Dog and man are friends 10,000 years, Nico says with great emphasis. 10,000 years! Now, your religion, Islam, is also very old. Do you know how old?
Your religion is approximately 1400 years old. One thousand years and four hundred years, together. Man and dog, one thousand years, ten times. Very old friends. Before Islam, before the Mohammed, man and dog were already friends. My dog is my friend. You understand me?
Some of the people in the taxi laughed while others made sounds of approval, for there are Ethiopians who actually like dogs and appreciate the evolution of our partnership over thousands of years of unconditional love.
In my detractor’s defense, Ethiopian or otherwise, dogs have penetrated the Western master’s DNA in a way unknown in Africa and possibly the rest of the world thanks to Buck, Toto, Old Yeller, Lassie, the Taco Bell Chihuahua and countless others. In one of the greatest stories ever told—Homer’s Odyssey—was Argos, Ulysses’s loyal companion who waited twenty years for his master’s return. The only creature able to recognize a weary Ulysses post-journey who after assuring his master has arrived safely, dies peacefully with satisfied eyes and a tail well wagged.
But I couldn’t explain any of this to the Ethiopians. I’m just a dog on a bus in Africa, and unconditional love is hard to explain.
Ethiopians were rarely in the mood to hear these lectures on history, and anyway, 10,000 years was a long time ago, a quantity of time few people care to consider. In Ethiopia, there are the bones of Lucy at 3.2 million and there’s the Queen of Sheba 1000 B.C. Nothing happens in between, not with dogs or otherwise.
Some of these conversations were long and arduous. Nico’s Amharic was never that good and he too got tired of explaining the domestication of the dog. Then one day, he came across the easiest, and by the passenger’s reaction, the best way to get a dog onto an Ethiopian bus.
We are Muslim, this dog is haram.
Yes, I know. You are Muslim and you don’t like dogs?
Yes. Dogs are bad.
No problem. This dog is Christian and he doesn’t like Muslims
The ice was thoroughly broken. The Christians in the taxi howled with laughter. This stance made sense, even to the Muslims. Why would our species like Muslims? They hate us, we should hate them, only we can’t hate because we love unconditionally. And that is something some humans will never understand.
You can’t preach to a dog. Superstition is a human flaw, and we are not interested in dogma.