Olivier Grinner considers himself a neat freak. The biggest adjustment to living with Lily was getting used to the hair. It’s everywhere: on the couch, on the pillows, on his clothes—Lily messes everything up, he says. “But, it’s just the two of us in this house, and I had to learn how to be patient with her.”
Lily is Grinner’s dog, a local mix with a sandy and white coat, bright brown eyes, and antenna-like ears that pick up signals from miles away. At just seven months old, Lily is the newest member of Grinner’s family; in fact, he often refers to her as his daughter, but “only to those who understand,” he says. To hear Grinner refer to Lily as family is a sign of change in Rwanda, a landlocked country in Central East Africa. For decades, Rwandans have been leery of dogs, even viewing them as dangerous, partly because of their role as aggressive security animals and reputation as rabid, unpredictable strays. More hauntingly, dogs are linked to the country’s 1994 genocide. Yet today, a growing number of Rwandans own dogs as pets or companions. They’re influenced by an emerging middle class, an influx of Westerners, and new technology platforms like WhatsApp, driving an attitudinal shift in the capital city of Kigali to see dogs as family pets rather than bodyguards.
While change is underway in Kigali, there are still many Rwandans reluctant to embrace the idea of dogs as pets, because it forces them to confront a difficult part of their past. Hiding in horrific stories of the country’s genocide are tales of dogs. Hutus—the majority reported to carry out the 1994 attacks—often deployed dogs as a scare tactic to find and drive out the Tutsi and moderate Hutus in hiding to kill them. Over the course of 100 days, people were slaughtered or fled the country, and a generation of dogs was left behind, stray and starving. Reports and witness accounts from those who survived the genocide say that, in the aftermath, the dogs developed a taste for human flesh and were seen eating the victims’ decomposing bodies, leaving people traumatized and scarred. As a result, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF—a rebel army that fought in the country’s genocide—shot and killed any dog in sight. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, or UNAMIR, too, killed whatever dogs they saw—all to avoid a public health crisis. And so, for years after the genocide, the country was eerily absent of dogs.
In the wake of the conflict, the dogs didn’t get much sympathy. But more recent Rwandans, many of whom are survivors, see the problem in broader context. “I can’t blame the dogs—it came down to genetics. They were being animals,” says Dave Mutangana, a 38-year-old businessman in Kigali. Mutangana owns two dogs, both German Shepherd mixes, named Scooby and Spike. “At times like that, even people were acting like animals.”
In 2018, perceptions are slowly changing. Part of that attitudinal shift is visible in The Rwanda Dog Lovers Club, a digital community of self-professed dog owners and aficionados who spend their days swapping stories and advice on the messaging platform WhatsApp.
Uniting with Other Dog Lovers
“The only rule I have is to only talk about dogs,” says 38-year-old Albert Sezibera, founder of the Rwanda Dog Lovers group. Sezibera started the WhatsApp group in July 2015 to unite people who are passionate and knowledgeable about dogs in a country where information about them is limited. The group started with 10 people and has grown to about 100 members, mostly Rwandans. People share memes, advice on dog-rearing—“my dog won’t stop nipping my pants!”—and discuss where to find certain breeds. Once a month, when long stretches of the city’s streets are closed down for Kigali’s car-free day, members will meet up and take their dogs on walks together. The most popular dogs among group members are German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Labradors, St. Bernards, Bichon Frise, and Japanese Spitz.
Many in the group even have more than one dog. Sezibera owns three small dogs—Chichi, Murphy, and Lincoln—and several puppies, yet his house is always quiet. That’s because Sezibera keeps his dogs locked up in wooden dog houses most of the day, except for a few hours in the morning or evening, when they’re let out around his compound. They're not allowed in the house. When he does let them out, Sezibera and the dogs are smitten for each other. They climb on him and he pets them, holds them, and laughs at them, but the dogs are always wet and ragged-looking.
"Here, when you have a house, it means everyone is always welcome," Sezibera says, explaining why he keeps his dogs locked away. Many people just show up unannounced, while others say they won’t visit if dogs are free in his home. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care about his dogs. "It’s a creature like other creatures that God has created, but it has an exception: A dog is a creature that really shows love to everyone surrounding it," he says.
But loving dogs in Rwanda is not the same as loving dogs in Western cultures.
“Saying publicly or putting in your mind that your dog is part of your family? It would be like lying somehow,” Sezibera says. In Rwanda, like in the United States, people call one another a dog as a dig—a word someone uses when they want to treat you like a low-class person. To say he loves a dog in the way he loves a human, “would be like a scandal and against our culture.”
Studies show relationships between humans and dogs vary across cultures and societies—shaped by factors including security, companionship, transport or religious beliefs. Experts also say that property and livestock protection is one of the primary purposes for keeping dogs—usually free-roaming dogs—in developing countries all over the world. Though Rwanda is still a developing country—more than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the National Institute Statistics of Rwanda’s Poverty Trend Analysis Report—it’s quickly becoming one of the leading economies in Africa, led by a government strategy to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by 2020. With economic development and progress comes a growing middle class, the return of its diaspora population, and a large foreigner community.
“As countries develop first world standards, animal welfare is a part of that,” says Frances Klinck, a Canadian and founder of WAG, a volunteer-based organization that provides foster homes for street dogs in Kigali. WAG comprises 30 members and has helped nearly 350 former strays find homes. WAG volunteers foster and cover dogs’ costs of care until a dog is adopted.
When Klinck founded WAG in 2012, she did so as a response to the poor treatment dogs faced around the country. She’d learn about dogs that were hit by cars and left unaided on the side of the road, she’d see kids throwing rocks at strays, or she’d hear stories of how kids would beat dogs up.
But in the past couple of years, things have changed, albeit slowly. For example, Rwandan police have made rules about having dogs on leashes or getting them vaccinated. The country also now has a law that makes it illegal to harm or injure domestic animals.
Klinck says Rwanda’s efforts are "moving in the direction of normalizing dogs as part of everyday life.” Businesses providing care and treatment of dogs are beginning to develop and thrive.
The Future of Dogs in Kigali
PETS + Ltd., Kigali’s first all-in-one stop for pets, provides veterinary care, grooming, training and walking, and sells retail items like dog leashes and food.
Much of the center’s focus is on outreach and education. Only about 10 percent the customers seeking veterinary services are Rwandans, says Dr Septianingrum Lestari, the center’s veterinarian, known as Dr. Arum. They’re still learning the importance of vets when treating small, domestic animals like dogs. Often, many Rwandans would prefer to use the money for themselves rather than on an animal, says Dr. Arum.
“If it were livestock, like cows? Those are assets to a family,” Dr. Arum says. “They will do everything for cows, but for dogs, it’s not so much like that.”
Star trainer and walker at PETS + Ltd. is 20-year-old Ineza Alidry Cloudstone, a self-taught Rwandan who has been dubbed “The Dog Whisperer.” Rwandans, however, don’t see Cloudstones’ work the same way. Working with dogs is not considered a respectable job.
"People just tease me and tell me that I'm just running around with dogs," Cloudstone says.
Cloudstone doesn’t listen to the noise. He loves dogs and has learned a great deal from them, too. They’ve taught him about confidence, patience, and responsibility, but most of all, they’ve taught him about love, kindness, and forgiveness—lessons he thinks others can learn, too, if more families consider getting dogs.
Grinner couldn’t agree more. He can’t imagine his life without Lily, and though he is only 34, he often wonders who would take care of Lily if something were to happen to him, he says. In many ways, he feels like a father. He tells his adult friends that before they become parents, they should consider becoming dog-owners.
“I keep telling my friends, ‘If you want to know what it will feel like to have a child, you should start by having a puppy,’” Grinner says, letting out a playful giggle. “If you get along with [the dog], and you feel okay with all of the mess-ups they cause, then I think you will be good with babies.”
Reporting for this piece was supported by a fellowship from the International Women's Media Foundation.