Chamba’s death sent me scouring through my disorganized archives for photos and other mementos of his life.
The process soon expanded to a full-scale project to organize more than 40 years of photographs and artifacts.
A few days ago I was leafing through a three-ring binder of Peace Corps correspondence saved for me by my sister. I found a postcard I wrote on the day I met Chamba: before he was adopted; before he was Chamba.
I felt as though I’d cracked the Hoffa case.
(Although it’s been eleven years since I returned, I never got around to looking into this binder until now. At first I actively resisted the idea. I regarded it as something I could read if I ever needed to reconnect to my life in Cameroon. “In case of emergency, break glass.” )
First of all, the postcard establishes that Chamba is about a month older than I’ve reckoned for many years. I’ve always celebrated his birthday in September, but I now know he was born in August.
In an odd way, it’s nice to think that Chamba lived an extra month–on the front end.
Dated August 13, 1992, it says, “I saw a bunch of puppies today that looked like little Nicky/Laddies.”
Nicky and Laddie were to two other beloved dogs that I had my life. Chamba had them to thank for the life I gave him.
When I was born, Prado was already the family dog. He was a short-haired mutt, with rumors of being part bulldog. I’m sure I tormented him when I was an infant.
I remember him being gentle, but kind of boring. He had the uncanny ability to walk nonchalantly across a cluttered floor and not step on anything.
As he grew old, I mostly ignored him. When he died, Mom didn’t tell me for a few days. I hadn’t noticed he was gone.
When I was 11, we got Nicky from the Humane Society (The Dumb Friends League, as it’s called in Colorado). His heritage was unknown, but he looked like an Australian Sheepdog.
We chose him, in part, because of his vague resemblance to Butch, my Aunt Bev’s dog. We moved to Arizona shortly after adopting Nicky. He was my only friend for several months, and became the first dog I ever bonded with.
Laddie was a purebred border collie. He was Mom’s dog, adopted shortly after Nicky’s death.
I was 25. I did not approve. He was chosen because if his resemblance to Nicky. At first, Mom even wanted to rename him Nicky. I definitely did not approve.
But he won my heart with his sweetness and intelligence. I flatter myself to say our friendship became one between peers, equals.
The day I met Chamba, it had only been a month or two since I’d heard Laddie had died. Mom believes that Chamba was the reincarnation of Laddie.
So it was in August of 1992. I was looking for a new house to rent. In most places in Cameroon, houses are arranged in family “compounds.” Usually there are four or more buildings arranged around a central grass or dirt courtyard.
Finding a new home was unexpectedly difficult. I’d told several friends in town to spread the word, but everyone assumed that a white man would require an indoor toilet. Most compounds had only communal outhouses.
I was walking through one of these compounds where I’d been told there was an available house. I nearly stepped on a dog pile of squirming newborn puppies.
Their mother was nowhere to be seen. They were mostly black, with some white markings. Their eyes weren’t even open.
One, however, had markings like a border collie: the white chest, collar, legs and muzzle; the white tip of his tail. He was the most active of the pile. He blindly climbed, and goaded his brothers and sisters with playful bites.
I forgot all about my house hunting and just adored him for a while. He was absolutely covered with fleas. In places his skin was flaking and losing hair.
During Peace Corps training, I had been adamant to my fellow trainees that no one should adopt a dog—unless they intended to bring it home with them. But on that day the notion took hold—but not the taking it home part.
I returned the next day and found out the puppies were for sale. They were nursing when I arrived. Their mother was a skinny thing named Foka. She had short black hair, and a single faint white dot on her forehead. She was resting against a mud brick wall in a corner partially enclosed by bushes.
The puppies looked pathetic. I wondered how long they would live, and how long I had to mull over the decision. I hatched an idea to co-adopt the puppy with my friend Dr. Moses. But first I would have to gauge his dog-lover credentials.
He told me of La Vie, a dog he’d had a few years before. He seemed to genuinely miss La Vie, and told me he did not treat her in the way that Cameroonian dogs are typically treated by their owners (if they have owners): kept in cages, or on short chains most of the time. That was good enough for me. I proposed the co-adoption scenario, and he agreed.
The dog was to belong to Dr. Moses when I returned to the US. The next day I found the head of the family at the compound and paid the equivalent of $12 (I think).
For once I didn’t care whether I was paying an inflated “white man’s price.” Thereafter, whenever I ran into this man, we jokingly referred to each other as moyo—inlaw.
I brought the puppy home. Then the worrying set in. I had no idea what I was doing. Nicky and Laddie were both housetrained adults when we adopted them. I’d never had a puppy. Was he ready to be weaned? Would he have died if I waited until he was of weaning age? Would I be able to provide him with age-appropriate food, so he would be healthy?
We fed him condensed milk at first, and began to supplement it with rice and dried fish.
We still hadn’t settled on a name. Several people suggested Whiskey, which apparently is the Cameroonian equivalent of Rover or Spot.
My ideas were Cola (after the cola nut, because “cola brings joy” ), and Dog Sabi (a play on the local name God Sabi, which means “God knows” ).
One day, Dr. Moses suggested the name Chamba, a word I’d never heard. He explained that the Bali-Nyonga people originally came from a place called Chamba, on the Cameroon-Nigeria border far to the north. I asked whether people would consider it an insult to name a dog after their ancestors. He assured me no one would take offense.
So Chamba was finally named Chamba. Soon afterwards I found a house to rent—one with an outhouse. Chamba, nonetheless, preferred to poop indoors at first.
I was not involved in the decisions to put either Nicky or Laddie to sleep. In both cases I found out after the fact. I recall second-guessing Mom each time—unfairly, in hindsight.
In writing this, I’m struck by the ambivalence of my decision to adopt Chamba in 1992, in contrast to how clear the decision was to put him to sleep a month ago. I’m comforted somewhat by the fact that my recent decision was so unambiguous.