“Stay away from dogs in Africa. They will bite you. You will get rabies. And you will die.” Sensible words of warning from Journalists for Human Rights’ travel doctor, appropriately named Dr. Wise.
Eyes wide, I jot down “NO PETTING DOGS” in big bold letters in my notebook. Simple enough, I thought. However, my resolve to not go near dogs during my stay in Malawi didn’t last very long. When I arrived in Blantyre I was immediately drawn to all the stray dogs roaming the city.
I try to keep my distance from the rabid dogs with sad eyes that follow me in the streets. But generally, I find myself drawn to these defenceless creatures. They find me when I’m at outdoor restaurants, the beach, the bar…just about everywhere. “Amy, stop petting dogs!” fellow jhr interns scold me as I mutter a pathetic apology.
The reality is that in a country that struggles with human rights abuses, animal rights are a low priority. But up against widespread cultural apathy, political hurdles and a lack of resources, the newly-formed Blantyre branch of the SPCA and a few local animal lovers are doing their best to create awareness about animal rights issues.
Curious about official protection for animals in Malawi, I meet with a local lawyer, Noel Chalamanda, who confirms my suspicion: there’s no specific legislation for the protection of animals. There is a single provision, Section 343, in the Malawian Penal Code that deems unlawfully killing or injuring animals an offence and possible felony. Mostly though, minor offences, such as maltreatment of animals and carrying chickens tied by their feet upside-down, are regulated by city bylaws. Chalamanda explains that these offences are technically “forbidden, but they are just bylaws.”
“Sure, the city bylaws are there,” says Dr. Kholiwe Mkandawire. She’s a local veterinarian, outspoken animal rights activist and the Chairman for the Animal Welfare Committee of South Regional Malawi. “But they aren’t being [implemented],” she adds.
Enforcement remains a major challenge, which is why the SPCA hopes to establish a coalition with the Blantyre Police, City Assembly and the Malawi Veterinarian Association to create an authority to actively seek out and eliminate animal abuses.
“At first people thought it was a joke when I started speaking about animal rights,” Dr. Kandawire admits. And understandably so. “Bear in mind,” a spokesperson for SPCA notes, “that people don’t have enough to eat, never mind dogs.”
Despite that, there is a longstanding history of efforts to improve animal welfare in Malawi. Brown K. Soko has worked at the Blantyre Kennels since 1967. He now runs the kennel alone with his son, taking in stray dogs and feeding them food purchased with the meagre salary he makes from his dog grooming business.
Some dogs, such as Simba, a five-year resident of Blantyre Kennels, have been abused and have a tendency toward violent behaviour, which means they will not likely be adopted and will probably spend the rest of their lives in Brown’s care.
When asked why he continues to take in dogs, Brown responds with a casual smile and says, “because I love animals. No one else takes in strays; there is nowhere they can go.” A former employee of the SPCA in Salisbury, in formerly named Southern Rhodesia, Brown returned to Malawi in 1963 and committed his life to protecting and caring for animals.
The SPCA in Blantyre is admittedly off to a “slow start, but it’s better than doing nothing at all.” If the SPCA can form a coalition that holds some real authority, I’m hopeful that animal rights awareness will take hold in Malawi. And maybe a few dogs will even be adopted from Blantyre Kennels. If you’re interested visiting, you’ll likely find me there, petting the pups.