Meet Nikita. I came to be her proud owner during a trip to one of the many remote rural communities which I would visit as a delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Colombia. One community member revealed during an informal chat (so important for building trust and being able to reach out to people) that he raised guinea pigs and rabbits. When he saw my excitement, he disappeared for a few seconds, amd returned-with Nikita as a gift.
Nikita’s first days were turbulent as she had to endure a 3 day field trip in a box, shaken about on bumpy rural roads in a hot lamdcruiser and exposed to the jokes by the driver and communications officer about how they would eat her (Colombians do raise guinea pigs for consumption). It was also them who named her.
I used to wonder why aid workers opt to have pets, even on short missions. True, Nikita’s part in my life came about more by accident, but I would be fibbing if I said that this gift caused me stress. Far from it. And I was not alone in having a pet on mission.
In Jalalabad, too, we had had a cat at the guest house. She was appropriated by a French colleague and friend who justified his ownership due to her arrival on his birthday. (In reality, it was only because his room was closest to the door that the guards decided to drop “le chat”,as she was called, off in his room and not somewhere else). Most of us loved her. The day when the ICRC surgeon came round to ensure she could no longer procreate went down in history; and even those who pretended not to care about her wondered where she was when she wandered off to explore her environs for more than one day at a time.Tough, ex-military lads.Go figure.
Sometimes pet arrangements could be bewildering or unusual. One of my friends failed to realise his dog was pregnant until she turned up after 2 days in hiding with two very cute puppies who rapidly found loving new homes in the same way that Le chat’s offspring did; in our guest house in Jalabad, we had a monkey at one stage as well. She was a sexist creature-only liked men, was jealous of women – and had to be given away when she bit the nose of a senior member of another UN agency during a visit to our guest house.
Perhaps having a pet gives aid workers a sense of normalcy in an otherwise unsettling, in many ways troubling life. I know that my time in Saravena, Colombia, would have been much darker without Nikita and expect it is the same for many aid workers (which is why some even spend money on shipping their newly found pets home at the end of their mission). Nikita was my only company throughout Christmas of 2008 when my boss (with whom I shared a house) was away. She would sit with me as I read or listened to music in my hammock, and was treated to episode after episode of “Friends”. When I fell ill and spent many days in pain, Nikita was there; hearing the scratching of her little feet against her coconut shell, thinking about how I could treat her to a piece of cucumber or carrot, even having to chase her out from under the bed each morning so she could be safe in her cage while I was at work, was a wonderful way of having a life away from my routine; a routine that consisted of interviewing victims of conflict, hearing their harrowing stories and fighting to make a difference in their lives.
Perhaps in a in a topsy-turvey, troubled world where no normal daily routine exists, a pet provides a distraction, a focus and a sense of making a difference to one creature at least. This is comforting when there are so many others for whom you can do nothing.