A history of beloved pets in Kenya would probably not include dogs. Dogs would feature as workers for nomadic and farming communities, but never as animals on which you lavished affection. “To the settlers, dogs ranked infinitely higher than Kenyans,” Ngugi wa Thiong’o once mused, adding, “The settlers’ real love was for dogs and puppies.” But Kenyan communities understood working dogs: they chased away hyenas and jackals that wanted to steal goats and chicken. My grandparents had working dogs. Perhaps they had names. I don’t remember. We did not spend time patting and grooming them. They were part of the working farm, integrated workers rather than beloved family members.
Except in the leafy suburbs.
Wealth in Nairobi dictates the amount of green space: whether you have a lawn, a small garden, a thorny fence, or multiple trees. Nairobi is a slope: the higher, greener parts of the city are occupied by the wealthy, while the lower, less green parts tend to be poorer. The difference is even more stark if you compare the homes of the wealthy to those of the working poor. The working poor who provide domestic labor to the wealthy often live a highway over, close enough to walk to work. In the morning, domestic workers trudge through dusty or muddy paths—depending on the weather—to cross highways to enter gated neighborhoods. In the evening, they recross the highways and trudge through dust or mud to return home.
In the 1980s, dogs were common in the leafy suburbs. You knew a house had a dog because of the sign at the gate: MBWA KALI. Often in red letters against a white background. These were guard dogs, bred to keep out undesirables. If the red on the sign pointed to the blood that would spill if you tried to enter the compound without permission, the white background invoked the history of colonialism that brought guard dogs to Kenya.
No signs ever said “fierce dog” or “angry dog” or “sharp dog” or “killer dog,” all ways to translate MBWA KALI into English. The intended audience for these signs was presumed not to speak or read English. But even if they did, class dictated that language be the same kind of insurmountable barrier as the walls themselves: English between class equals and Kiswahili to address workers. And those presumed criminal by the signs didn’t need to read English or Kiswahili: The red against the white background spoke eloquently, the same colors used on traffic signs, especially those marking STOP.
The mbwa kali were not indigenous dogs—often small and rangy, good for traveling long distances while herding cattle. Dogs in leafy suburbs were big and imported: German Shepherds and Rottweilers. The super-fancy people had Dobermans. Proud men would brag about how they imported these dogs while their wives cringed and hid nervous smiles. At other times, the men would brag that they inherited these dogs or bred puppies from former white settlers. The dogs had proven themselves against unruly Africans. What was good for the settlers was good for the African bourgeoisie.
The dogs were, inevitably, named for cats: Simba and Chui were common, Kiswahili for lion and leopard. They were caged outdoors during the day, usually in too-small spaces that made them restless and irritated. Intrepid children would admire them from a distance, but stay far away. Uncles would insist the dogs were “Very Kali!” And tell stories of how they bit so and so, often while laughing. Their wives would giggle nervously and insist that domestic workers handle the dogs.
At night, the dogs were let out of their cages—often by nervous domestic workers or hired guards (watchmen), and set to prowl the property. They were let out as the domestic workers were leaving the leafy suburbs, to mark the transition from homes filled with domestic workers to homes filled with owners and their kin. If you didn’t have a watch, you could tell it was about 6 pm by the excited barks of dogs finally let out of too-small cages. If you had guests over, the dogs would have to wait until the guests left to be let out of their cages, and they would howl in frustration. Guests smiled nervously and asked if the dogs bit. Proud men would nod while their wives giggled nervously.
Apart from my grandparents’ dogs, whose names I never knew, my earliest memories are of Rex (a German Shepherd), Simba (no clue about the breed), and Chui (a sibling to my grandparents’ dogs). My father once placed me on Rex’s back, which remains a faint echo, shaping my relationship with dogs. Despite the name, Simba was placid, perhaps bored. The good dog. Rex died when I was fairly young, so I don’t remember much about him. Chui was considered unpredictable. Not necessarily “kali,” but more kali than Simba. Perhaps it’s because he was born into a working dog family and was suited to run around cows and sheep and goats on a farm. In the leafy suburbs, he was caged and bored. Surrounded by my mother’s roses and maize, my father’s thorny fences and asphalt driveway, he wanted something else, or so I imagine.
In the 80s, we were baffled by U.S. TV shows and films in which people kept dogs as pets. Dogs in the house. Dogs on sofas. Dogs on beds. Where you slept! We understood guard dogs; chin-stroking fathers salivated over aggressive dogs that chased after criminals. “We should get one like that,” they’d pronounce. Chin-stroking fathers would acquire fierce dogs and we, their children, would call each other before heading over, “Are the dogs open? Would you please cage them so I can come over?” Like the domestic workers whose departure was marked by the fierce dogs being let out of their enclosures, we, too, would plan our activities around this time. “I’ll leave when you let out the dogs.” Or, “please let the dogs out after I leave.” Inevitably, our security measures had imprisoned us.
It felt like a rite of passage to have a story about being chased by dogs. Dogs would dig under fences or run out of open gates. Because we knew all dogs were “very kali,” we would shout and run or scream and run, and the dogs, intrigued by whatever game they imagined we were playing, would follow, barking gleefully. Or angrily. We said that dogs attacked—in retrospect, they were probably excited and trying to play. We didn’t know how to play with them.
Mbwa Kali signs marked profound class anxieties. The chin-stroking men who bragged about their “kali” animals did not necessarily like or want dogs, but men of their status had to have dogs. As they bragged about how much they had spent on their cars and alcohol and mistresses and golf, they would, at some point, brag about their very kali dogs, “imported from Germany,” or “inherited from the white man” who had left. Perhaps the dogs guarded property; more likely, they guarded class status. To have a dog, a big dog, a foreign dog, a dog that required a watchman to handle, that was status. Chin-stroking men loved fierce dogs. Their wives were usually nervous around dogs, always calling for a domestic worker or watchman or teenaged son to “hold the dog so the visitors can leave.”
Today, the Mbwa Kali signs are less frequent, though their memories linger. Instead, gates and guards and security systems have multiplied, as have the duties of domestic workers. Where my father and his friends caged up their dogs, leaving them bored and frustrated, a newer generation of home owners leave their dogs uncaged, let them into the house, and even walk them. Or, rather, they instruct their domestic workers to walk their dogs.
Domestic workers still trudge through dust and mud to cross the highways that separates the leafy suburbs from working poor neighborhoods. On arriving, some leash pet dogs and walk them through the neighborhood. These are not the Mbwa Kali from my childhood, bored and irritable, chasing after children and strangers. But they still represent the gap between the wealthy who own them and the working poor who walk them.