J. is an LGBT asylum seeker from Namibia currently detained in California

“Boy with his dog,” by Louise Nienaber (2011). Charcoal and pastel on Fabriano. Source: SketchedOut

I come from the Kavango tribe. It is an agricultural and fishing tribe settled along the Kavango river in what is today northeastern Namibia. The tribe is divided into five groups, each with its own language. I speak Kwangali.

Childhood in Kavango is pretty interesting. It had all of the elements of a drama and those of a comedy all at the same time.

The language I speak, Kwangali, is not one of the African languages that you’d hear about, those famous for click sounds. Or at least not more than five percent of the words of the language have a click. (Click sounds are made by placing your tongue on the roof of the mouth and then making a tiny but audible explosion by making air with the side of the tongue. It’s pretty complicated but basically a click is a letter and it’s related to the “I” or “D” sounds.) You can have an entire conversation in Kwangali without a single click sound and this is not the case for languages famous for click sounds.

In Kavango the famous click sound you’d hear is when you call or summon your dog. This is in addition to the universal whistling.

Kavango kids, just as other kids, are fans of dogs. I am no exception being what they called a zoba, which is a slang for nerd or geek. I needed a loyal companion who would never judge me.

Our neighborhood growing up was called Tutungeni. It means “let’s build” in Kwangali. It was sort of government subsidized housing for families and in African standards these were suburbs. There was dispiriting economic struggle still evident. For anyone that may have fallen to a lower economic class than Tutungeni, however, it could have been worse and some perceived this neighborhood as lucrative for theft of anything at all, no matter how minuscule or how hard to find a buyer for it.

As a kid growing up I was fortunate enough to have a dog. I guess they were pretty easy to get, they were quite common, really… girl dog visited by a bunch of boy dogs, girl dog gains weight… girl dog has puppies, and a diversity of them too, and then, “yey,” kid, me — gets a puppy. I could only get one, not because of more being too big of a task for a kid, though, it was based on the economic ability to feed more than just one dog.

So, at age 8, happy with this one dog, I bonded with him — a boy dog. I named him after a cartoon character (don’t ask). We’d go swimming in the mukuro, or river, with the other kids and do a lot of other stuff.

My neighborhood could be volatile. It was a scary place for me at times and for various reasons too, but here in particular some kids our age were desperate for a way to pass time like having a human punching bag; I’m talking about bullies.

So being a **zoba, **an outcast or nerd, I was a pretty good bully magnet — did I mention I named my dog after a cartoon character? I was pretty different. I was sensitive, even delicate at times. I really couldn’t rely on any ability to **rwana, **fight, or **duka, **run.

So anyway, I had a dog and it was a perfect union. But let’s go back to the thieves that targeted our neighborhoods. Thieving was rampant and there were house break-ins at times. I was in 3rd grade at age 9 or 10, and my puppy was a fully-grown adult dog by the end of that year. Now, you might think having a grown dog could be a benefit for a house that might be a target for thieves; like you might think, okay, if thieves come to the house, the dog will bark, the thieves will get scared away and they’ll go home or try another place… No!

From what I was told — it was relayed to me by the grown-ups, they were usually up that late and not I — my dog was ecstatic to meet these strangers. The dog reacted a way a dog does when it sees its owners come home after being away for a while. “Ku hamberera,” or rejoicefully and jubilantly welcome, was a term used to describe how my dog used to respond. To say these strangers were well-received by my dog is an understatement, wagging its tail and all.

Mine was not really a dog you could find huguwara, or reliability, in. He’d spend afternoons chasing cars tirelessly. He was especially attracted to old models and vintage cars. Other dogs chased cats or their own tails, but not so much this dog. I loved him, but he was hard to defend at times, like if people went, “Hey, young boy, why does your dog do that; why does it not do this like other dogs?” I wish I could defend his honor or my dog’s “good name” but let’s be realistic, the dog was called a walking joke.

But who am I to judge? And that’s the funny part. My dog was as non-conforming as I was. Only, he didn’t get reminded of his being different brutally from left to right — I did.

I had faith in my dog. I always knew he had a hero in him. He was just not … how does one say, he was not that kind of dog. He was a companion dog, mostly, and that was more than I could ask for. As far as expectations are concerned, he did not exhibit his full potential.

But everybody can redeem themselves, and yes, even dogs.

Now back to the nerd boy. If I ever was famous as a kid, it was, well, for seemingly intentionally inviting beatings by not being like everybody else, or at least for not being like other va mati, or boys.

When we were younger, the kids used to have a slang for someone who was there or showed up after being threatened by a bully, a “stand by.” A stand by was someone usually bigger and stronger, and possibly older, than the bully and could easily take on the bully. It was someone someplace, perhaps at home, who was ready or prepared to respond to a bully at almost any given time, hence stand… by. He was on stand-by, in case something happened to you resulting from a bully.

Bullies did not mess with anyone with a good “stand by.” For most, this was a family relation; an older brother or a male cousin, a family friend, or your father’s younger brother, your uncle, was particularly favored. I did not have a “stand by.” I had troubles with my older brothers too.

There was one kid near my neighborhood who used to mess with me a lot. It was pretty serious; I had a bleeding skull one day from an attack with rocks when I was walking by myself in the street. He was relentless. He was never satisfied. If I was with someone, he would look at me coldly not saying a word. Almost as if saying, “YOU KNOW!”

He would never do anything if someone was there that could express disapproval. So, he’d wait until it was just me and him, or just kids, around.

One day, I was walking east on my street, and the boy was headed west. My dog was with me that day, and the boy and I could see each other as we approached each other. The boy saw that I was alone, that is if you don’t count my dog. He knew that this was one of the opportunities he had been waiting for. He walked towards me. Hostility in the air, not a word said or a weapon, if any, drawn. At five feet’s distance from each other, as if merely walking past each other, the boy’s intense stare was disrupted by a ferocious, “RRRRH!”

What? Was that my dog?

It was to my surprise and astonishment. He picked up on the hostility, he sensed something was going to happen, even without any verbal or physical gestures by the boy. I was baffled. How did he make that calculation? For all I know, that was too complex a situation for him to understand, without knowing the prior incidents with me and the boy and all.

I didn’t know my dog could be wugara, or aggressive. I was so proud of him. He could tell something that was up and he wouldn’t have it. He wouldn’t tolerate me getting hit. It was a nice surprise.

On that day, I had a “stand by.”

J. shared his story with Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) by mail to be published in IMM Print. To learn more about immigrant prisons and to support people in detention, visit endisolation.org.

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