I was going through a really difficult time when I met Smiley. I was on my way to town to donate blood before doing something that would be past the return point, I had tried twice, which ' obviously ' fail.
I drove thousands of times past this shelter kennel and never took notice of it until, somehow, I found myself turning into the parking lot and ringing the gate. The lady welcomed me and asked me if I was looking for a cat or a dog, and instinctively, I said ' dog '. I dreamt for many years of having a dog but with the nature of my job ( which include working in African Natural Reserves with wildlife ) and moving a lot back and forth, it wasn't possible. Besides, we were still in the first Covid-19 wave, I was from Belgium, stuck in South Africa, where I used to live, but I wanted to go home, so what would I do with a dog?
But we were 7 months into the first wave, my husband had left me for good just before the first confinement which in South Africa, happened to be on my birthday day and I was left alone, with my two horses, on a farm. We were lucky to have such a vast space during this time, but I couldn't get over what had happened to me and despite all the efforts, including pills and talking to someone, I was just ready, to go.
This lady is now talking to me about life and Covid ( At that time we were allowed to go to a shop but obviously, someone had just decided to stop at the rescue kennel ), while we are walking to the first cage.
And there he was, Smiley.
Two paws leaning against the gate, tail wagging and a beautiful smile on his face, he was the most beautiful pitbull I had ever seen, with a distinct and perfect white square on one his flank.
Although seeing that I had locked my eyes to a fully grown Pitbull, the lady kindly took me past all the other cages which were sadly full of pure breeds like black Labradors, Boerboels, ChowChows and Ridgebacks as well as various sorts of smaller breeds. There were tiny pups, not even ready to be weaned, young and senior dogs. To make it short, there could have been twenty different people of different ages and need at the kennel, and everyone would have found his perfect partner.
After the walk about, I asked if I could meet this white and brown Pitbull who was at that time called ' Boet ' and asked what was his story.
' We found him roaming in the streets and actually today marks seven days of his arrival and this is his first day up for adoption ', as she opened the door and unleashed the dog.
Happy to be free, Smiley, sorry Boet, ran in the garden and tried to greet some of the other dogs, who weren't as happy to say hi, sniffed and ran again to finally, come over to the Kennel Lady.
' He is a really good boy, not agressive and very sweet but he is a Pibull '
' Can I take him now ? ' - It had just come out
That was the moment I realized what I had been doing and for a second, I stepped back. It only lasted a fraction of a second before I looked down at him and him and me, and just knew, that this dog would come home with me.
That evening, I was driving on my way to the farm, with a Pitbull seating next to me, looking out of the window, with his cheeks flopping in the wind. This was the wildest thing I had ever done, and the best decision I had ever taken.
It's difficult to understand but from that day on, the thought of harming myself just vanished.
I was living with an amazing woman who owned the farm, cows, sheep, horses and a pack of dogs. She had always told me that she would never have a Pitbull and that day, when I phoned her asking for permission, I remember her taking a deep breath over the phone and say: ' let's give him a chance ' . Actually, on that day, I was pulled over on my way to the nearest shop to buy a collar and a leash for a dog I had just met , and got given a ticket for being on the phone behind the wheel. I want to believe that she heard, the surge of life and excitement that I had lost, and loving me, went against everything she knew, to trust me, with a pitbull we knew nothing about. The only sentence I had to tell her was : He is a good boy, I know it.
Her and I knew each other for so long, and she had seen how I had chosen one of the dangerous horse, 17hh of power and decided that he was to be mine, and had successfully turned him into the most gentle of all gentle giants. Sometimes, there just need to be a feeling to spark an amazing adventure.
A month later, the papers are signed and Smiley is part of a pack of dogs, having the time of his life on the farm, going horse riding, teaching trick, herding cattle and sheep, and he hasn't put a paw out of line, 100% focused on me. Hasn't bitten, or even threatened to bite, learnt what peanut butter was and the feeling of sleeping on a pillow. We directly , he had the best recall that I had ever seen and was protective when needed, and the most fun and loving dog the rest of the time.
We are now 8 month into the first wave and everything is slowly opening up again. I'm slowly winning the battle against depression and I'm getting physically stronger. I started to eat again, I gym, trained my horses and spent the entire time outside, with my best friend, to end up exhausted after a fun day on the farm, cuddling my rescue baby.
Covid had taken my job opportunity, my husband and I were about to sign the contract when Covid hit and a few days later, he had left. My world was far from making sense but I knew that I had to put myself out there and slowly started to look for a job, now that I had a best friend to take care of, and horses which were slowly working on my saving account.
Within a week, the company I work with now, had contacted me and wanted to send me to DRC, on the border with South Sudan. It was such an exciting opportunity but I had to think for the both of us and required that my dog was part of the plan, which they agreed, without hesitations.
Three weeks later and 8 month after a proper dumping ( he eventually came back to me but I refused to give him another chance for everything he had told me ) , I was sitting on a plane, flying to new horizons, having a futur and weaning off the meds. Smiley, who had to go through quarantine and vet checks, was going to fly a little bit later and meet me in Uganda, all was set.
It felt like an eternity before I finally met him on the other side. He had to fly to Addis and then to Uganda. Unfortunately, I couldn't cross the border at the time, so our trusted taxi driver had driven him from the capital of Uganda to the DRC border, a 8hour journey, to meet me on the other side.
The moment he came out of his travel kennel will for ever be in my heart.
I was waiting for him in a small hotel ( who had given me permission to have my dog there ) on the DRC side. Technically the border crossing wasn't a big effort, he had to physically walk it and be declared. The company I was working for was known around the area and I had already talked to them about the special package who had to arrive.
To put in into context, having a dog is not common in Eastern and Central Africa, and Smiley, over the time, became quite popular at the border post, meeting everyone with a big lick.
He, without a trouble, walked through the border and was driven to my hotel. The reunion was amazing, I thought he had forgotten me but I couldn't have been more wrong.
From then on, we lived in the African bush, in DRC together against the world. We explored that unknown area, had fun, flew planes and he was even allowed to come to work with me. I used to manage a lodge and this was the perfect place for him. He became part of the lodge family, spoilt by the kitchen and the King of the never-ending garden. He was never on a leash and used to sleep in my office in hot days and create trouble with the baboon clan on others, if not enjoying the hot African sun. When exploring ( for work ), we used to drive the 4x4 safaris vehicle into the reserve and spend the night under the same mosquito net, surrounded by armed guards and nature with no one else around. He was on the front seat when I was driving and a step ahead of me when we walked through the tall grasses.
There used to be a small guest house where we used to go on a date, him and I. At first, people were very scared of him and didn't understand how I could treat an ' animal ' this way, but eventually, he was allowed on the terrasse with me and was always offered some goat and rice. He was the star of the station, everyone wanted to pet him, take pictures with him or throw him a ball that he'd love to fetch and bring back. He was loved and taught so many people ( expatriates and locals ) what it was like to have a dog, but most importantly, how amazing Pibulls were.
We had the best time together and he came in handy a few times for my safety, never attacking, but persuading the wrongers to not go with what they had planned. After all, I was a 26 years old white woman, far away from home.
I'll always remember the day he saw for the first time elephants. After work, we used to go on a 4-5km run and bicycle ride. One evening, when we arrived back home, the house was surrounded by elephants bulls. His first reaction ? Walk forward and put himself in between the elephants and I. That simple movement, although he wasn't proud, marked our presence to the elephants, and they passively walked along.
Smiley met many other animals, he befriended a rescued baboon, saw hyenas, walked into jackals. Met elephants and off course the so common hippos every night, never showing agression ( except for squirrels .. )
Life in DRC was great, but malaria was very common and I eventually got sick. For one week, he laid by me, on the bed, waiting for me to get better and the first day we went on a short walk, feeling weak, I sat down on the road. Instinctively, he came to leak my face, turned around and sat, on my feet, guarding around until I found the strength the carry on.
During this period, I was still weaning off the anti-depressants, and adding to a difficult work, I had moments of sadness. Every time, he would rush to me, leak my face, push my hands out of my face to force me to look at him.
He was a natural support dog, the perfect companion.
Time came to go on off days, when I wanted to go back home , in Belgium . But I couldn't take him with me, for the three months quarantine that he had to go through to enter Europe. So I looked, I knew that Uganda had a lot of expatriates and I couldn't be the only one with a dog. And I eventually found them, I couple who ran a dog Holliday center and horse stables.
This was not a kennel but an amazing place where all dogs would roam together in huge enclosures ( or solitary if not social ) full of old sofas, toys and water sprinklers. Be fed twice a day with a bone in extra for the good boys. They were also taken twice on group walks or went for a swim in the Nile River. To sum it up, Smiley , who was always with me, and struggled with separation, had absolutely no problems jumping into the lady's arms and meet his friends he had made over the few times he had gone, to leave me, alone behind.
After all, although my heart was sore, I knew that he was having the time of his life. In DRC, he couldn't socialize with the K9 unit, who were the only dogs on sites and work was a serious business. So it was also a good way to keep him social and friendly and be allowed to be a normal dog.
On my last holiday, I was on my way to fetch him so that we would start traveling back to DRC, when I got the call that changed my life. Smiley was sick and I needed to get to the holiday camp as soon as I could.
Without hesitating, I called my work and told him about Smiley. They gave me a few more days off to take care of him.
I finally arrived to the camp to find him sleeping. The owners were shocked ,the vet was there, Smiley was plugged in.
I guess we will probably never know what really happened, and this is a guilt that I will have to live with for the rest of my life. Living in the bush, far from everything is amazing. But when there is a medical emergency ( whether for a human or animal ), it just sucks.
Smiley survived another week, there were five other vets who tried their hardest to understand what was going on. But without the right infrastructure, it was difficult to transport him anywhere.
He was having seizures, fevers and all sorts of other symptoms that are too traumatic for me to talk about, so we thought Canine meningitis, chemical poisoning or ... an underlying element that we didn't know about before I adopted him.
He fought so hard, my boy, and he got much better. It was a straight line to recovery as he had survived the first five days and had started to eat on his own and walk by me.The five vets were still on top of him every second hour but we were all allowed to take a deep breath.
After I saw that he was getting better, I had to take the decision to either stay with him or make my way back to work.
Unfortunately, part of traveling was to take a six seater small plane, which we used to do together, but that he wasn't ready yet to take, and we weren't sure when he would be ready as we didn't want to push our luck. So, I thought to leave him there, now that he was out of danger, so that he could recover in a great environment with the vets and the dogs. It was the hardest decision of my life and the one I will regret for ever for that he never made it back to me.
I was back to work and worked two weeks when I got the call that he had taken his last breaths, out of the blue.
I don't really remember .. But I went into what they call an emotional shock and had to be admitted to the local hospital.
He was buried, on the edge of the Nile river, with Mr Green, his favorite teddy.
It's now been three months since he crossed the bridge and I can't get myself to see pictures of him. Actually, it's taken me three months to finally have the courage to write this down and I've just got myself around it because two days ago, we should have celebrated one year since he flew to me. I can't yet speak about him, or say his name. I was too much of a coward to go to his final resting place and when I received his bag back from the Holliday camp, I didn't dare opening it to grab his collar.
Life is different without him, I still cry, often. Feeling the guilt of leaving him behind, not understanding what happened and what I have done wrong, asking myself if I will ever deserve a partner that will stay by my side. Not falling back into the old habit is a difficult challenge that I sometimes feel too big for me. I realized that he was my anchor.
I stopped talking about him to my friends and family because I don't want to overwhelm them with my sadness, but everywhere I go, every dog I meet, makes me think about him and how angry I am at myself for letting him down.
I feel guilty for feeling this way and not being able to ' get over it ' when our story only lasted a year. But I want to believe that in those 365 days, I gave him all the love I could and provided him with a great life.
I feel like my grief is endless. Despite of being surrounded by people, I feel lonely and vulnerable.
I miss his Smile, his smell and his presence.
As if Life was mad at me, I lost my heart horse two weeks ago due to a freak accident which was another big set back for my mental health.
Funny enough, I'm going to start a new adventure in another country and now, I'll be traveling with two out of three of my pets in my suitcase; my horse's cut main and Smiley's second teddy bear.