To say I was at the end of my mental rope seems a bit exaggerated, but I definitely needed something or someone new in my life during the hot, rainy season in Senegal. Because distractions were not easy to come by in my remote village, I thought a new kitten would be just that kind of someone. Struck with an idea, I jumped on my bike and sped off towards my friend Ruth’s village, where I knew there were kittens which her family would be only too happy to give me. Picking one out who looked cute and friendly enough, I put him in a bucket, placed some mosquito netting over the top, strapped it securely to the back of my bike, and sped the 17 km journey back to my own village with my new friend riding along behind.
When we got back, I showed my host siblings my kitten and none of them seemed to be very impressed by the new addition to our family. Not cat people, I shrugged, and brought the kitten into my hut. I had made up a little box for the kitten with grasses and an old t-shirt and put the box outside my hut door in my backyard. The only thing separating my backyard from a cornfield, the compound of my host family, and my host mother’s vegetable garden was a grass fence filled with holes for rats to get in and kittens to get out. This didn’t strike me as a problem until night fell.
I was congratulating myself on having thought of the kitten, as he was snuggled on my lap while I read my book by headlamp before going to sleep. I could see this becoming a routine for us, until it came time for us to go to each of our own beds, his outside my door in the box and mine in my hut. He did not like this arrangement. As soon as I deposited him outside, he began to yowl and quickly scampered back inside and jumped on my bed with me.
Growing up on the ranch, I was raised with the firm belief that animals do not belong in a human’s bed, no matter how much we love them. Unfortunately, my little kitten did not hold the same belief. Time after time I took him outside, he would begin to piteously meow and run back inside.
By this time, I was getting very tired and knew that I had a long day of planting the next day. I was also growing tired of the kitten that this very evening I had been so happy to have as my newest companion. I decided to lock him outside and hope that he stayed in the not very enclosed enclosure of my backyard. How far could he go? I thought to myself.
Two things then happened after I closed the door to my hut that would prove this to be my worst decision yet:
First, the door to my hut was my only source of air. In the muggy heat of rainy season, without the open door, I began to swelter inside my hut. The kitten also did not take kindly to this newest situation and yowled incessantly outside my closed hut door. While lying there, closing my eyes, wiping sweat from my face and trying to ignore the kitten and the sweat angel beginning to form beneath me, the second thing happened which could not be so easily ignored.
I heard a deeper yowl. One that sounded much more menacing and had not come from my kitten. I sat bolt upright in bed and listened again. The kitten had stopped mewing, but above me, I heard the deep-throated yowl again and to my terror it was coming from directly above me. I heard a scratching of thatch as whatever creature it was that had now identified my kitten as a snack prowled across my hut roof.
I shot out of bed, opened the door, grabbed my kitten, and quickly slammed the door. I put the kitten down and stumbled around until I located my headlamp. The growling had stopped, so I went outside and shined my headlamp all around. I could see nothing. Maybe I had scared whatever it was away when I closed the door. Even so, I wasn’t about to put the kitten outside.
I sighed. My situation had become far worse than I ever expected. Now, not only was I uncomfortably hot and sweaty because I could no longer open the door, I also had a furry body curled up next to me in my bed! This was not turning out to be the easy companionship I had imagined mere hours before. After two or three minutes of severe sweating, cursing, and pushing the kitten off of me, I couldn’t take it anymore. I bolted up for the second time and opened the door. I gasped in the fresh, if not particularly cool, night air and decided on my third, and final tactic.
I would sleep with the door open, with the kitten tucked into the crook of my arm. I was desperate. I needed sleep and this seemed like the only way. The kitten had other plans though. Every time I put it on the bed with me, it would jump off and run around my hut. I heard the scratching again on the roof. No! The damn thing was still there, I thought, wildly launching myself from bed again, lunging for my kitten and pinning him to my side on the bed. He mewed in protest.
“Ssshhhh, sshhh. You stupid animal,” I said to the kitten. “Do you want me to throw you out to whatever forest creature is out there lurking on my roof? Be quiet!”
I tucked him into the crook of my arm and closed my eyes, this time in disbelief at the hell I had brought upon myself. Before I knew how or what was happening, what felt like a monstrous weight covered in hair, settled itself onto my chest. This was not the kitten. It was the creature from outside. I’m fairly sure my brain stopped for a moment in stunned horror, but only for a moment before I threw myself out of bed choking on a gasp that was a scream too scared to come out. I stumbled around in the blackness groping for something to bash it with. I saw it dart out the door and I grabbed my headlamp. I shined it around until I saw the creature from the night back atop my thatch roof. It was a huge, mangy Tom cat. Not completely the monster from my imagination, but still a knarly old thing and I shuddered to think he had just been sitting on my chest.
“Acha, Acha, Acha,” I scream whispered at him, until he fled over the back of my fence and into the cornfield.
Needless to say, I stayed with the door closed for the entire night and didn’t sleep at all. In the morning, before going to the field, I put the bucket back on my bike, placed the kitten inside, and strapped the mosquito netting over the top.
Mumbling something to my family about the kitten not working out, I pedalled quickly to Ruth’s compound. When they heard and saw a mewing bucket on the back of my bike, all of the women stopped what they were doing, put their hands on their knees, and laughed like I’d never seen them laugh before.
I shamefully undid mosquito netting and put the kitten down. “I guess I’m not a cat person after all,” I said to Ruth, “But damn, do I have a story to tell you…”