Africa, seen from a preschooler's perspective

The first thing my 3-year-old granddaughter from Taipei, Taiwan, asked was to meet some dogs. I glanced at her father, who explained, "The only animals Serena ever sees are on television."

"Fine," I said, "our South African village is full of friendly dogs. We'll do a tour."

We had hardly left our front gate when Sydney, the Airedale, came jaunting up.

"Sydney!" I exclaimed, with a great show of friendliness, whereas I normally say, "Go home, Sydney, I don't want you walking with me; you always cause trouble." The fact is, last year Sydney followed me to the Village Inn and got into a fight with the resident dog there. So the resident dog associates me with Sydney and growls when I walk by.

But now I needed Sydney to fulfill my granddaughter's request. Therefore I said, "Sydney, this is Serena: Serena, this is Sydney."

One must admire the canine nature in many ways. Sydney didn't hesitate. Putting aside all my previous rebuffs, he wagged his hindquarters and very short tail and smiled benignly.

Serena, faced with the reality, clung to my leg.

"It's OK," I said, "Sydney won't bite you. He's a very friendly dog." She reached out a tentative hand and touched Sydney lightly on top of his head. He immediately lifted his nose and licked her hand. She gave a little squeak and pulled away.

"He likes you," I said.

"But why did he lick my hand, Grandpa?"

"To show you he likes you," I replied, feeling hugely grateful to Sydney for putting on such a good show. But I added hastily, "You don't have to lick his paw - you can just pat his head."

At that point Sydney's charm overcame Serena's uncertainty and she flung her arms around his neck. Sydney accepted her affection as perfectly normal and allowed it to continue until I suggested we meet some other dogs.

Sydney indicated his willingness to guide us, but I declined his offer because dogs friendly toward humans are not always friendly toward Sydney, perhaps because of his cocky manner. I was thinking specifically of the bull terrier, Gemma.

"We are going to see Gemma now," I told Serena. "Don't be frightened if she runs out at us barking. She always does, but it doesn't mean she doesn't want to see us. It's her funny way of saying, 'Hullo, hullo, hullo! Where've you been? I haven't seen you for a long time!' I visit her every day when I go for a walk. Maybe dogs don't remember things the way elephants do. Do you see elephants on television in Taipei?"

"Oh, yes," she said, her eyes lighting up.

"Well, I'm sorry, but although this is Africa, we don't have any elephants here because...." I was about to say hunters shot them all years ago, but didn't think she needed to know this right now.

Before I could skillfully change the subject, she exclaimed, "Sheep, sheep!" And for the first time in my sojourn in this semidesert region I felt warmly toward those woolly, slow-moving, dopey-looking creatures who have played a major, though unwitting, role in the degradation of this once marvelous wilderness.

"Yes, sheep," I said. "Let's have a closer look."

As we approached, they came doe-eyed to meet us, but lost interest when they espied no fresh alfalfa and moved on out of touching distance. We watched them for a while and Serena said, "Look, there are birds sitting on their backs."

"Those are starlings," I said. "They sit on the sheep because the sheep's hooves frighten grasshoppers and things, and when they fly up, the starlings catch them."

"Are they good birds?"

"I quite like the redwing starlings because they sing nicely, but there are too many of those starlings with the white bottoms. They can't sing to save their lives, they don't belong here, and they chase away the birds that do."

But I think this explanation was too much because she said, "I'm tired of the sheep, Grandpa."

"Me too," I said, "Let's go see Gemma."

Before we could reach Gemma, however, we encountered a lone stallion in the far corner of a field. "Do you know what that is?" I asked. Serena shook her head. "That's a horse," I said.

"Can we pat the horse?"

"Well, he's a bit big." I didn't add that I had no affinity with horses anymore, not since reading "Gulliver's Travels" in which the horses are superior, vastly superior, to the humans. Foolish, I know.

"I'm not sure he'll come if I call." I said.

I called, "Horse, horse!" but he didn't stir, so I whistled. I thought he gave us a brief, disdainful look, but that could have been a preconception.

Then I had a thought: "I know a small horse called a donkey who will talk to us," I said, "especially if we give him a carrot. Let's run home and get a carrot."

The donkey is named Donk, which, although unoriginal, seems to suit his doleful look. Serena thought he was wonderful when he heehawed a welcome. He curled back his generous lips and daintily took the carrot from Serena's hand. He chomped the carrot with relish, Serena staring with fascination.

Finished, he curled his lips again and Serena said eagerly, "Let's go home for another carrot."

"It just so happens that I have another in my pocket," I said, and produced it like a conjurer, or a showoff grandfather. By the time Donk had finished the second carrot, Aska, his companion Scottish terrier, had rolled up on short legs to greet the girl from Taipei looking for real animals. Aska put on a welcome that would have persuaded the most avid TV watcher that the real thing is indeed the real thing.

Finally I said, "Let's go see Gemma and then we must go home for lunch."

Gemma, of course, did her predictable barking, and for a while Serena was unconvinced that behind her lay a friendly heart. It took a few minutes of Gemma huffing, grinning, and throwing her stocky body against our ankles to convince Serena, after which she wanted to invite Gemma home for lunch. Serena's brown eyes glowed with generosity, and I realized again how important it is to spend time with small people on a basis of equality. At the same time I felt sad that it could not be.

"I'm sorry," I said, "our cat, Culvert, doesn't like dogs; but he loves people, especially small people."

She gave me a long, puzzled look and asked, "Why doesn't Culvert like dogs?"

"I don't know," I replied. "He never tells me ... but maybe he'll tell you."

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