Our latest Notable Narrative traces relations between humans and animals in the poorest country on earth. In “The Last Vet,” which appeared in the winter 2009 issue of Granta, writer Aminatta Forna follows Dr. Gudush Jalloh, the last veterinarian in private practice in Sierra Leone, as he treats and sterilizes dogs at his Freetown clinic.
Living in London after having grown up in Sierra Leone, Forna is in many ways perfectly placed to tell Jalloh’s story, although it is also her story and the story of the dogs of this small West African country. She gives us charming images, such as newly neutered patients sleeping off anesthesia (“the paw of one lies across another, strange babies sharing a bed”), but she challenges the reader’s expectations time and again.
A childhood dog returns after a disappearance with “his hind quarters split open to the bone by an axe wound”—a wound that turns out to be less a result of malice than a reader might think. Forna elegantly shows how deeply material circumstances and history have affected the lives of Jalloh, his country and his charges.
By incorporating her debates with Jalloh on the treatment of animals in Sierra Leone and in England, Forna considers an idea they both reject: that helping animals in the midst of human suffering is somehow frivolous. As she weaves the presence of international activists and the staff of the British High Commission into her story, her essay becomes a meditation on empire and colony and an argument that what seems like sentimentality in Jalloh and his compatriots may be something else altogether.