Just before going to Lomé at the end of January 1997, I noticed a very young little black hen in our yard one morning. She had two broken legs and couldn’t move. No one in my family owned a chicken, and it didn’t seem to belong to any of the neighbors as no one came looking for it.

Animals for the most part run free in the village. Most Togolese don’t have money for fencing. The free-roaming animals eat up any scrap of anything even remotely edible that is dropped anywhere, and things are dropped everywhere. It’s the custom for people to eat outside in the yard, as the tin roofed houses have the ambience of an oven. They drop bones on the ground, and during food preparation the women drop peels and kitchen garbage on the ground. Pygmy goats and occasional ducks or chickens which wandered through our yard would eat some of these scraps. Villagers don’t have money for animal vaccinations, much less for animal feed, so for the animals it was eat everyone’s garbage or eat nothing.

Every morning the first chore of the day was for the women to go out and sweep the dirt in the yard with their African brooms with no handle. Whatever trash and food scraps dropped in the yard which hadn’t been eaten by passing foraging animals the day before was swept up and thrown in the field across the street. People would then start again dropping kitchen trash and all other garbage in the yard all day long, and the dirt would get swept once a day first thing in the morning.

Since there were no fences in this village, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see a chicken in our yard. No one came looking for it because people didn’t seem to keep track of their animals unless perhaps they were about to become dinner. None of the people who passed through our yard paid any attention to it at all. If it were diseased, that would be prudent. I overcame my initial desire to help the injured creature and asked Colette, my host mother, what happened to the little black hen.

“Did she get hit by a car?”

Colette shrugged.

If it had gotten hit by a car, it probably would have ended up closer to the road because no one would have touched it. But from the way it looked, that seemed to be the most logical explanation.

“What happened to it?”

“I don’t know, Da Marie.”

I couldn’t understand why no one would made any attempt to care for the animal. After all, a small amount of care would enable the chicken to live long enough to grow a little more and make a better meal. At any rate, I wasn’t going to ignore an injured animal in the yard, so I approached the hen to see how bad her injuries were.

Other than being unable to walk, the chicken seemed to be in good health. She was not bleeding, she was alert, and her feathers were in reasonably good condition. She was small, as most village chickens are, and looked to be less than a year old. I observed the hapless immobile creature over the course of the morning. No one fed her or made any attempt to care for her. I couldn’t bear witnessing the chicken’s slow death by starvation and dehydration, so by mid-afternoon I started to care for it. Fortunately she was in the shade so I didn’t have to deal with moving an injured animal. I brought her some instant oatmeal that I had bought from the little store nearby a few days ago for breakfast and some water in a washed-out tomato paste can. The chicken drank eagerly and pecked at the oatmeal with good appetite after her initial apprehension at my approach. I continued to feed her and brought her water several times more throughout the day, much to the amusement of my African family.

If the hen had been hit by a car or mauled, she might have internal injuries and not survive, but if all it needed was a little care and feeding, I didn’t mind doing it. If it did survive, it would no doubt hang around my house because I would continue feeding it. However, I didn’t want to be accused of stealing it at some point by a jealous neighbor who decided he wanted it after I had gotten the chicken fat and healthy. No one knew whose chicken it was, but with my care I could foresee the chicken becoming a bone of contention. I thought it wise to get some local legal advice. The next day the village chief strolled by our yard, as he often did. My African host father was one of his cronies.

“Chief, ” I said, “this chicken here has two broken legs and can’t walk. No one knows who is the owner. No one has come to claim it. But also, no one will feed it, and it will die because it can’t walk or find its own food. I don’t want this chicken to die if it can be saved, but I am afraid that if I save it, one day someone will come to you and say ‘Da Marie has my chicken!’ If I save it, can it be mine?”

“If you want to go to the trouble, it can be considered yours, and everyone will know that you did not steal it,” the chief replied.

Great! My chicken custody problem resolved, I left for Lomé the following day, asking Colette to take care of my chicken and not to let it die in my absence. When I returned a few days later, the little black hen was a little more lively and could even move a little. After about a week, she was walking with a limp. Now, one month later, she has a crook in each leg but gets around fine. I continue to toss the little black hen some oatmeal whenever I see her, and she is always there in the yard in the morning when I get up.

In the village there is a little three-year-old girl, Giselle, daughter of Nadange, a friend of one of our neighbors. Nadange would always stop by to say hello to me on her way to visit the neighbor, and Giselle would always hide behind her back in terror. Although most Togolese children are friendly and curious about white people and some get very excited like you were a celebrity, there are a few who are terrified. We probably look like we should be dead, as pale as we are.

At any rate, Giselle was always so afraid of me I never even got her to talk to me like the other kids. Nadange stopped by one morning, with Giselle hiding behind her skirt as usual. Nadange grinned as she told me that when Giselle saw a black chicken a few days ago on the other side of the village, she asked, “mama, is that Da Marie’s chicken?” Every black chicken Giselle sees is now “Da Marie’s chicken.”

A week or so later, I went on a trip to Lomé for a few days. When I got back, I didn’t see the little black hen. The next morning, she didn’t come around for her oatmeal. Nor in the afternoon, the evening, nor the next day. I asked Colette if she had seen the chicken or if she knew what happened to it.

“Oh, Da Marie, it died.”

I felt a momentary twinge of sadness. It was fun having the little black hen around, but Africa is a tough place for animals and people to survive. I’m sure the little black hen did die, but thinking about it now, I bet she ended up in someone’s cookpot.

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