Yesterday morning it was announced that Magawa has passed away, you know, the famous gambia hamster rat that was awarded a medal from the British veterinary organization PDSA in 2020 for his enormous commitment to humanity. Gambia ham rats have extremely good noses, which means that they can not only smell someone’s breath for tuberculosis (I’m not making this up) but also detect the chemicals in land mines. They are a kind of bomb detectors with whiskers and a tail.
Magawa was put to work in Cambodia, where at one point the soil was richer in landmines than rice, thanks to the civil war in the 1970s. He eventually cleared some 225,000 square meters of land. Children could play outside again, shepherds could pasture their flocks again, farmers were relieved that their fields would only sprout crops instead of explosions. Every news item following his death hailed that Magawa must have saved countless limbs and lives. He was the best PR for the rat since Ratatouille.
All those messages hit me. Various international media, including CNN and Reuters, called Magawa a ‘hero rat’, he was lamented extensively on the socials, but it was the way in which the NOS wrote about him that really moved me. This sentence alone: “He was born in Tanzania and went to work in Cambodia.” I’ve never seen a news outlet write that a rat was born. In that kind of wording, people usually write only about people, and very occasionally about famous domesticated animals like dressage legend Bonfire or action hero Flipper. In addition, it was also mentioned where Magawa saw the light of day, and that he then went to work in Asia, as a kind of expat. I have never come across a report in the media in which a rat was not portrayed as an animal. The NOS also told about Magawa’s old age, that he was still playful during his retirement, and what his last weekend had been like. There was a lot of loving talk about a creature for which people normally immediately call the pest control department.
I looked outside. The morning mist had lifted and I saw again the large commercial buildings that block my sun every day. There were those dark green rat traps placed every ten feet against it. They sparkled in the winter light, under commercials for cruises, meal deliveries, pet stores.
Ellen Deckwitz writes an exchange column with Marcel van Roosmalen here.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 13 January 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 13, 2022