Seeking native stock in Zaire, U.S.
breeders discover dogs of exceptional
A Basenji Safari
BY DAMARA BOLTE
Thirty years ago,
Veronica Tudor Williams, premier English breeder (of the Congo suffix)
and author of Basenjis, The Barkless Dog, visited the Sudan and
returned with a Basenji puppy named Fula
of the Congo. Approximately 14 individuals make up the gene
pool of today's Basenji, and over time several health problems have
emerged. With this in mind, fanciers of the breed have talked about
acquiring more native stock from Africa, which is logical but difficult
to do. Then, about ten years, Jon Curby, a Basenji Club of America past
president and dedicated breeder, started looking into the idea and
gathering information on pursuing the plan. Finally, in February 1987,
Jon Curby and Mike Work, another Basenji breeder, returned from Zaire,
enormously enthusiastic—with seven Basenji puppies.
During December of 1987, while I was speaking with Jon, he
mentioned the possibility of taking another trip to Zaire to find
Basenji. My ears perked up when he asked, "Why don't you come?"
Well, why not? The more I thought about it the more excited
I became. So, Jon, Stan Carter—a veterinarian and Basenji
breeder, and I were ready to depart on March 2, 1988, for Zaire.
Because we had only 12 days for the round trip, we could spend little
time for visiting, concentrating instead on our primary mission of
Jon had located an area called
"the land of Basenjis," contacted Uele Safaris, and mapped out where we
should look. He also advised us about what clothes, equipment, money,
items of trade, and extra edibles we should bring. I had never packed
such a casual wardrobe to travel; it was all L.L Bean: light-weight
slacks, camp shirts, socks and sneakers. But we were to spend five days
in the hot, humid, dusty bush with no bathroom and little water.
Jon also provided us with background information on Zaire:
Once called the Belgian Congo, Zaire has dropped all reminders of
colonial times. The Congo river is now called the Zaire, the people are
Zairois, the money is Zaires (about 150 to the U.S. dollar), the
military president is Mobutu, and the climate is hot.
So off we flew from Washington to Paris, then on to
Libraville, Gabon and finally Kinshasa, Zaire's capital. Gotz Von Vild
in Kinshasa and John Valk, our guide and interpreter in Isiro made all
of our arrangements. Along with the owner, Mr. Saro Albertini, these
gentlemen comprise Uele Safaris. I recommend being met and escorted by
local individuals who are knowledgeable about the country.
On our first day we toured Kinshasa before leaving for Isiro
the following day. We flew 1,000 miles north over endless rain forests
to reach the Haut-Zaire. the great, mysterious Zaire river wound its
way through the dense brush below.
Once in Isiro,
John Valk eased our way through security and passport checks, and we
spent a pleasant evening at his home talking, then repacking for our
early morning departure.
From Isiro, we drove 250
kilometers north through Rungu and Doruma in the direction of the
Sudan, making camp 11 hours later. John Valk handled the Toyota
Landcruiser expertly over the dusty roads, winding to avoid "potholes."
Excitedly, we watched for glimpeses of Basenjis. Albert, the cook, and
Jeff, the mechanic, followed with camping gear and supplies in another
The Zairois are handsome, moderate in
stature, fit and erest. The entire population travels on foot, the
women walking with great loads balanced on their heads.
The soil is usually an iron-rich red, and the foliage that
lines the roadside is lush and green. The palm trees provide nuts for
oil, leaves for shelter, wood, food, and plenty of shade. Bananas grow
in abundance as do mangos, plantains, papayas and pineapples. Although
the land is so fertile and climate so warm, poverty and poor nutrition
is prevailent. The staple is manioc root which can be prepared in many
ways: the leaves are like spinach and the tuberous roots are
potato-like and are boiled or made into flour. Rice and wheat are
imported, but peanuts, corn and coffee grow there, and chickens are
everywhere. Fishing and hunting provide a welcome supplement. The usual
method of hunting is to use the Basenjis as beaters to drive the game
into nets which have been strategically placed. During the hunt, the
barkles dogs are equipped with a bell made from the nut of the borasus
palm. The clapper is made of monkey bones or sticks and its sound helps
to frighten the game and to locate the dogs.
are used in hunting to drive the game into nets which have
been strategically placed, and the barkless
dogs are equipped with a bell.
The Bell used during the hunt is made
from the nut of the borasus palm,
and the clapper is made of monkey
bones or sticks. The sound helps
frighten the game and locate the dog.
Photo: Michael Work
The Land of Basenjis!
How often in the last 33 years I have read Veronica Tudor
Williams' account of her adventures and dreamed of the possibilities,
without visualizing it as it really is. Now we were there, searching
for Basenjis as we bounced and lurched along. We quickly learned to
shout "Stop!" whenever we spied a dog. Even though we had come to see
these dogs in their native habitat, it was exhilarating to actually
The dogs we saw were in suprisingly
good condition considering their resident fleas and worms and their
nicks and scratches. Theirs is not an easy life. Puppies are weaned
very young, dams having little milk to give. The adult dogs fend for
themselves and are generally in good shape. These native dogs live
symbiotically with their masters; each part of the other's life. They
share the fire, the hut, the hunt and the food. Although we saw little
petting of dogs, there is a strong bond between man and dog.
Azande woman with her Basenji
the bush near her hut.
The dogs were in suprisingly good
condition and some of excellent quality.
Photo: Damara Bolte
Coats of Many Colors
In five days and 800 kilometers of driving, we saw at least
200 dogs of which only three were not Basenjis. We spotted Basenjis of
various types and sizes in very remote pockets, individual dogs of
exceptional quality. However, on the whole, we probably witnessed less
diversity in the type and quality and way of going than one might see
at a national specialty.
The color variants
intrigued us, most notably the tiger-striped brindle (Miss Tudor
Williams wrote enthusiastically of the brindle color, stating that it
was a true African color, and that the Basenji Club was dedicated to
preserving the breed as it is in Africa. Although she was on the board
of the Basenji Club of Great Britain and seemed to be pro tiger-striped
brindle, she did not explain why this color was excluded). We saw a
grizzle color with tan mask, as seen in Salukis, and many of what in
Corgis are called red-headed tris. There were individuals of all three
colors: red, brindle and tri-color, open marked with white.
From what we could determine through our interpreter, the
natives make no effort to mate a bitch to a specific dog. The breed has
remained pure due to lack of a contamination source. In towns or other
areas where Europeans may have brought over other breeds, there is
evidence of loss of type which may result from crosses. In remote,
isolated areas where there has been no opportunity for cross breeding,
the type has endured and surely those who survived were the fittest.
It is a wonderful feeling to see these little dogs in their
natural setting. They are not confined or restricted in any way. Adults
were interested but cautious and knew that we did not look, smell or
sound right. The puppies would come up to us in a most engaging manner.
The lack of aggressiveness of thse dogs was interesting, especially
when one is familiar with their less than passive temperament in the
U.S. When the natives showed them to us, they mingled with each other
with a minimium of mutterings. One morning I was given a present of
chicken and it was placed on the ground with its feet tied together. No
puppy or dog heeded it and of course the chicken was quiet, not wishing
to draw any attention to its precarious situation.
Our selection of puppies was limited to what was available. We wanted
pups about eight to ten weeks old and did find five that appealed to
us, from five different litters and from different areas. Two were tri
males (Wele), one a lightly brindled male and two were red
bitches (K'posi). The sixth,
from a very remote area, a lovely tiger-striped brindle
bitch, may be seven months old. However, our last acquisition
might be the jackpot; a red bitch
in whelp. She is of excellent type, with a super curled tail and the
dam of two handsome yearling sons. After several hours of bumping
contentedly on the back seat, she gave birth the next morning to six
puppies (Renzi, Nabodio, and Elly). Mother and babies, and the
other pups made the complicated journey back to the U.S. in better
shape than we did.
Our experience with the puppies
we bought was equally surprising. They were amenable, uncomplaining,
and incredibly adaptable. They learned almost immediately to walk on
lead, were not carsick or airsick, ate voraciously, drank well, were
clean in their crates, and responded to fondling. They were and still
are reluctant to go outside in the dark—an undeniable
survival skill in Africa.
We are pleased with our
"souvenirs" and relieved to have completed our mission so successfully.
Time—and the conscientious and cooperative efforts of
dedicated breeders—will tell if these individuals from
Haut-Zaire will make a positive contribution to the future of Basenjis.