The Basenji Club of America African Stock Project
After more than ten years of planning and research, I finally arrived in the home of the Azande people and their Basenji dogs. Michael Work, of Sirius Basenjis, and I along with our guide John Vaulk were traveling on our way to Garamba Park which lies along the Sudanese-Zaire border and is one of the most and least visited game preserves in the world. Fewer than 250 foreigners visit the park each year.
Somewhere during the eight hour drive I recall trying to remember exactly when the idea for this trip occurred to me. It must have been 1975 at the B.C.O.A. Central Zone Specialty where Veronica Tudor-Williams judged the sweepstakes and talked of her 1959 trip to the southern Sudan. I remember thinking that her description of where she had been in the Sudan was at least a starting point, and I had always wanted to see Africa anyway.
The next several years were spent researching the geography of the area and making inquiries regarding the details of travel in the Sudan. The responses I received were not encouraging. Then in 1977, I happened to be looking through the AKC publication on foreign registrations and noticed a listing for the East African Kennel Club in Kenya. There, if anywhere, might be someone who had seen native bred Basenjis. I called their office in Nirobi, but no Basenjis were registered and they had never seen one. This was the dead end that put a trip to Africa to the back of my mind for more than a year. In 1978, for some reason, I called the E.A.K.C. again and this time they had two Basenjis registered in their stud book. The dogs had been brought out of the southern Sudan by a professional hunter and given to a dog breeder friend in Nirobi. Moreover, they had already produced a litter of five puppies that were also going to be registered.
The hunter who had obtained the dogs was then a resident of the U.S. and lived in Texas. I called him shortly thereafter and was able to determine that the dogs had come from almost the same area that Miss Tudor-Williams had found Fula and Tiger. He agreed to watch for dogs on his next trip and take photos of them for me.
About six months later I received several slides of red and brindle dogs taken that spring in the southern Sudan. My enthusiasm for getting to Africa was renewed. Final plans and arrangements were being made when the Sudanese civil war became more serious in the south. It quickly became evident that travel in southern Sudan would now be impossible.
What now? Research on the ethnography of the area shows that the Azande people who owned Basenjis in the Sudan were also the predominant tribe in northeastern Zaire. In fact, about seventy percent of the Azande live in Zaire. There was no reason to believe that there were not Basenjis wherever there were Azande.
Again, I began to develop contacts with people on the Zaire desk at the U.S. Department of State. After many phone calls and several referrals I was able to contact Mr. Gotz von Wild who is the director of a small safari company in Isiro, northeastern Zaire. Several months of corresponding by mail (which took about six weeks for my letter to reach him and his reply to arrive here) was needed to explain what we wanted to do, where we wanted to go and why we were doing it.
Finally, we had been vaccinated for everything, supplied a dozen or more passport photos to the Zairean embassy, received our visas, purchased our tickets and were on our way. We traveled from New York to Brussels and then to Kinshasa, the capitol of Zaire, stayed overnight and then continued our journey to Isiro, Haut-Zaire.
Isiro is a town that was an important agricultural center in Belgian colonial days. Although many of the old building are just shells of what they once were, they are all in use today as residences and businesses of one kind or another. The principle industry is the regional brewery which provides jobs for many of the local people. A number of Europeans operate small coffee and cotton trading companies. Isiro, by western standards, is about a hundred years behind the times. Only about two blocks of the streets are paved. Telephone and electricity are not available from 6:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m.
On Monday morning, the Toyota Landcruiser was packed and we left Isiro for Garamba Park on the Sudanese border. Traveling with us was our guide, John Valk, and a driver/mechanic, Jeff. We carried everything we needed to camp out for seven days except for food that we could buy from the local people along the way and fuel that had been left with a Greek trader several days earlier.
Travel in the bush of northeastern Zaire is extremely slow. All roads are dirt and most have not had any work done to them in twenty years or more. The distance from Isiro to Garamba Park is approximate 150 miles - a hard eight hour drive. In the rainy season, the trip could easily take twenty hours.
The difficulty of travel in that vast area between Isiro and the Sudanese border is one of the foremost reasons that the Basenji has remained as it is for so long and continued to be purebred.
About two hours before Garamba Park, we began to see some very typical Basenjis. What a relief to know that after all the planning and time we were going to see real purebred Basenjis in their native environment. A number of the first dogs we saw were puppies, which was a pleasant surprise because we had not known when Basenjis would be born in Africa.
Our first night in the bush was spent in what was left of an old Belgian guest house near the entrance to Garamba Park. There were four guest rooms, a kitchen and a common are for eating and drinking. The place was minimal at best, but it was shelter from the rain an provided a cold water showers, supplied from barrels atop a wooden platform.
Garamba Park, an immense game preserve, lies in the northeastern corner of the Azande territory. Across the river that forms the southern boundary to the park the scenery changes from woodland savannah to the rolling hills covered with savannah grass and only an occasional tree, except around streams where the fire resistant trees are more numerous.
It is interesting that the edge of the Azande area and the beginning of the open savannah coincide. The obvious reason would be that Azande hunting techniques do not work in the open grassland. The use of nets and Basenjis in the tall grass would be futile. The Azande prefer to set up a series of nets of about 300 meters total length in a horseshoe shape in the forest areas. They usually leave the nets in place for a day or two before using the Basenjis to drive the game into the enclosure to be trapped in the nets and speared.
We spent two days and three nights in the Garamba Park area watching the animals in the park and looking for Basenjis on the roads around the parameter. Along these roads we first saw what Veronica Tudor-Williams described as a "mahogany tri-color". The best comparison I can make would be to a red Doberman except with the typical Basenji white points. We saw several Basenjis with this coloration and found them to be quite attractive.
The several litters of puppies in the area made it appear that the Basenji breeding season was December and January. Almost no puppies were older than three months and many were just a few weeks old. Due to the high mortality rate among puppies in a relatively high population of Basenjis, it is difficult to tell what percentage of Basenjis in Africa are born outside the normal seasons or if there is a particular season for puppies in Africa.
Since it is generally thought that the decreasing hours of sunlight in the fall signals the beginning of the breeding season for Basenji in the U.S. and Europe, it has often been speculated that on the equator where the days are of the same length year round, a "season" for puppies does not exist.
Most puppies we saw were very difficult to evaluate because they become malnourished and dehydrated quickly when weaned and only recover if they are able to hunt small animals and birds on their own. Their lack of condition makes them appear to have very large ears and heads in proportion to the rest of their bodies. The first puppies we bought were still nursing and, therefore, in reasonably good condition. Of the six in the litter, we decided to take two tri males, a red female, and a red male. Had we known anything about the dogs we were to see later, we would have chosen only the best one or two puppies in that litter.
After completing the purchase and determining as much as we could about their pedigree and breeder, we left Garamba and headed to the northwest towards Doruma and the Sudanese border. Our first stop was in Dungu to refuel with diesel fuel that had been stored with a trader earlier. The road from Dungu that went toward Doruma did not appear on any of the maps I had seen. John Vaulk told us it was only about twenty-five years old and had been built by missionaries as an escape route should there be another rebellion such as the one that occurred in 1964 which cost hundreds of Europeans their lives. The lifestyle along that road appeared to be more primitive than any we saw on either trip. There were fewer people with western clothes and almost every man we met carried a spear. The dogs along that road were very typical and among the best we saw. Unfortunately, we did not find puppies that were of the right age, condition and type to bring back with us.
Since it became dark by 6:30 p.m., we sought to find a place to camp by early afternoon and were usually asleep by about 8:30 p.m. Our camp that night was near a chief's village at the end of an unmarked side road. John Vaulk hired several people to gather fire wood and bring water for cooking and bathing and also to be watchmen for the night. Sleeping on cots and bed rolls in the bush at that time of the year is quite pleasant as there are few insects and it rarely rains. The evenings are warm but it is rather cool in the early morning.
The next day we continued on to Doruma. After driving several hours on some of the worst roads we had seen, we came upon a group of hunters. There were six or seven older men each carrying a spear and machete and most of them had large woven hunting nets over their shoulders. Most interesting to us was the Basenji hunting dog with them. It was a beautiful brindle male complete with hunting bell. He did not like the looks of us and tried to stay just of of sight in the forest but we could here his bell as he moved around behind the hunters. The men would call him out of the bush for us to photograph but he was not comfortable being close to us. After a while, John learned from the owner of the brindle dog that he had a female puppy, sired by his dog, that was about eight weeks old. He was not interested in selling her but we told John we had to have her, even though we had no idea what she looked like. John convinced the hunter that we would pay him enough to buy three puppies, so he agreed to get her for us.
We waited for about twenty minutes while the puppy's owner went to his home in the bush to retrieve her. She was a very small, pest ridden, almost black brindle thing of about six weeks of age. By that time, we were accustomed to seeing puppies that were dehydrated and malnourished. We, therefore ignored her round head, big ears and rat like tail, knowing that at some point she would turn into a "normal" looking Basenji. After we quickly cleaned her up for ticks and fleas, we were again on our way to Doruma.
After an hour or so, we found what the map indicated was a small dead-end road that veered off toward the Sudanese border. It quickly became nothing more than a foot path and after six or seven miles, we stopped at a group of huts to ask about puppies. A boy told us of several litters along that road and went with us to find them. There were some very nice puppies, but they were only two or three weeks old. While driving back to the Doruma road, I saw a red and white puppy running down the path to a hut, and as always we stopped to get a better look and take photographs. Her owner brought her out for us with her tri-color mother right at his heels. She was about eight weeks old and, of course, very thin with a flea bitten coat. Both she and her mother appeared to have reasonable tail curls, exceptionally nice heads and overall good conformation. A price was negotiated and she became the sixth Basenji purchase of the trip.