In Ms. Elspet Ford's book, The
Complete Basenji, she mentions on page 22 that she imported a black and
white dog named Tahzu,
from a Miss Margaret Miller of Monrovia, Liberia. She wrote, ''Miss
Miller had a great interest in the breed, keeping a few dogs for
In this two part series, we
bring you Miss Millers recollections about her life in Liberia and of
the basenjis she knew there. She is retired and lives on the East
Coast. This first installment recalls how Basenjis were part of
everyday life in Liberia. In our next installment, we learn more about
Miss Miller's basenjis.
Miller is certainly interesting. Her words are sharp, her memories
clear and her stories fascinating. She speaks with genuine sadness
about the Liberian Civil war of the early 1990's as many of the people
and places she knew so well are now gone.
LUTHERAN MISSIONARIES IN
Lutheran work in Liberia was begun in 1860 by missionary
pastor Morris Officer from Ohio. He spent a year in Liberia, then many
more years raising awareness and support in the U.S. Many early
missionaries died of tropical diseases, especially malaria. Mission
work in Liberia began with a boy's school at Muhlenberg, forty miles
from the coast on the St. Paul River. Some of the first students were
recaptured slave children from Congo. Because there were so few
Lutheran missionaries in Liberia at any given time, it was many years
before the mission spread much farther into the interior.
During the 1940s and 50s, many more missionaries were sent
to Liberia, and work spread over a much larger area, mostly among the
Kpelle and Loma people. The Lutheran Church in Liberia was first
organized in 1947, then reorganized in 1965.
1948, a literacy program was established, and evangelists and many
other Christians learned how to read their native language. The Bible
was translated into Kpelle and Loma, which greatly enhanced the ability
of Liberians to lead their own congregational life. Miss Miller was one
of the U.S. Lutheran Missionary literacy teachers assigned to the Loma
region from the 1950's through the 1980's.
VILLAGE LIFE &
THE BARKLESS DOGS
Miss Miller visited villages in an 18 mile radius from her station for
more than 30 years. "The barkless dogs were just the local dogs that
lived in the towns where the villagers lived. I didn't see any other
kind of dogs in the area during the years I was in Liberia." All the
towns she visited were within a one day's walk from her base. "All the
dogs were basenjis, and they were black and white, reddish brown and
white, and tricolored — black mostly with little brown spots
over their eyes, on their cheeks and on the underside of their tails.
And all had double curled tails." When asked if she ever saw brindle
basenjis, she asked what they would look like. "Red dogs with black
tiger stripes? No, I never saw any that looked like that." Did the dogs
ever bark? "No, all made noises, but bark? They're barkless dogs, you
know.'' She continued, "After a few generations, when an animal species
breeds only to its own in an area, it's pure for what it is. All the
dogs where I lived, and in the surrounding area looked the same. Oh,
some were taller, some shorter, but barkless and of the same kind they
certainly were."When asked if missionaries brought in other breeds or
if there was any mixed native/non-native dogs in the area, Margaret was
quick to reply. "The migration of man shows that his dogs go with him.
It was too difficult to bring in pets to Liberia, so we made pets of
the dogs and cats we found there."
built in circles, called quarters, and made up of family units. This
was done to ward off attacks from other family units from other towns.
Five quarters formed a kinship. Houses never opened out to the outside
of circle, and window were uncommon as never were they used to look out
at the countryside, but rather for others to look in. At night, when
the doors were shut, the people inside were safe from the terrors of
The dogs roamed through the quarters by day
and slept outside at night. They were excellent watch dogs, even though
silent. If something was moving in the night, they would run and cause
a quiet commotion, alerting the villagers of any danger.
The people raised pigs & chickens, and hunted in the
forest for food. The dogs ate anything left over, which Margaret
remembers included a lot of rice. She never went out on a hunt, but
remembered that the men brought monkeys and small deer. "Yes, they dogs
went with them, but I didn't see how the dogs were used for hunting." I
any dog bothered the village livestock, they would be roughly punished
or immediately shot. "Any dog killed, of course, was eaten."
Everything in the villager's homes happened on the floor.
They would sit on a stool 3" or so off the ground to cook, to eat, or
do anything. If a dog snapped or tried to steal food, it was a sure
death for the dog. In the villages, every nursing mother had a basenji.
Their job was to come when the mother called them, and the dogs would
clean the babies. "I guess the dogs got some nutrition from that," Miss
Miller said. "It is not something that many people would find
appetizing, but it's what was done."
Life in the
villages was harsh for the dogs. All had worms. "Their droppings looked
like a pile of linguini time. Some had tape worms and you would see a
bit of worm dangling from the back end of the dogs,"she recalled. Towns
were usually next to the river, and there was a prescribed order for
water use. The most upstream portion of the river was for drinking
water, the next area was for the men to wash, next was where the women
bathed. Downstream from the bathing area was where the women did their
laundry and finally, the lowest area used as the community latrine. "Of
course the village upstream used the same system, so it was all for
nothing as everything washed down from village to village."The dogs, of
course did not pay attention to the system and drank wherever it was
convenient. She recalled that later on, medical students worked at
their Mission Hospital hailing from Columbia Presbyterian. They learned
how to spay and neuter dogs and cats, in addition to tending people. "I
would get worming medicine for my dogs from the doctors."
Driver ants, very common in the area, were both ruthless and
terrible predators that cut to pieces anything animal in their path.
Miss Miller said that villagers would vacate, lock, stock and barrel
when a large ant army was approaching, and returned when the legions
marched through, having cleaned out every cockroach, spider and
scorpion. "They certainly would clean out all the other bugs in our
towns. But, if a litter of puppies was on the ground and in their path,
the puppies would be eaten clean to the bone by morning."
She said that local dogs were not long lived, and usually
only lasted until age 3 or 4 and eaten by the villagers. "Of course
they were breeding all the time, so there were many dogs." Miss
Miller's dogs lived to the age of 15 or so, and the villagers treated
her dogs differently in deference to her. But, she recalled that her
basenjis were often accused of killing a chicken, and it would cost her
50 to 75 cents to rectify the supposed theft. She also recalled that
village cats did more damage to the chickens than the dogs did.
Miss Miller served terms at the mission for lengths of time,
usually about two years, would return to the U.S. for up to 12 months
between her next posting. When she left Liberia, she would arrange for
her dogs to be taken care of by another missionary. "If not, you would
not see your pets again when you returned,'' she said. Even though she
kept her dogs for all the years she was stationed in Liberia, she knows
that they were probably eaten when she left. "They wouldn't touch my
dogs while I was there, but once gone, it was a natural thing to eat
Only one village, she recalled, did not eat
dogs. That is because dogs were the Taboo animal. Each village had a
taboo animal that they never ate. The taboo was based on legends,
passed on from generation to generation in a family quarter. If a
person ate the taboo, they believed their teeth would fall out and bad
occurrences happened because someone in the village bad eaten a taboo.
The dog taboo was held in one village because of a story that a dog had
defended a chief from an attacking leopard. The dog did not live, but
the courage to protect the chief was revered and it was taboo for
anyone in that village to eat any dog.
general were the enemy in Liberia when she was there, and a constant
threat to human life. Mambas, gabboons, vipers - some of the most
poisonous snakes known - were common to the area. Leopards also were a
threat to villages. The dogs were fed by the villagers, had their place
in the village, provided food to the people by helping them hunt for
game or, used as the main course. Affection between the basenjis and
the natives was not common.
There was a lack of
compassion for animals and Miss Miller saw the negative way in which
the people treated the dogs and all animals. She felt that the dogs
could sense that. "I only remember one little boy who actually was
affectionate to one little dog, but of course that didn't last." She
remembered also , of a time when four children visiting the area found
a baby deer. "It was so tiny! "They took the baby to the Peace Corp.
station & visited. The deer let the Peace Corp. & the
white children touch it, but was very frightened of the natives. "The
dogs were that way too," Margaret said.
remembered one time when a guest visited, and brought fresh lamb. The
aroma from the roasting filled her home and her basenji came into the
kitchen. After sniffing the roasting meat, which was one of Margaret's
favorites, her dog put her tail between her legs and ran out of house.
She didn't return until there was no remaining odor from the roast in
the house days later. Her cook was puzzled, and asked Miss Miller's
visitor if the meat was actually dog meat. "They said that an animal
would never eat its own kind. But we were assured that it was lamb."
Another time, Miss Miller's mother came to visit and brought goat
cheese with her. Again, her basenji wouldn't approach the cheese,
although they were willing to share morsels with the dogs. "I always
wondered if they were allergic to lamb and cheese. They would drink
powdered milk, tinned beef and cow's milk, but the lamb and the goat
cheese were the only things that they reacted to that way."
The climate where Miss Miller was stationed was hot, but at
1200 ft. elevation, she recalled that there was a cooling breeze most
of the time. Asked whether the basenjis preferred shady or warm areas,
Miss Miller reminisced about her home in Liberia. "Six months out of
the year it was rainy, and the other 6 months were dry. I had
everything screened in, and the house had a fireplace. My cook would
come wake me up at 6 a.m. and prepare breakfast so I could be ready by
6:30 to give genetin violet for scabies and malaria pills to the
people. He would build the first fire of the day, and chase the dogs
out of the warm ashes in the fireplace. The would get covered with
ashes, and jump on me and on the chairs first thing in the morning,
coating everything with ash!"
The Official Bulletin of the Basenji Club
of America, Inc.
XXXV No. 3 July/August/September 2001, pp. 38-39
Copyright © 2001 BCOA, All Rights