The Basenji Club of America African Stock Project

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Memories of Basenjis & Liberia: An Interview with Miss Margaret Miller

by C Trois-Hoerr

  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 companionship ..."
  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.
  Interviewing Margaret 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 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.
  In 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.


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."
  Towns were 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 night.
  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 them"
  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.
  Animals in 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.
  She also 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!"

 Reprinted from
The Official Bulletin of the Basenji Club of America, Inc.
Vol. XXXV No. 3 July/August/September 2001, pp. 38-39
Copyright © 2001 BCOA, All Rights Reserved.