Living With Basenjis in Zaire - An Interview With Ann Roche
by Betsy Polglase, first published at http://basenjicompanions.org
My ears went up when a young, unassuming woman said to me at a show recently, "I love Basenjis I brought one home with me from Zaire." "Really?" I said in astonishment, "How did you come to be in Zaire?"
Ann Roche went on to tell me of her nearly four years of living as a Peace Core volunteer in remote sections of Zaire (the heart of the Basenji homeland) from 1979 to 1983; her additional year in Zaire working for development corporations; her one-year return to the United States; and the additional two years from 1985 to 1987 during which she worked in remote regions of Zaire, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda for corporations such as A.I.D., the Food and Agricultural Organization, which was part of the United Nations.
Knowing that there is nothing more exciting to the average Basenji owner than to hear firsthand accounts of Basenjis in their native habitat, I asked her if I could interview her for this article. She graciously accepted.
A wildlife biology major at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Ann had done graduate work at the University of Oklahoma in the field of environmental engineering. She volunteered for the Peace Corps after her college experience, was accepted, and originally was scheduled to study the Giant Brazilian River Otter. That project had to be canceled, and she was reassigned to Zaire to help with an experimental cattle and fishery project.
Ann traveled all over Zaire, but a lot of her time was spent residing at Mikwi in the Bandundu region of Zaire about 480 miles Northeast of the coastal capital of Kinshasa. The closest town was about 80 miles, and the nearest Belgian mission was at Djuma, about 30 miles away. The mission included a school, a hospital, and an agricultural training and experimentation station.
As there were no bridges, they had to cross the Kwillu River by wooden barges or canoes to get to the mission. Ann said that putting a motorcycle, several people, and belongings in a wooden canoe was a rather daunting experience.
There was only ONE paved road in the country of Zaire, and that ran from Kinshasha, the coastal capitol, east to the Bandundu region near Kitwit. Very few white people lived in the area where she was; in fact, the native children became quite pesky, gaping at everything that the few white people did - even something as simple as drinking a glass of water.
Basenjis were everywhere. In an average native village of about 120 people, there would be about 50 Basenjis roaming loose on the farms of the village. An average farming/hunting family might have 8 to 12 Basenjis living with them in a small pack. Ann said there were never any serious fights. There was a fair amount of jostling and jockeying for rank, which was carried out by growling and stiff-legged dominance displays. A good deal of shoving and body-slamming occurred, but they mostly seemed to settle in to their places within the pack, which was usually headed by a strong, alpha male.
Ann speculated that the lack of fighting may have been because they were all loose and were not crowding each other. Occasionally, a minor scrap would break out over food, with the tidbit usually being grabbed by a third Basenji who was not in the fray. Males mated with many females; there was no paired mating behavior.
During her travels, she found indigenous Basenjis in the northern, central, and western parts of Zaire. They didn’t appear to be in the Eastern part. She had also seen them in the Congo near Brazzaville. NOTE: The Basenji brought back by John Curby and others in the mid 1980’s were from the northern part of Zaire near the Sudanese border.
Basenjis native to the area where she lived in Mikwi, Ann said, had a higher tail curl; were slightly taller and thinner; had finer bone; longer, more slender muzzles; and slightly wider heads through the cheek area than the ones she has seen in the American shows. Other than these variants, the color, markings, and general appearance were identical.
The Basenjis Ann saw in Africa could also jump like goats with all four feet leaving the ground simultaneously. They all had the ability to yodel, but didn’t use it often. She doesn’t remember hearing any howling. (Our Basenjis frequently howl when they are lonesome--there were so many of these native Basenjis that they may not have been very lonesome. A lonesome Basenji could simply trot over and see another Basenji or person.) Basenjis wagged their tails when they were happy. They didn’t seem to mind the rain (they were out in it all the time), but they didn’t like high winds.
The native Basenjis had a "soft" disposition, according to Ann. They were smart, curious, cunning and could be fearless in hunting; however, they could be intimidated and frightened by heavy discipline or a strong dominance display by humans (usually someone hurling a stick or something at them and yelling at them for stealing food). A seriously chastised or frightened Basenji would literally "hole up" under the leaves, holding dead still and not moving a muscle for long periods of time. If you picked one up, it would come to life, but you might not ever see an undisturbed, frightened Basenji hiding in the leaves or under a bush. The Basenjis seemed to favor women in Ann’’s judgment--perhaps the men seemed much too dominant for them.
Basenjis were used for hunting by the farmer/hunters in the local villages. They were raised
as a utilitarian animal in packs, like the herds of goats that the natives kept. They received only supplemental scraps of food, mostly that which they could steal. Their main food supply consisted of mice and other rodents, caterpillars, grubs, and reddish-brown cockroaches. These were caught mainly at night while the dogs’ owners slept.
The Basenjis slept outside and were fairly thin and in poor condition due to malnutrition and internal and external parasites. A typical first litter would contain only one pup. Further litters might contain about 3 pups, which would be culled by the villagers because the mother could only feed and sustain one pup.
Ann saw hundreds of Basenjis during her stay in Zaire. Coloration was from light blonde to a dark red with a lot of white markings. She saw only four or five black and white Basenjis and no brindles or tricolors. She had heard stories of tricolor Basenjis being found in other regions. The average life-span of a native Basenji was only 6 to 7 years in this hard life-style. (The life-span of a native was only 40 years.)
The barter system was in great use in Zaire, and Ann got the six Basenjis that lived with her by trading her goats for them in the neighboring villages. She trained her dogs to obey commands, to the mirth of the natives. She told of the time when she entertained a regional chief with his diplomats.
She had one of her Basenjis move, stop, move, stop, move, and then stop again. The chief was amazed and was sure that this dog had to have been a dead ancestor of Ann’s because of the way that it was attuned to her and how well it obeyed.
Ann trained her dogs with the basic obedience commands, finding that they did much better with a reward system of training. She asked me if Basenjis were considered a good obedience dog in this country. I let out a guffaw, and she seemed relieved at my reaction. In training, her Basenjis always seemed to put their own unique spin on every command. The sits might be crooked, they might take their time sitting down, their minds and attentions might wander. (I had just finished watching the obedience tape of the National Specialty in North Carolina, and noticed all of these traits in most of the Basenjis who competed there, as well as having experienced it in my own obedience training with my Basenji.) Ann found Basenjis to be very "eye-contact" dogs, and you could alter their behavior just by looking at them a certain way.
The diet that Ann fed to the Basenjis was manioc and tinned sardines with forest spinach added: a diet of about 3/4 carbohydrate and 1/4 protein. They seemed to thrive. (Food staples for natives were rice and manioc, which is also known as Cassava, a root crop that is peeled and soaked to extract toxins, dried in the sun, made into flour, and then boiled and mashed like potatoes. Starchy and bland, manioc was flavored by whatever sauce or side food you served with it.)
Being Basenjis, her six dogs tried to weasel their way into her bamboo bed at night with her. She had fixed it up European-style with a pillow and blankets, and her cat liked to sleep near her head on the pillow. In the dark, it was hard to figure out who was sleeping with you, and one by one they sneaked their way onto the bed, sometimes jostling for favored position near the pillow. She finally gave up and let them stay where they wanted.
Although not practiced in her village, natives occasionally raised Basenjis (and cats) to eat in the same way that they raised goats, chicken, ducks and occasionally pigs. The healthy, useful working dogs would be used for hunting, but the old and useless dogs would be culled and eaten. The natives knew how much Ann cared about her dogs and never offered her any to eat when she visited their villages. Life was very difficult in the bush, and food was gotten when and where it could be found or raised.
During the dry season, hunters used the Basenjis to catch small game and rodents. The dried grass was set afire, and as the small rodents and animals such as porcupines rushed out ahead of the conflagration, the Basenjis would set upon them and keep them from disappearing down holes and escaping. Some were tossed in the air and eaten; others were brought to their masters.
Basenjis were also used to hunt antelope. The dogs would flush the game out of the cover toward waiting natives, who would then shoot the antelope with a rifle or bow and arrow. The hunting nets described in northern Zaire and Southern Sudan were not used here.
A few natives deliberately tethered their female Basenjis out in the bush when they were in heat so a wild jackal would breed them. They believed that this would make the Basenjis longer-legged and able to run faster through the tall grass to chase antelope. (Ann didn’t believe they were actually faster--she felt the pure Basenjis had more speed and agility.) These crossbreeds also had longer, much looser, hairier tails and longer, heavier coats than the pure native Basenjis. A typical Basenji/Jackal cross might start to "bark" and end up in a funny howl. (Some authorities speculate that Basenjis originally descended from jackals.)
To hear where their Basenjis were during the hunt, the natives would tie gourds with palm kernels or shells inside them around the necks of the Basenjis with dried vines or pieces of dried hide. The kernels or shells rattled around inside of the gourd and made noise.
Natives treated their dogs purely as utilitarian hunting animals and didn’t treat them much as pets. The Basenjis were companionable, however, and tagged along everywhere their masters went during the day. The dogs were not openly affectionate toward anybody, as they frequently had things hurled at them for stealing food in the villages (sound familiar?) They probably didn’t expect to be petted.
Ann pronounced BAsenji with the accent on the first syllable. She said that that was the way it was pronounced in the English-speaking areas. She thinks the origin of the "Ba" in Basenjis is the plural form of a word. A singular form of the word Basenji might have been INsenji. BAsenji probably stuck as the term for this type of dog. The Bantu category of languages was spoken where she lived, mainly using the Kikango and Lingala dialects. The word for dog was "Mb’wa."
Stories were told of Basenjis climbing trees in Inongo in Northern Zaire where the pygmies lived. The trees there, however have much broader, flatter trunks.
There were no other types of dogs in their area--only Basenjis. Wild dogs were not found. The few European-type dogs were found only in the larger cities. Jackals were the only other doglike animals which could possibly dilute the native Basenji gene pool, but Ann never was around the few, unaltered, female Basenji/jackal crosses long enough to remember whether they were fertile for breeding a second generation.
Other animals that were found in the region included crocodiles, elephants, and hippopotamus. Giraffes, mountain gorillas, and okapi are found in the East, near Kivu. The mountain gorillas and okapi are protected by the government, and a person could be shot on sight for having a part of either animal with them.
Ann said that hippos were a sight to see. On bright, moonlight nights where "one could read a book by the light," the hippos cavorted and hopped and skipped in the moonlight down by the sandbars, making strange noises.
Ann told a marvelous story about when she gave one of her six native Basenjis to a couple of women missionaries. They thought the dog might shoo away pesky children who gathered around watching everything the "white people" did. The women tried in vain to teach the Basenji to bark, making furious barking noises at it in a futile attempt to have the Basenji imitate them. One day they heard barking at their hut and proudly ran to see their "barking Basenji." It was their parrot, who was imitating the sounds he had heard. They had a silent Basenji and a barking parrot!
A Brief Overview of The Country Astride the equator, in Central Africa, sits the country of Zaire, formerly known as the Belgian Congo. Bordered on the East by the great lakes and mountains, the entire area is drained by the huge Zaire River (formerly known as the Congo River) which curves northward from the south near Lubumbashi to near Kisangani in the north-central region. The river then runs west and south to the capital, Kinshasa, and then out to the sea. This river provides the major access to the interior regions of Zaire.
Bounded on the west by Congo and Angola; Zaire is bordered on the south by Zambia; on the east by Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda; and on the north by Sudan and the Central African Republic.
The Belgian Congo was renamed Zaire in 1960 when independence was won. This hollow victory was followed by five years of tribal warfare and civil unrest. In 1965 General Mobutu took over the country under a military dictatorship, and so it remains today. A country about 1/4 the size of the United States, only about 2% to 3% of the population had any wealth to speak of--the rest of the population was very, very poor and was kept that way by the government. When independence was won, there were fewer than 20 University graduates among the Congolese. As Ann put it, "I worked and lived in one of the poorest sections of one of the poorest nations in Africa."
For example, Ann said, the government could force a farmer to grow a field of tobacco on his land. They would then take the crop, pay a bit of money to the farmers (which was then paid back to the government in taxes.) The government practices discouraged commerce, so the farmers had to sell most of their products locally. Staple crops were manioc, peanuts and corn. Tea, palm nuts, and tobacco were grown only on the larger plantations and were brought to local merchants to be sold in the larger cities. The area in southeastern Zaire fared slightly better because of the huge diamond and mineral mining industries located there.
Dickering about prices was standard practice, according to Ann, and bribery had to be used for just about any favor that you needed.
The Bambala and the Muyiensi were the two main native tribes in the area where Ann stayed. The western region of Zaire where she resided consisted of flat, grassy, sandy plateaus with "scrub shrub" scattered here and there. Plateaus descended via very steep walls into valleys of tropical rain forests. There, the Mangrove trees and undergrowth were so thick that no sun came through to the valley floor. The natives lived on the plateaus and had to fetch water from these deep valleys during the dry season on a daily basis, a walk of 6 to 10 miles down and back up the steep valley walls.
Daytime temperatures often rose to over 100 degrees, but nights were cold enough that one had to wear a warm sweatshirt. The dry season lasted 3 to 4 months and coincided with our summer season. The rest of the year was the rainy season, except for a 2-week, short, dry spell in January or February.
Huts were made of mud bricks. Mud was carried up from the valleys on trays perched on top of womens’ heads. A crude stick foundation was made, and a strapping was made of palm, into which the mud was packed for the siding of the huts. Grass covered their roofs.
There was no electricity and no refrigeration,. Fires were built daily for cooking, and there was always one fire going in a village from which everyone could light their individual fires. To keep snakes and other wildlife away, the land surrounding a hut was cleared and burned. The first vegetation to reappear was lemon grass, on which the Basenjis loved to graze.
To get from place to place, one had to walk. There were no vehicles other than the motorcycle which was supplied to Ann by the U.S.A. International Development, and its range was limited by the amount of gas the motorcycle could carry, about 120 miles. Occasionally in villages, there might be one or two bicycles, which were used by several people.
One of Ann’s projects was to construct ponds and stock them with fingerling fish. The fish were brought up in 50-gallon tins strapped to the back of the motorcycle. They had to be careful not to kill the fish in the heat. At night farmers would fish the Kwilu river which was about 12 miles East of where Ann lived.
To go to one of the larger, distant cities, one had to "hitch a ride" on top of the huge cargo trucks which went to one of the major markets in the large coastal cities. A person might be clinging to the top of the load along with about 40 other people!
The territory was pretty wild, and as in most outlying areas, people tended to be very friendly and neighborly. To be alone, they felt, was one of the worst things that could happen to you, so people tended to do things together. The Western concept of need "personal space" was very foreign to them.
Conditions were primitive, and the natives still believed in black magic. Health conditions were also primitive. A measles epidemic went through the area where Ann live and killed about 300 children over a period of four days.
Life was hard, so the native didn’t have time to get neurotic. Frustration and suicide were unheard of. Everything they did was needed for survival. In spite of the hardships, the natives were pretty cheerful. They were also very cautious of what they said. One could be beaten up and thrown in jail for saying the wrong thing, Ann reported. People were afraid to be on the road, and they were afraid to go into the cities at night for fear the police might grab them for something.
If you passed through a village, the best of everything was brought out for you to eat as a gesture of hospitality. The "best" might include caterpillars, palm grubs, termites (flying moths) eaten live with beer... She has eaten antelope and elephant, which has a texture like pork--dark meat with a taste like nothing else.
The worst thing she ever had to eat was brought out in a clay cooker, which, when opened, contained a large rat in the center surrounded by vegetables. They had charred the rat to burn off the fur and had stewed it with vegetables. Manners dictated that you couldn’t insult your host, so Ann tried a bit of it. It wasn’t too bad, she said, if you could past the look of it. (The natives thought white people were disgusting to eat snails and frogs’ legs "things that lived in the 'dirty mud.'" It’s all in your perspective, I guess...)
In the villages, the ranking order (and the order of who got fed first) was: man of the house, old parents, principle children (firstborn males) and other children, and lastly, the wives and their sisters. Men were polygamous, and the more wives you had, the more status you had. A man with 12 wives kept trying to get Ann to be his 13th wife. She joshingly told him that he’d have to get another wife before her because "13" was an unlucky number in her country.
A good, hunting Basenji was definitely more prized than a wife. A good, hunting Basenji helps capture food for the family.
A native story about the lowly status of wives was told to Ann: A man’s wife and Mother were sick. He took them to the doctor, and the doctor said, "Times are tough" I can save only one of them. Who do you want me to save?" The man thought and said, "Save my Mother" I can always get another wife." (By the way, women did most of the work in the villages, tending the fields and the homes while the men were out hunting for food.)
Enemies of Basenjis were snakes, civet cats, hungry jackals, an occasional lion (fairly uncommon), and an animal like a small leopard or bobcat. What we know of as leopards, called "Inkoi" by the natives, lived in an area north of where Ann lived. Natives there might say, "Don’t go out at night because there is death on the road." (meaning leopard are about.)
When Ann left Zaire, she brought with her a black and white Basenji/jackal cross named Tchotchu (pronounced Chutch. (Tchotchu means "go away" in the Yansi dialect.) Tchotchu’s father was a wild, black and brown jackal, and her mother was a native red and white Basenji. Born in March of 1982 in the village of Mikwi, Tchotchu was one of the culls of a litter. Ann got her at 4 days old and raised her on powdered milk, fed at first from an eyedropper and later with a nursing bottle obtained from the mission.
Tchotchu’s first solid food was canned corned beef and rice mixed with water. Ann took her with her everywhere she went, and kept her warm during the cool nights. Tchotchu had a strong bond with Ann. Only needing a rabies certificate, she easily brought her in and out of this country. Tchotchu live with Ann until her death in 1981 from a lymphoma that was being treated at Angel Memorial clinic in Massachusetts.
Residing in Billerica, Massachusetts, Ann currently works for the Department of Public Works studying hazardous material sites. She is also working on her Masters’ Degree. I invited her over to my house for this interview, to see my latest litter of Basenji pups, and to play with the adult Basenjis. Sheba promptly jumped into her lap and licked her face. Hugging her, Ann said, "This is the Basenji that I knew and loved!" Ann hopes someday to be able to return to Zaire.