Somehow, deciding to move across the globe and make Africa our home for a couple of years wasn’t frightening. But the idea of adopting an animal was. Meet Piñuela (on the left) and Pendjari (right). They’re sister and brother, and both a Basenji mix.
Ericka and I had talked about getting a dog for years – I was against the idea – but finally in Benin we decided our big, empty home needed some animals, and when we saw a young man selling puppies one Saturday afternoon we came back by bicycle to take a look. We got back to where we’d seen him by late afternoon, and the guy was nowhere to be found. But there, curled up in a ball in the sand next to a metal dish of water, was the fuzzy little puppy who’d caught our eye. I pointed her out to Ericka and before we’d even had time to take off our bike helmets and take a look the guy was at our side with another, similar puppy, this one still wet from a bath and trembling with cold. This was the dilemma I’d long feared, the one that has kept me out of animal shelters my whole life: which dog do you take back to the warm bed and the regular meals, leaving the other by the roadside to a life of uncertainty? Is it fair to look them both over and take the healthier one, leaving behind the one more in need of care? The answer was clearly: you take them both home.
We had no local currency, but a local Lebanese merchant changed some euros for us. We paid for the dogs and tucked them both into my backpack which I slung over my belly, leaving the top open. They snuggled in, and the wet one with the white nose pressed up against me for warmth. We brought them home and when they crawled out from the bag we gave them some food and water, and they’ve been our good friends ever since.
They had no papers, naturally, but from what we can tell and what our Beninese friends tell us, the other half is Sage-Koochee, a dog originally from Afghanistan that made its way to Africa and has lived well here ever since. Piñuela, the female, has the more clearly Basenji features, while Pendjari’s softer fur and down-turned ears better match the characteristics of the Koochee. If any dog experts know better, we’d be curious to know what you think.
A little cursory research shows the Basenji are a well loved African breed that dates back as far back as the Egyptian empire; they appear even on the steles of the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs. Their name may be from the Kiswahili, “mbwa shenzi” (“wild dog”), Arabic “be’zenji” (“of the tribe of the blacks” or even from the Lingala “mbwá na basénzi” (“dogs of the savages”). But who cares? They’re cute. One of the most telling characteristics of the Basenji is that they don’t bark, and it’s rare that we’ve heard a peep out of either of them (one notable exception being when they’ve both got their schnozzes buried in the dogfood dish and one of them starts eating more than its share. Then we hear a low growl like a buzzer emanating from the dish). The Koochee is more of a mystery to me, and in particular, how an Afghan species wound up in Africa. Blame it on the colonial period, I suppose, or maybe Pendjari and Piñuela are just Basenji mutts.
In fact, Basenji-looking dogs are all over Benin, all with cute white paws and pointy ears. It’s fun to have a new link to Africa, and it’s a fun way to start the day when I throw the door open and they hop up and down with excitement to see us. The beginning of a new era for us? Probably, but it’s just as exciting to know when we someday return home we’ll be bringing a little piece of the continent with us, better still if they ever get past pooping on the rug.
Well, my pups are six years old now, and they've been lovely companions and friends. They're good with my two kids, careful watch dogs, and are warm and loving members of the family. An update is in order, because a year or two after they were full grown we noticed a "Dogs of the World" poster in our veterinarian's office, and recognized the Berger Picard (Picardy Terrier) as having a profile quite similar to Piñuela's. And as we researched, it became clear our two fuzzy friends are probably a Basenji-Berger Picard mix. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about them, and the description seems apt (the second picture features a dog who could easily be Piñuela!).
Pendjari got more of the Basenji features and Piñuela got more of the Picard features. And they seem to be a good combination of African street dog with French farm dog. How lucky we were to find them! (as for the story of Sage Koochee, never underestimate the ability of a street vendor to feed you a line of bullshit).
This is Pendjari, who got more of the Basenji features. He's braver and less skittish than his sister, and mostly quiet. He does not like other dogs at all, and frequently seems to "protect" his sister. When the children cry, he comes to find us and tell us, and he howls when the telephone rings.
And this is Piñuela, who got more of the Berger Picard features. She has the longer hair and fluffy-but-pointed ears. She's the most loving mutt you could ever hope to meet, and never gets tired of being pet/scratched/loved. She's got the better sense of smell when it comes to finding bones and good stuff to sniff.
Piñuela passed away peacefully in July 2014 at the age of 8, from cancer of the liver. Broke our hearts.
One day in Lisbon, I stepped out of my hotel room and almost fell on my face. Pendjari's twin brother was sauntering happily by. Podengo Meiano explained his friendly owner: a medium-sized Podengo. He was nearly identical: white socks, white stripe down the nose, soft hair. A bit friendlier, over all. This essentially confirms the other half of the equation: they were both Podengo-Berger Picard mixes, Portuguese-French.
Resources for Afri-Mutts and for Basenji in particular:
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