The history of the Basenji

It is nearly impossible for a Basenji owner to take a walk with his dog without being irritated by the attention lavished upon his four-legged companion by passers-by. In this context a handbook made mention of the fact that a Basenji is not suitable for people who do not wish to attract attention. No wonder then, that the fascinating sleek and elegant dog with its red-white, black-white, brindle or tri-coloured pelt, its dainty body, high runners and its conspicuous tail, curled halfway up its upper thigh, attracts so much attention. An owner can often be seen being dragged in a preposterous slanted posture through the streets by his 40 cm high panting companion.

Although theses dogs have existed for thousands of years, they are still rather unknown in Europe. The Basenji exists as an official breed for approximately 60 years.

The Basenji - a gift from Afrika

The Basenjis are amongst the oldest dogs of the World. The name Basenji means "small wild thing from the bush", which sounds in the language of the Pygmies like "Basenji". This indicates already the origin in Central Africa, that stretched from the heart of the Congo Basin to South Sudan. The Basenjis lived there for thousands of years in a close relationship with the natives e.g. the Pygmy tribes. Normally the dogs lived as an independent pack near to the villages and supported themselves as a rule (dependant on the tribe culture).Also reproduction took place for thousands of years without any special control from humans.

The breed has therefore remained very original. Basenjis are regarded as belonging to the group known as "Schensi-Dogs". This describes dogs that have not been domesticated, that remain wild. Other well known members of the Schensi family are the well known Australian dingo or the Canaan dog from Israel. The origin of the Basenji becomes clear through one thing, that it, like the wolf, comes on heat only once a year and then for a period of 30 days. Also Basenjis cannot bark-caused by their flat larynx. The bark is for humans an appropriate dog characteristic. Also the wolf, as forerunner of the dogs, as well as the original dog breeds does not have this ability. Although the Basenji lives completely independent from the affiliated native tribe, it is inestimably useful.
In an area where animal egg white is in short supply, the Basenji is still used as a hunting dog. In the course of this, it tracks down marsupials and drives them into a net spread out by the hunters. During the hunt, so that the hunters know at any time the whereabouts of the dogs, they wear a kind of bell around the neck made from hollowed out shells with small bones inside.
One could talk of an intervention in the breeding by humans in the nature of this breed, that in the last five thousand years of its existence so much importance has been attached to its optimal suitability as a hunt driver. A good hunting dog was and is highly compensated, a bad one in many tribes goes perfectly as a delicacy into the cooking pot!
As a result of this "breeding intervention", the Basenjis have a very strong distinctive hunting urge, an excellent sense of smell and are overall agile and suitable for cross country work. They can compete with greyhounds in speed and direction changing

The “small wild thing” - from the palace of the Pharaoh to Europe

The origin of the breed lies in darkness. The first drawings of the type were found in the tombs of the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), built approx. 2700 BC in the IV Dynasty. They show small dogs sitting near the feet of their owners or under the chairs. Amongst other tomb furnishings of rich Egyptians and Pharaohs were statues and illustrations of these dogs, which because of its extremely cat like nature ( it moves silently, is free from dog smells and washes itself like a cat) was highly prized by this civilised nation. Presumably the first Basenjis reached Egypt as gifts from the Pygmies to the Pharaohs. With the decline of the Egyptian culture, the knowledge about the Basenji also disappeared.

Another presumption is that the Basenjis reached Central Africa as war trophies; Egypt had lost a war against the Sudan and the victors required for their people the at-that-time most valuable things, namely, precious metals, woman and dogs.

Once again around 1870, African explorers discovered a breed of dog that was small, had long legs, a ringed tail and a short silky fur, in short the Basenji. One of the first Africa explorers, who also described the dwarf Pygmies with strange dogs, was Dr. Schweinfurth. Fascinated, he decided at the end of one of his studies to take a bitch, that appeared to him to be particularly intelligent, back to Europe. The Basenjis urge for freedom came however on the return trip to Europe in Alexandria where she jumped to her death from the second floor of a hotel.

In 1894 appeared finally the first report about Basenjis, still not introduced as breed, in Europe. Since about 60 years the BASENJI is recognised as a breed.

The first big breeder of Basenjis was Mrs Olivia Burn, who repeatedly acquired dogs from the Pygmies in the Congo basin. After several failures (the dogs died from distemper) she established the breed. In 1937 she created a sensation at Crufts with the exhibition of her first puppies. Judge and breeder were positively besieged by the crowd and bombarded with questions. In the fifties, another famous breeder, Veronica Tudor-Williams, successfully acquired further Basenjis from Africa to freshen up the European stock. She discovered the dog "Fula of the Congo" herself on an expedition in the South Sudan on the border with Zaire, and later wrote a book about it.
 

Why has this ancient breed remained so unknown to us?

A Basenji is not suitable for all dog lovers. It is indeed highly intelligent and social, very devoted and extremely clean. It does not bark but this does not mean that it is dumb. They express their pleasure in meeting again with a joyful howl that is similar to a jodel. They register their displeasure with an impressive growl and possess a diverse form of articulation in their dealings with the other pack members. The natives describe it often as a "talking dog".
On the other hand, and this puts off many enthusiasts of dogs as companions, the Basenji is very independent. When given an order, that it properly understands, if it is really sensible, and at that moment reasonable, to carry it out, and as a rule it is not. In addition, led by its extremely strong urge to hunt, one cannot let it off the leash everywhere. Basenjis that runaway are often a short while later run over by a car. As the dog, although having an outward appearance of elegance, is very strong and has the tendency on a walk to pull on the lead, it cannot be led by small children.

When however the “bad” habits of the breed as described are not disturbing, one can find with a Basenji a loving, devoted, intelligent companion, prepared at any time for a joke.

Literature about Basenji

Books and novels about "Basenji"