Tudor-Williams, Veronica. Fula: Basenji from the Jungle. Surrey (UK): Veronica Tudor-Williams, 1988.
Fula was brought to England in 1959 by Veronica Tudor-Williams, the world’s greatest authority on this breed prized by the pharoahs. Fula’s descendants are among the top Basenjis in all countries showing the breed. Yet, she was bred by an unknown tribesman of Equatoria Province in South Sudan.
This is the story of Veronica Tudor-Williams’ search for Basenji puppies in the Country of the Barkless Dogs with two men friends and a landrover. Their adventures and the eventual arrival of new Basenji blood in England makes exciting and appealing reading.
I had this book on my nightstand as my pleasure reading for August. Within a few nights, I had polished it off. While this book shares much of the drama and narrative arcs common to late 19th/early 20th century missionary and ethnographic accounts that I have read, its delivery is so much more congenial, gentile, and unguarded, it seemed fresh. It was truly an adventure unto its own.
Tudor-Williams sets out on this journey with a single-minded motive: to find and obtain the finest Basenji that she can locate in relatively “wild” territory. The setting is post-independence Sudan, where the vestiges of colonial history cling to the edges of her narration. At one point, she comments that local government officials were so willing to entertain her group because they knew she was not interested in politics — though I would suggest that the very possibility of her presence is political by nature. Occasionally, she’ll offer casual remarks such as, “I was told that the Sudan was one of the best governed of all the British colonies or protectorates, and their love for British rule was shown when we went out long after World War II. In the various villages we passed through the people would run out, ‘Have the British come back, have the British come back?’ and they seemed very sad when through our interpreter we told them that we were very sorry and that we were only passing through” (19). Moments like this cast a romantic veneer over what might also be seen as an extension of the historical, extractive relationships between colony and empire. But as the story continues, it’s apparent that on this level of a search for “authentic” Basenjis, there’s actually a lot of humor and warmth and even empathy that makes this a very different kind of mission indeed. In some ways, it’s much closer — literally — to the dirt, the land, and the people.
Tudor-Williams and each of her partners were able to select one dog apiece, so they had to make their decisions carefully. The first batch of “true Basenjis” that they came across resided in a leper colony. As this community was segregated and socially stigmatized, strong characteristics of the breed were preserved amongst their dogs, whom others were reluctant to touch. In the midst of such disease and squalor, her clear delight in discovering the dogs seems out of place, but then Tudor-Williams explains why they were skipped over: “There was one lovely little bitch which could have beaten most of the Basenjis in England. We did not ask if she was for sale as it was only the start of Basenji country and we also felt the poor lepers needed her more than we did, as the dogs were obviously their pets” (44).
Indeed, you see that she harbors a deep respect for the close relationship that the Sudanese have with their pets. It’s a bond that she understands in her own terms, so she doesn’t begrudge others when her mission is thwarted, as in the case of a woman who refused to sell her dog and even seemed offended by the proposal. “We talk of other nations and especially coloured ones not loving dogs, but what could this be called except love?” (47) While the language and some of her assumptions are deeply implicated in her time and place, sentimental snippets like this give the adventure a transcendental appeal.
There are also details that make you appreciate how much has changed between the time of her writing and now. Rabies, for example, is an ominous specter that haunts the journey from the very outset. The crew received notice that a dog that had just bit Tudor-Williams prior to her departure had died of rabies while they were in passage; thus, a long series of treatment shots dogs her (pun intended) during the entire trip and punctuates the story with some humorous, awkward episodes. To read accounts of how precious dogs succumbed to this seemingly unpredictable and prevalent disease, I realize how intense the fear of canine-borne diseases must really have seemed back then. Then, there are the victims of early distemper vaccinations, as previous imports either died from the shots they received in quarantine or from infections sustained elsewhere. Combine all this with descriptions of water that’s not even safe to bathe in, and you get the paranoid feeling that the text itself is bristling with infectious germs, at times. Her anecdotes also go far in letting me understand the attitude towards mandatory quarantine in the UK. Quarantine itself is not adequately explained in this book, but it’s clearly regarded as a burden to both the human and the psychological welfare of the dog, which adds another layer of ethical consideration to the campaign.
She also describes a brief journey in an unpressurized airplane — for dogs and humans alike. It sounded like a vile mess in the passenger hold, but luckily the dogs came out unhurt. This, however, was just an inter-African flight; within a couple brief pages, the dogs were shipped to England and out of quarantine, and the adventure over. Tudor-Williams’ pick was Fula, a red and white bitch whom she brought back to the UK. She also imported a brindle named Tiger who was officially owned by one of her traveling partners. However, because Tiger’s markings were not accepted by the Kennel Club at the time, she had to return him to his original claimant in Southern Rhodesia. The send-off is described as a tearful affair, and as I was touched by their separation, I realized that through her account, I, too, must have invested a little bit of hope in him. She doesn’t go into detail on the rationale behind the rejection of brindles, other than “there are a few difficult people around, and a small handful of one Basenji club said we did not need more colours in Basenjis” (99). Nevertheless, I find her attempt to change breed standards noteworthy. In particular, it makes me think of the current status of cream-colored Shiba Inu, a pretty common genetic variation, but nevertheless inadmissible in AKC trials. The interesting realization, to me, is that breed standards are malleable, but they’re guided by a consensus of knowledgeable, invested breed preservationists, and not by rogue breeding practices (even if they happen to be one of the foremost experts of the breed!).
Fula eventually produced just two litters which contributed greatly to the modern pool of Basenji blood. The rest, as they say, is history. But not exactly. Because what was most alive to me about this “historical” account was the search itself, motivated by a desire for change and progress in the name of bettering the breed to this day. At times, her search criteria seemed arbitrary, or at least heavily skewed in favor of her individual preferences — smaller, “feline” ears as opposed to the “donkey-like” ears popular among later generations, for example. Dogs specifically of a smaller, compact stature, for another, lest they be pressured to cull an entirely litter as they almost had with Simolo, an earlier, pre-war import (43). To my untrained eyes, Basenji look more alike each other than dogs of many other breeds, like German Shepherds, or Rat Terriers, or Shiba Inu. So I wonder if this is due in part to the stringency of breeding criteria which still guides today’s reputable kennels. Some might call this elitism or purebred snobbery, to the point of excluding newcomers. But as Veronica Tudor-Williams’ account reveals, and contemporary initiatives like the ongoing African Stock Project demonstrate, there’s a much more complicated history and motivational drive that guides the future of this breed, as a whole.