Shaped by Africa, for Africa

2008-04-23 00:00

Every dog has its day, they say. And the day of the AfriCanis dawned in 1993 while the intrepid Johan Gallant was busy helping the SPCA to make a video documentary on mobile animal clinics. Among the skinny, ferreting dogs in the township, some reminded him of the dogs he had seen in the rural areas of the Congo in the fifties. “They must come from somewhere,” he said to himself, “but where?”

And so began another — unsung — liberation struggle: to free the indigenous dog of Africa from the stigma of mongrel and give it its rightful place in our heritage as a canine shaped by Africa, for Africa.

Johan Gallant and his wife Edith live at the end of a peaceful cul-de-sac in Hilton, along with their three AfriCanis (Tamboti, Duzi and Bilulu), a Jack Russell and a Toy Poodle. Originally from Belgium, the couple has been in South Africa since 1981. To say they are dog people is somewhat of an understatement. The husband-and-wife team have been involved in dog breeding, training and judging for nearly 30 years. Edith is a show judge with an international reputation. Johan has written three definitive works on canines — one on dog training, another on Schnauzers (the Gallants were top Schnauzer breeders back in Belgium and here in South Africa) and a third on the AfriCanis — and made a couple of films on dogs for Belgian television, to boot. But, until that fateful day in 1993, it was the thoroughbreds, the pedigrees and the paper trail that had gripped the Gallants. So why the sudden move to investigate a presumed mutt?

Johan explains: “From the moment I noticed those rural dogs, I couldn’t get them out of my head. They had been here for donkey’s years but were they the descendants of European dogs? Had they arrived earlier? How had they evolved?” With a determination that can only be called dogged, Johan and Edith began researching the origins of this humble hound.

“We not only learnt about the genesis of the dogs but also about their character,” says Johan, his hand on his beloved Tamboti’s head. “These dogs were the victims of the worst sort of western prejudice. They were seen as disease-ridden mongrels and braks. And aside from being a genuine landrace, they are the most loyal, intelligent and functional dogs you could hope for. They deserve to be conserved.”

The Gallants say they were continually met with co-operation and understanding from local people during their journeys into rural areas. One of their early and most fortuitous meetings was with an elderly inyanga, Joseph Sithole. “What he didn’t know about these dogs wasn’t worth knowing,” says Johan. “He was a healer who could prepare and use herbs to treat the dogs. He had spent years crossing Greyhounds with the AfriCanis for hunting purposes, but he immediately understood what we wanted to do.”

Sithole became their close companion during field trips, helping the couple cross cultural boundaries, acting as interpreter and sharing his insightful experience. When Johan once asked Sithole how rural people choose a dog, he said it has little to do with looks, height, coat and the like. “A dog must just be smart,” said Sithole.

It was at that point that Edith and Johan understood that, unlike westerners, rural Africans never breed or choose their dogs on their looks. It is their character that counts.

After four years of working together closely, Sithole suddenly died. “It was a real tragedy,” says Johan. “Not just for us personally, but with him died a wealth of knowledge.”

But Sithole’s invaluable help propelled the Gallants forward and their research grew. From northern KwaZulu-Natal, they travelled to the former Transkei, to the Kalahari and Mozambique. “We clocked up 7 000 kilometres in Botswana and Namibia,” recalls Edith.

And, as this was “a hobby”, the field work took place on weekends and during holidays. Hobby or not, this ground-breaking research attracted attention. In 1998, Dr Udo Küsel, archaeologist and, at the time, director of the National Cultural History Museum, began to join the Gallants on their journeys.

“It was on one of these trips,” recalls Johan, “that Udo came up with the idea of forming a society to foster and conserve the traditional Southern African dog.”

And at its first meeting, the society agreed to refer to these dogs as “AfriCanis”. History was made and the AfriCanis Society of Southern Africa was born.

The work of the Gallants has also attracted international interest and last year the couple presented a paper at the First International Conference of Aboriginal Dog Breeds in, of all places, Kazakhstan. (“You saw Borat? It’s not far off the mark,” says Johan with a chuckle.)

The Gallants are not without their detractors. The Schnauzer people literally thought they had gone to the dogs. “They think we are mad. All the breeders think we are glorifying a mongrel,” says Edith, “but they haven’t taken the trouble to understand its history.”

Nodding vigorously, Johan adds: “We have lived with AfriCanis for 14 years now and I can assure you that these dogs, mentally and physically, outclass any of the breeds that we so carefully and professionally bred, raised, trained and loved.

“We have learnt so much and come so far. In the past, we behaved as if you could improve a dog but you can’t improve on nature.”

Now that’s something to bark about.

• This article appears in the Autumn edition of Midlands Life, on sale now.

Hounded by history

The term AfriCanis refers to the traditional dogs which came with Bantu-speaking people when they began their movement into southern Africa about 2 000 years ago, in a quest to find suitable living space. Together with their guardians, the dogs became endemic to southern Africa.

While the new conditions may have had an impact on their external appearance and behaviour, they are all genetic descendants of the earliest domestic dog which, 7 000 years ago, entered the African continent with migrating herdsmen from the Middle East when human settlements began forming along the River Nile in present-day Egypt and Sudan.

Ironically, the bigotry of the early settlers and the policies of separation worked in favour of the AfriCanis. Segregation does not only impact on people but also on their possessions and local animals, from livestock to dogs, were considered inferior and prevented from mixing. Hence the gene pool remained relatively pure.

However, today the AfriCanis is under threat. While the Eurocentric position that these dogs are worthless mongrels has hardly altered, the historical custodians, in their quest to “westernise”, are increasingly disregarding their own dogs in favour of exotic stock.

• Adapted from The Story of the African Dog by Johan Gallant, published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

The Society

Its purpose is to research the AfriCanis and to conserve it as an aboriginal landrace.

The society has no intention of standardising the breed, asserting that variation stands for health and cunning. In this regard, the society maintains a code of ethics, guidelines for breeding and a register of approved AfriCanis.

Research for genetic characterisation to establish a genetic marker is ongoing.

• For further information, contact Edith and Johan Gallant at 033 343 2699.

The perfect pet?

This slender, well-muscled and agile animal comes in a variety of colours, with or without markings, and with a short “double coat” that adapts to the seasons. With its wedge-shaped head and expressive face, this friendly, undemanding dog is territorial but needs a fair amount of space. It thrives in the company of people and other animals, and is low maintenance with a natural resistance to parasites.

• Adapted from The Story of the African Dog by Johan Gallant, published by University of KZN Press.

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