Thursday, December 11, 2014

Randall Wood & Pendjari

Who is in the photo at right?

I'm Randall Wood. I live in Senegal, West Africa, where I manage complex construction projects like maritime ports, highways, and irrigation systems. That's Pendjari - he's an eight year old Basenji-Picard Terrier mix, and is in charge of keeping me sane, calm, and down to earth; and for keeping the yard clear of cats, rats, bats, and the roving security guard (technically, the security guard should be allowed to be there). Nights and evenings I write: my last book was The Dictator's Handbook: a practical guide for the aspiring tyrant by Gull Pond Press. (350 pages; free electronic version to any reader of this blog - just write and mention Coffee with Canine).

Pendjari comes from a multi-generation pedigree of Beninese street dogs, but we think he's mostly Basenji and Picard Terrier. There are other Basenjis on this blog – they're a common West African hunting dog that is mostly quiet and slightly aggressive. Picard Terriers are a French breed that was common on French farms around World War II. We got him and his sister in Cotonou, Benin, and since Benin is a former French colony, it's no surprise to find someone brought their furry friend with them to the colonies, where he/she bred with the local Basenjis.

If you look at this other picture [photo left] of Pendjari ["ears down"] with his sister, Piñuela ["ears up"](who passed away in July, sadly), Pendjari looks more Basenji and Piñuela is the spitting image of a Picard Terrier. The combination of those races made these two loyal, quiet, almost totally odorless, a bit nervous, and very protective. Good dogs!

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine? What's brewing?

Pendjari and I are starting out the morning like we do every day – a cup of steaming Ethiopian dark roast with (powdered) milk, and some bread and butter. We're on the back steps outside the kitchen under the shade of the Casuarina trees, enjoying the cool morning. Here at the edge of the Sahel, cool mornings give way to blazing sun and heat by noon, and a hot coffee tastes a lot worse when you're dripping with sweat. But mornings are great. I make the coffee with filtered water and a French press, and brew it stronger than I probably should.

Any treats for you or Pendjari on this occasion?

Well, if we're lucky, there will be some banana bread this morning, or maybe some sausage slices and cheese – both imported from France, since the Senegalese are Muslim and don't like or eat sausage. Pendjari on the other hand, is a big fan of sausage! That counts as a treat for both of us.

How were you and Pendjari united?

We'd just moved to Cotonou, Benin for the beginning of a project, and my wife and I had agreed we'd finally get the dog we'd been unable to have back in our small home in the States. Downtown on a street corner, a Beninese was selling a fluffy little puppy – Piñuela! My wife knew immediately that was the dog we wanted. But by the time we circled back, the seller had two dogs in his hands. The second was a dripping, unhappy, recently-bathed Pendjari. "Which one do you want?" he asked. We panicked: how can you take one home and leave the other behind to cruel destiny? Without even discussing, we both said, "both of them." We got home with two – not one – dogs, and thought, "what have we done?" But it turned out to be serendipity – having two dogs around the house was nothing but happiness.

How did Pendjari and the late Piñuela get their names? Any aliases?

The alliteration, I suppose. Pendjari is the name of a river in Benin; Piñuela is the name of Nicaraguan plant with spiky little ears that stand up straight like hers. She was "Piñuela the Pup, Ms. Puppers, Shnozzolina, and my Puppy-Bear. He's Pendjari the Pup, Mr. Mutt, El Shnozzo, Doctor Destructo-Bone, and my Basenji Warrior." Not sure what kind of names they had for me.

What's the most interesting critter that Pendjari has encountered in Africa?

We've come across 5-pound rats, big dogs, scrawny but mean cats, horses, and flocks of curious sheep that chase us. Our funniest encounter (well, it's funny now) involves an afternoon down on the Atlantic Ocean in Benin. A goat [photo left] came over to check us out, and both pups (they were probably only six months old at the time) sat there at the end of their leashes, looking back. "What a great picture," I thought. But milliseconds after I snapped this image of peace and curiosity, both dogs snapped their leashes and went tearing off to go catch that goat, who started running circles around a woman seated on the ground, plaiting a basket. Around went the goat, followed by the dogs, followed by me trying to catch them before they killed the goat and caused a scandal. Suddenly, the goat lapped me, and as the goat went by, the dogs caught up to me too. Pendjari slowed to my speed and looked up at me with approval, like this was a great goat-chasing/bonding moment. "Oh hey, you're after this one too? Isn't this great?"

Does Pendjari do more to help or hinder your writing?

Actually, just about every writing conundrum I've ever had – particularly issues of organization, presentation, or focus – has been resolved by taking the dogs out for a walk. I do my worst writing when I'm in front of the computer and my best when I'm walking and thinking. Try it! Every writer should obligatorily get a dog.

What is Pendjari's best quality? And what was Piñuela's?

We got lucky – they turned out to be great watch dogs, but still good with the children. We got burglarized once in Dakar, and it would have been serious had the dogs not caught the guy as he came up the stairs. They were also clean, odorless, and generally friendly, grateful mutts.

If Pendjari could change one thing about the Senegalese, what would it be?

The Senegalese are scared to death of dogs, as are most Muslims. On the other hand, they like to eat out of a communal bowl, seated on the ground. As they eat, they throw the bones into the street, where dogs like Pendjari scoop them up. Maybe he wouldn't change a thing!

If Pendjari could answer only one question in English, what would you ask him?

"Do you miss Piñuela? Because I do." Dogs seem to understand death in a way that's easier for them than for us. I feel like I learned so much about death – and therefore, about life – as Piñuela succumbed to liver cancer. But I so wonder what Pendjari understands about it all.

If Hollywood made a movie about your life in which Pendjari and Piñuela could speak, who should voice them?

Ha ha! I struggled with this question. Not sure, but I think in terms of tone and humor they'd have to sound a lot like the characters from Over the Hedge. Or maybe the Penguins from Madagascar: "Nod and smile, my fuzzy brother. Nod and smile."

What advice would Pendjari give if asked?

That's easy. "Get away from that computer! How many times do I friggin' have to tell you?"

Visit Randall Wood's website. Learn more about The Dictator's Handbook: a practical guide for the aspiring tyrant. Read a poem for Piñuela.

--Marshal Zeringue

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