This dog has a story.
He looks like few other dogs in these parts and that’s because he came here from the African nation of Sierra Leone. He’s had some tough times. People threw stones at him because of the number of rabid dogs in the central highland town where he was born. And he’s had some good times. This is one of the good times. In fact, says Madison Langseth, there are many people who would like to be in Rafiki’s place and probably would have willingly traveled in the crate that brought him here.
“They all want to come to America because they think they will have a job, a car and a house,” says Madison’s husband, Corey. The couple is just back from serving two years with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, where they both taught school. They were recently in Warwick to stay with Corey’s parents Richard and Joanne Langseth. On Sunday, they left for Knoxville and the next chapter of their lives.
Rafiki is a basengi, which is thought to be one of the oldest breeds of domesticated dogs. They were trained and bred for hunting and to be silent so as not to alert their quarry. They are often called barkless dogs.
Rafiki is wiry, alert and quiet. Corey says he’s smart. “He’ll only do anything as long as it’s for his own benefit,” he said.
He’s also friendly, at least when visited at the Langseth’s Buttonwoods home Friday morning.
Rafiki, named from the Lion King character, was stretched out on the porch soaking in the morning sun. He’s accustomed to hot weather.
Temperatures in the mountains where the Langseths were stationed averaged in the 90s, about 10 degrees cooler than the coastline, which was about an eight-hour drive over rutted and crumbling roads. When temperatures dipped into the 80s, the natives donned pullovers and sweaters, even a ski parka that was the preferred outfit of one motorcyclist.
Corey estimated the town’s population at 10,000, although there’s no way of knowing for sure. It is without running water or electricity. Communication with the outside world was good. There was a cell phone tower next to the school compound where Corey and Madison lived. When everything was working properly, calls to the states were crystal clear.
Charging cell phones and laptops was as easy as visiting a charging station, powered by a gasoline generator. For the equivalent of 25 cents, you were good to go. Or, there was another option they discovered after the school Madison taught received a wide screen TV with satellite connection and solar panels. The natives quickly discovered the option, too.
The Langseths described the country as incredibly rich in natural resources, although much of the diamonds are now gone. Mining for rare metals, mostly by the Chinese, is a large part of the economy. In the town where they were, timber and hot peppers, which are a big part of the local diet, were major activities. Animals once native to the country are virtually gone. And, said Madison, animal shows were a big attraction once the wide screen TV arrived.
Corey taught English and literature, although his background is in Chinese. He studied the language at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he met Madison.
Corey’s classes ranged from 60 to 80 students crammed into a room that could accommodate no more than 12 in this country. The students didn’t have any books, further hampering learning.
“They loved having us,” said Corey. “Maybe too much so,” added Madison.
The Langseths were among the few whites in the community. Although a former English colony, Temne, a native tribal language is commonly spoken. Knowing a few common phrases, such as greetings, was essential.
“Without that, we would have been run out of town,” said Corey. Even after two years in the country, they found there were commonly used phrases they never fully understood. Corey explained they would get different translations for the same phrases.“There is really no written language,” he added.
Going to school is a part of the culture, although, from the Langseths’ description, education is not highly valued. Attending classes is a form of occupying time for children. It is expected. Corruption is pervasive in the system and teachers are paid for good grades. For the school’s top student, it’s a matter of bragging rights that everyone knows was paid for.
Likewise, teachers paid their superiors to get assignments they wanted or, simply, to avoid teaching. They said corruption is a way of doing business throughout the society.
Madison said she never felt threatened in the country. She worried for her safety, however, especially when using the local transportation. With seeming abandon and the natives’ underlying belief that whatever happens is God’s will, she feared they would drive off mountain roads or become victim to some careless act.
“Before you get on a transport,” she said on the natives, “you pray it’s OK, that we’re in God’s hands.” She said some of her students applied the same logic to tests. They saw no reason to study.
There is a mix of Christians and Muslims and, as both faiths are based on a single God, there appears to be a level of interchangeability among the faithful. They said families would switch from one set of beliefs to the other; going to church one day and the mosque the next.
There were several cases of rabid dogs and people set out to kill all dogs. They were poisoned or stoned and, although he had been vaccinated, Rafiki was feared by students and they would throw stones at him.
Madison addressed the issue by creating a book about Rafiki and had it put in the school library. It worked. Students soon came to recognize Rafiki and hold him in high esteem.
In Knoxville, Madison will attend graduate school for a degree in library and information science.
Corey hasn’t lined up a job yet, but he is interested in energy renewal.
“That was also inspired by the Peace Corps,” he said. And, of course, Rafiki will be traveling with them.