Nelson Mandela’s Afro-Cuban dog

By Dawn Gable

Nelson Mandela and his Rhodesian Ridgeback. Photo: Alf Kumalo

HAVANA TIMES — Before spending 27 years as a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela lived with his family and Rhodesian Ridgeback mascot in a small house on Vilakasi Street in the Soweto urbanization of Johannesburg, South Africa. At the time he probably was just as unaware of the ancestry of his canine friend as he was about the role Cuba would play in the future of his country and his people.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback breed, distinguishable by a strip of hair down its spine that grows in the opposite direction as the rest of its coat, is believed to be the result of a mix between the now extinct Cuban Bloodhound and the hunting dog of the Khoikhoi people of South Africa.

The speed and the power of the mix made the dog a favorite of European big game hunters who flocked in the 19th century to the area north of Limpopo River that later became Rhodesia. This eventually led to the breed being nicknamed the Lion Dog. Although they did not actually kill lions, they would harass them, wear them out and distract them, allowing the hunter to get a close range shot at the cat.

Accounts of the Cuban Bloodhound’s origins are uncertain, but many claim that it was derived from the Spanish war mastiff and was a fierce dog that was used for catching runaway slaves in the Southern United States. Other accounts trace it back to the Sighthound branch of Alaunts, which would make them kin to today’s Greyhound.

Regardless of its origins, the Cuban bloodhound’s extant decedent, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, is described as intelligent, strong-willed, protective and loyal. One author states, “Servility plays no part in the temperament of this breed, but if you want the rewarding companionship of a dog that has spirit and considers it your equal rather than your slave, you need look no further.”

Thus it seems the Rhodesian Ridgeback was a fitting companion for Mandela who has dedicated his entire life to achieving equality among the people of South Africa and who credits Cuba’s military assistance in Angola as being the crucial factor in turning the tide against apartheid.

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