A monkey in a tuxedo is always a monkey
Monkeys are known to love banana. However, their soft spot for women is comparable only to that that King Solomon had for women. If you are thinking that this must be a cock and bull story, welcome to Igbo Obo, monkey village, a semi-dense cluster of tall mangrove trees in a sequestered valley behind the University of Lagos Guest House. Check your time, and if it is just a little after 7am, then you are just in time to observe Iya John, aka Elizabeth John, a petty food seller whose amala and pounded yam delicacies attracts man and monkey.
But wait, rewind the tape of time to 1994. John had just lost her bread winner and naturally, the next thing she began to think of was to keep body and soul together. That was when she constructed a makeshift bukateria of bamboo and cardboards behind the Unilag Guest House, a place dangerously close to a crocodile infested swamp. Since then, her food business has blossomed. Those who patronize her delicacies include staff and students, and a special breed of monkey, the Cercopithecus, aka Mona monkey that take their stand too and wait to be served. A plate of her pounded yam or amala costs from N200 to N300, but the monkeys, numbering in their tens and twenties get theirs for free. ‘They love pounded yam the most. If you give them a choice between a bunch of banana and pounded yam, they usually go for the pounded yam first before the banana or garri’, she said.
Among the monkeys, the laws of the jungle seem to reign supreme. Competition for pounded yam is usually very fierce, with the huge males dominating meal-times. Even the suckling mother that showed up for breakfast on Wednesday 22, hardly came down from its tree apparently to avoid the rush and madness below. However, experts from the Zoology department of the University of Lagos said that this behavior is deliberate, just as a human being suckling her young may not want to do so publicly.
For the nearly 20 years that John has done business here in Igbo Obo, a special bond, resembling that between Tarzan and the Apes, in Marvel Comics has developed between her and the large colony of monkeys. She speaks Yoruba to them, and they respond to words like Maabo [come here], Maalo [go away], Ewa jeun [come and eat]. To speak to Iya John, the monkeys respond with a fusillade of chattering and seeming bickering sounds. To a casual observer, these sounds represent quarrels over food and space. But they are not, as we found out. There are assumptions from zoologists that these noises are monkey language communicating love, excitement and sometimes anxiety to a woman who has lived and loved them for 20 years. According to Microsoft Encyclopedia, Kanzi, a male chimpanzee, could identify objects that he heard named through headphone speakers. This was because at a young age, he learned to ‘understand simple human speech and to communicate by using lexigrams, abstract symbols that represent objects and actions’. But while Kanzi has all sorts of gadgets and earphones attached to him to aid his language skills, Igbo Obo monkeys take to the university classes themselves. Some students who spoke with the magazine said that they had often stumbled on some monkeys in classes mimicking a normal class activity such as sitting down in class and generally being naughty.
At the times that Igbo Obo monkeys get very hungry, John said that they gather around her fire, pinching this and pinching that, and just being naughty until she shoos them away. To invite them to breakfast, lunch and dinner, John lets out a special sound that strangers to Igbo Obo find hard to imitate. Whenever she makes the sound, [it appears like the one locally used in calling a pet dog], they appear from nowhere and ‘attack’ anything that John offers them. They inspect whatever strangers throw at them by first of all smelling the food. John said that they do this out of fear that they could be poisoned and killed. To put this to test, this reporter offered the largest male a piece of banana which it ignored, but accepted a whole piece which it calmly peeled and gobbled up with arms akimbo. ‘The females usually woo the males, and this is because the males feel that it is their right – after all they guard their colony and so expect something in return. The females give birth in November. On a number of occasions, they have come to present their infants to me’, John said.
Perhaps as a gesture of appreciation for taking care of them, monkeys in Igbo obo doggedly guard John’s property. In addition, they tip her off when dangerous animals like snakes and crocodiles lurk around. On a certain day when a huge snake, tried to attack John, she said that the monkeys made one hell of noise that scared the snake and it took off. Unfortunately however, they were unable to do anything about the fire that razed down her bukateria a few years ago. ‘Before I got here after the fire, they had all lined up on the trees wearing mournful looks, and made certain sad noises that appeared that they were in sympathy with me’, John told the magazine.
Muyibat Bada, a final year Zoology student recently carried out a 7-month long study on the monkeys in Unilag. This was as part of requirements needed to complete her thesis, titled The Biology of Mona Monkeys. According to her, these monkeys are the same species, but live in three separate groups. The first troop controls the bushes around the faculty of environmental sciences, while the second and third troops of monkeys inhabit the faculty of arts building and the bushes behind the university guest house. Bada told the magazine that in the course of her study, she befriended the monkeys by bringing them gifts like loaves of bread.
Other women who have had a cordial relationship with monkeys include Jane Goodall, a British zoologist. She lived for more than 30 years among chimpanzees in the bushes in Gombe Stream Game Reserve, Tanzania. Her most important work, documented as In the Shadow of Man, , showcased the chimpanzee as the only animal closest to man in terms of physique, intellect and living conditions. ‘The primary aim of my field study was to discover as much as possible about the way of life of the chimpanzee before it is too late—before encroachments of civilization crowd out, forever, all nonhuman competitors’, Goodall had said.
But it has not always been this chummy. Tension and competition between man and monkey sometimes leads to open quarrel and death. Iya Bendel, 51, another food vendor close to the NEPA power station in Unilag told this reporter that these monkeys are her worst nightmare. ‘Yesterday, as I got here to resume my work, I dropped my bunch of plantain here on the ground. Before I turned the key to my shed, the whole bunch was gone. The cheeky monkeys were eating my plantain and pelting me with the plantain peels’, she said. Some people on the campus who did not want their name printed said that they preferred to sow crops that germinated under the ground because of the hungry monkeys. They have devised methods like covering up their banana plants before they are ripe, to an outright refusal to sow maize and cassava. The monkeys improvise by sending in their kids to pinch the ripe fruits much to the annoyance of the farmers.
Others are not as understanding and patient with the monkeys as John, Bada and the Briton. To them, monkeys are wild animals to be trapped, killed and eaten. Sources t
old the magazine that a policeman who was invited to campus to keep the peace shot and killed several of them. That action of his startled the university and he was sent packing. But that was not all that the university did. It forbade any kind of hunting of any other animal on the campus, apart from the monkeys. In spite of this however, Igbo Obo ‘inhabitants’ have an arch-enemy in a hunter called Mordi. He is attached to the University of Lagos as a security official. He told the magazine that he had killed, eaten and sold monkeys that could fill up two large monkey zoos. Armed with a silent gun, a catapult, Mordi takes advantage of them at breakfast-times, and usually aims for the young ones. ‘If you want to eat monkey meat, just give me two days and I will supply you all you need’, he said. Each monkey costs from N1, 500 to 2,000, and those who want their monkeys alive pay more.
Igbo Obo monkeys have their ways of insisting on their rights to live on that campus. As soon as they hear the sound of Mordi’s approaching motorbike, one of them gives out a sound which is a signal that they must retreat into the belly of the forest. According to Iya John, there was a certain day when Mordi took aim as usual, and shot an infant monkey dead. As he approached to pick up his quarry, about 10 other monkeys fell on him. They bit, scratched and tried to wrestle Mordi to the ground but they failed. A determined Mordi managed to make off with his kill, which he said ended up in his pot of soup the following day.
If the monkeys could fight off human predators like Mordi, nobody knows how they cope with other challenges. First of all, there are reports that the monkeys are usually electrocuted by the naked wires around the 133 KVA power plant opposite the university bookshop. But that, it appears, cannot compare to what everyone is likely to suffer if the monkeys are infected with the by-products from the sewage that is regularly channeled to their forest. Taiwo Idowu, parasitologist and lecturer at the Zoology department of the University of Lagos, confirmed that monkeys carry viruses that can easily spread to humans. ‘Take the case of the HIV Virus that is allegedly from apes and monkeys from East Africa. There are stories that the virus entered humans from close contact with some of these monkeys. For now however, there are no reports yet of any outbreak of diseases among students or staff from contact with the wild animals. They don’t pose any likely threat’, he said.
Part of what Bada came up with during her 7-month study of the monkeys in Igbo Obo shows that there is slight difference between monkeys and their human cousins. ‘They suffer the same diseases like we do, they eat virtually everything we eat apart from pepper and oil, the court, date and have forms of culture and government like we have. In fact, these monkeys carry genes that have been used to develop an anti-rabies vaccine’, she said. But Bada is not happy that the university has not exploited the large presence of the monkeys and other wildlife on the campus to construct a mini-zoo both for research and tourism interests. ‘Some of my fellow students applied to the university for funds to start a mini-zoo, but it did not see the light of day, probably because there were no funds’, Bada told the magazine.
Authorities of the University of Lagos said that they have not tinkered with the idea of developing Igbo Obo into a world-class tourism haven. Harrison Longe, dean of Student affairs of the University said that if the university will ever do that, it is not in the near future. But plans by the university to give out some of the lands occupied by the monkeys in Igbo Obo to banks and other corporate interests interested is certainly a development that the monkeys will suffer from. There are speculations that the University’s wildlife conservation society is comatose and may be unable to protect the monkeys when the forests will begin to give way to the many banks and corporate bodies that are fast springing up in Unilag. Akeem Kadiri, a member of the University of Lagos wildlife conservation society said that apart from arresting whomsoever is arrested for killing the monkeys in Igbo Obo and handing them over to the police, there is nothing much anybody can do for now concerning the welfare of the ‘inhabitants’ of Igbo Obo.
From the way things stand now, the only person in the whole world ready to stake a lot in the interest of the ‘inhabitants’ of Igbo obo appears to be Iya John, their one true friend.