Feral ‘Monkey Boy’ – a tale of the unexpected
Last year I flew to Kampala to research the case of John Ssebunya, better known as the ‘Monkey Boy of Uganda’.
As a child he’d reportedly survived in the forests of southern Uganda with the help of monkeys. He gibbered, scampered, only ate bananas, was covered in hair.
Was this a tall tale, a juicy hoax? Were there people in a village nearby agreeing their stories and sniggering over how much they could lead a daft anthropologist up the garden path, over the stile and into the jungle of fantasy?
There’s clear precedent for informants ‘in the field’ misleading, wilfully or otherwise, nosy outsiders who ask too many questions.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead made her name in the 1920s and 30s telling the world about how teenagers in Samoa indulged in free sexual liaisons and that’s why they lacked the expected teen angst, anger and rebellion. According to Mead, Samoa was a conflict-free, free-love paradise and this went to show that humans are cultural blank slates, tabula rasa, and our behaviour is shaped entirely by learned social rules and influences.
Well, she was wrong. The girls she’d spoken to told her what she wanted to hear, and they delighted in making up tales of sexual adventure. They didn’t realise that she was going to use their stories as the basis for asserting ‘cultural determinism’ as the primary ideology in American social science. They didn’t realise that the American academy would laud her, or that her findings would be used to advocate casual sex for young people as cultural progress.
Mead had deadlines to meet and professors to impress. But she had also had a hunch, and then went to find the stories and informants to support her hypothesis.
The challenge of researching a so-called feral child case is that it’s quite likely a hoax from the off. Someone has dragged out a disabled kid whose wordless vocalisations can be interpreted as the howling of a wolf-child; their spasticity becomes evidence of imitating the wings, claws or paws of their host species.
We humans like stories. We constantly seek ways to explain – especially when confronted by incomprehensible misfortune, or cruelty, or physical difference.
Is that what happened with the ‘Monkey Boy’?
Vervet monkeys will tolerate non-threatening humans. A small child would theoretically be able to keep up with the monkeys as they travelled around their territory. It’s possible to avoid starvation by eating what vervets eat, especially if they regularly crop-raid farmers’ fields. Like us, vervets prefer to eat sweet bananas and white potatoes to the fibrous plants available in the wild forest. And like us, they’re social animals. They communicate, they groom, they choose to stick together. On paper, it is at least feasible for a child to survive with vervet monkeys.
But it was meeting the man who allegedly found this boy back in 1992 that made me think this story was true. When he brought John back to the village, some folk wanted to kill the child – they thought it was a monster, a semi-human spirit from the forest. Evil, dangerous, better off dead. They were angry with him for bringing it into their midst.
The fact that people wanted to kill the child was not part of the tale I expected to hear. This wasn’t part of the standard feral-child hoax yarn.
Always alert to being told what you want to hear, the fact of the unexpected was what gave me a hunch we were investigating a real case.
FERAL CHILDREN: The Monkey Boy of Uganda screens on Animal Planet on Monday 24th at 9pm
www.feralchildren.infoTagged in: anthropology, biology, child abuse, disability, documentary, feral children, monkeys, psychology, survival, tv, Uganda, wild child
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