Creative Nonfiction

Monkey Tales

I had pet monkeys. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, sent to Nigeria fifty years ago, I landed in the small village of Abuja, and yearned for adventure. The daily routine of getting up early, teaching half the day, returning home for breakfast, then completing the days’ obligation by one p.m., felt bland. I was in a foreign country. I wanted to do things that were “foreign.”

I began to visit with the brother of the Emir, the local chief, for Hausa lessons. I practiced my emerging Hausa skills at the local market. Befriending the brother of a chief, known as the Dallatu, seemed a bit adventurous, and it gave me a way to talking more easily with the Nigerians around town. He spent time explaining local customs to me, and taking me out to meet local craftsmen. 

The Dallatu had been one of the first Northern Nigerians, a Hausa, to learn English. War II loomed. The British looked at the map. They wanted to have English speakers in Northern Nigeria. If the war being fought in the desert of Northern Africa should fail, their line of retreat took them into Nigeria and they needed people they could work with there. The Dallatu headed up the group of men brought to London for this.

One adventure lined up, I moved on. I saw a merchant come into the market with a baby monkey tethered, and perched on his shoulder. I fell in love. Pointing to the monkey, I asked, “How much.

“Five pounds!” ($15). I could afford an exotic pet, worthy of any adventure! 

I walked away enamored. I imagined the fun awaiting me.

I looked at my house. Called a Coseley, it was a prefabricated structure, its walls constructed from what seemed to be reinforced cardboard. Its roof was galvanized tin. Among the cluster of rooms in each house was a laundry room. This alcove had a window, cabinets under the window and a rusted curtain rod across the it. We had no electricity, and employed a servant to do our laundry, so the room, unused now, seemed perfect. I put out a call to the door-to-door merchants.

I did not have to wait long to get my first monkey. More than one of the merchants heard of my interest. Three showed up at my door that evening. I chose a male. His body was about a foot tall, with long legs, and arms, and a snaky tail. With gray fur and bluish skin, he looked rather green. I bought him for only one pound.

The merchant tried to convince me to keep him tethered. “Oh, but Madame, he run away. He be supper for hyena!”

“No, I want him to learn he will be safe here. Besides I bet he can run fast, himself, and climb trees to escape any hyena coming after him.”I threw a couple of bananas his way and closed him into the laundry room. I named him Hubert.

I learned quickly, monkeys cannot be housebroken. And I was not going to put him in diapers. So Hubert became an outside pet. From the first day, he hung around the house. He climbed the trees in the yard, spent his time in them, and running back and forth across the tin roof. He willingly climbed through the laundry window for bananas the first night and every night after that

At first he was leery of me, but as he got his share of bananas, he tamed down a great deal. As long as I sat outside, I enjoyed snuggling with him. He climbed all over me.

I began to bring him with me, from time to time, when I taught in the school 300 yards down the hill from our house. He stayed on my shoulder for an hour or so, then escaped through the window and ran on home.

One day, Hubert came with me to school. He sat on my shoulder as I taught a lesson on liquids and solids. He peed on my shoulder. My students commented on the liquid nature of his urine. I grabbed him by the tail and threw him out the window. A dog ran by under that window and chased Hubert. I watched as Hubert doubled back, under the dog’s legs. The dog could not figure out where Hubert ran.

All of a sudden the electricity came on. The school compound was wired for electricity, but the generator operator, an alcoholic, only turned it on at dusk. Why the power now?

A moment later, an older student ran into the room. “Ms. Metlay. Your monkey is dead. The generator operator, he electrocuted him.”

After grieving Hubert for several weeks, I put out the word that I wanted another monkey. It took several more weeks for a merchant to come by with any monkey. This one was somewhat larger. He was not as calm and tame as Hubert had been. 

I found out then that the minority tribe in the area, the Gwari, caught these baby monkeys, then tied them up until someone wanted a monkey feast. While the monkeys were tied up they were subjected to a great deal of harassment. 

I remembered a trip I made with the Dallatu to see craftsmen carve intricate mahogany doors for their chief’s hut. I had been invited to stay for a meal. The stew had several small hand-like pieces of meat floating in it. With horror, I realized I’d eaten monkey meat!

Knowing that if I did not take this somewhat older monkey, he would continue to be poked and prodded for a few more months until his paws, too, ended in a stew, I took him. I removed his tether and threw him a banana. He grabbed the banana, peeled it and ate it. I did not want to tie him up. I figured that if he ran away he’d have to cope for himself. I named him Ulysses.

For the first few days, Ulysses ran a short distance, then stopped. Then he ran again. This was his learned behavior after being tied up for so long. The distance he ran increased by the day, but he remained uncomfortable being touched by me. Like Hubert, he ran around the trees outside our house, then climbed through the window of the laundry room at dusk. He loved bananas, too.

I had enjoyed having a tamed monkey with Hubert, and I missed the times I’d held him. Word went out. I wanted another monkey. Leon was brought to the house. Leon was tiny. When I first acquired him, he could not jump onto the cabinets under the window in the laundry room. He was unable, for several months, to climb up onto the curtain rod, so Ulysses slept with him on the floor. I watched as Ulysses coached Leon in the finer points of climbing. Within a week or so both monkeys clattered across the roof of our Coseley. And, with the addition of Leon, Ulysses warmed up to me.

Most neighbors viewed me as strange. Nigerians felt the monkeys were only good for the minority tribe’s feasts. The missionaries believed this pet was some sort of an abomination. Once the three year old daughter of a missionary turned to her parents, “I looked just like that when I was a baby, didn’t I, Mommy!” She was shushed on the spot. No possibility of evolution!

Ulysses recognized Nigerians as having tortured him. When they came to call at the house he hid in the bushes by the walk, and jumped onto their ankles, biting them. He ignored all ex-patriots.

Our next door neighbor went home to Pakistan and returned with a bundle of narcissus bulbs. He carefully tended these exotic blooms. When they reached the bloom’s peak, he invited me over to see them. My monkeys followed. As we feasted on chicken and rice, I looked out in horror. Ulysses had the most beautiful bloom dangling from his mouth. As we watched, he slurped it in greedily, as if it were a strand of spaghetti with a meatball attached. Our host threw us out of his house, he was so angry!

One of my breakfast favorites was French toast. When I had it, I gave each monkey his own one-slice serving. One day, I gave them a slice with jam on it. From that day on, if their French toast didn’t have a smear of jam, they protested loudly until I came out and added it.

Another favorite activity of the monkeys was to watch until I combed my hair. It was long, so I tried to put it up. If the monkeys saw me working on this project through the window, they dive-bombed me when I walked out the door, messing up my hair. If I retreated to rearrange it, they got me a second time.

I tried, from time to time, to grow produce of our own to supplement the sparse offerings of the local market. I tried cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes, watermelon and eggplant. Leon and Ulysses made short work of most of these. When the watermelon fruits began to grow, I carefully tied plastic around them to ward off the monkeys. One got to be six inches in diameter. Leon ambled by and climbed into my lap. I smelled his breath, watermelon! I threw him away by his tail!

The eggplants were the only plant that survived both the Nigerian growing conditions and the monkeys. I had about 15 of them, but, I quickly grew tired of them. My garden boy had dinner for a few days!

As I neared the end of our two-year commitment to the Peace Corps, I pondered what to do with the monkeys. They would never survive if I simply let them go. It would not take long for them to land in a stew pot, whether or not Ulysses umped their ankles.

Two weeks before our termination date we were called to the national capitol, Lagos, for debriefing. I returned after four days. Leon was not there. “He be supper for the chief,” my garden boy told me.

I found a couple in Minna, thirty miles away, who had an enclosure with three female monkeys. Ulysses, close to mature now, was happy to go in there. After losing Leon, I realized letting him ru free was not that safe for him.

And I returned to the States with many memories of spending almost two years with these unusual pets.

January 28, 2021 15:52

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