Today, I would like to talk to you about Johnny.
In 2011, I made my first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa. I visited South Africa more than any other countries on the continent as well as the small countries of Lesotho, Swaziland and also the south of Mozambique.
I spent 6 weeks traveling alone, mostly on a tourist bus that commuted from a youth hostel to another. It was the safest and convenient way to travel, since the public transportation system in Africa is quite chaotic. On the second week of my trip, I dedicated my time to doing some volunteering work in a monkey and chacma baboon sanctuary on the South African’s coastline.
The refuge is called The Darwin Primate Group and at that time it was located in a village called Crags. But according to the latest news I received, they moved.
I arrived at the refuge at night, led by Steve, an English volunteer who was spending several months there. Karin welcomed us, she was the one who started the project and she was a woman full of energy with a strong personality close to her fifties—even though she looked much younger.
The next day I learned more about Karin as I was watching videos and reading documents saying that she had been working with monkeys for many years and is considered a sort of celebrity in the world of conservation.
There are books and documentaries about the special relationship between the baboons and her, the number of books is just as many as the number of baboons she saved and raised. She even succeeded into rehabilitating and setting several of the baboons free. The country’s current political situation is delicate so is the relationship between the people and the primates.
The farmers complain about vervet monkeys destroying their crops and even about several baboons getting used to breaking into their houses to steal food. It was clearly because they were on their ancestors’ territory. Many other vervet monkeys arrived at the refuge with wounds caused by contact with electrified fences. Because of that, Karin cut the power on her property.
All these issues generate an important quantity of orphaned and injured primates.
But Karin accepts all of them regardless of not having enough funding, except the donations made by private individuals and volunteers.
She was holding a three-month-old baby baboon in her arms. Of course, it was love at first sight, my biggest wish was to hold him in my arms and take care of him. But I just arrived that night and didn’t want to seem too eager.
So I didn’t say anything, I just stared at him with eyes full of love. The small one seemed shy and it was covered in purple spots, which Karin told me that it was a medicine to treat a foot fungus that he had contracted. Johnny’s mother had died and a woman rescued him, and a few days later, he was at the refuge.
There were many other monkeys there, various young and mischievous baboons that would steal anything left unsupervised in the garden. Sometimes, they would go inside the house to see what else they could steal. The rule was not to pet them nor be too friendly with the younger ones since they will be joining the wilder groups at some point.
Also, there were more than 30 vervet baboons separated into different cages or moving freely in the trees. Poor Karin has been attacked by one of them who recently arrived from a house and she had a bandaged face and hands. She was on antibiotics and sedatives, so of course I couldn’t get much closer to them either.
They all had different personalities and it was better not to get them used to people either.
The last one was Johnny, and if I had to care of him all the time, Karin had to ask me if I was concerned of contracting a fungal infection since monkeys could spread the infection to human beings.
I answered no, not if we always make sure to apply the purple fluid that helps dry the fungi. That’s when she told me that, in that case, I could still take care of him. The same care had to be applied to another young female baboon that hugged Johnny when we put him back into a cage he shared with her and other youngsters.
This group was also allowed to get out of the cage, but for their protection, it was best to have them in their cage whenever we couldn’t keep an eye on them. The reason being that groups of wild baboons come at refuge almost every day and the dominant males could attack the baby baboons.
Mika is a very good mother but she doesn’t produce any milk, so we couldn’t let her with Johnny all the time. When he was with me at the beginning, he wouldn’t leave my side, exactly like baby monkeys that cling to their mother 24/7.
As the days went by, he started having more confidence and began to explore the surrounding areas without straying too far away. When we kept him in the house, we made him wear diapers, fed him milk in a bottle and slices of fresh fruits.
At that point, my clothes were completely stained with the liquid medicine and despite my best efforts to clean it up, the stains wouldn’t go away. If I wanted to wash my clothes, I had to hang them inside my room; for fear that baboons would steal them.
Moreover, we had no electricity, no hot water and it was always a bit cold. So I elaborated a whole strategy to be able to take a shower and not end up having monkey pee on my clothes, or maybe at least on some items.
But all that wasn’t that important, Johnny was just adorable: he was suck on his fingers while sleeping, he would tug my clothes beneath the table where he was playing and he slept next to me for two nights.
But this was a tad bit complicated because I had to take him with me whenever I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of night; it was impossible to leave him alone! He would scream as I if I had abandoned him forever!
In my other hand, I had to hold a lantern and watch out for a poisonous snake Karin told me about and that was living in the house or to watch out for the small mice hiding in the kitchen cabinet. Unfortunately, I had to wait until it was morning to change the diapers, even though I REALLY had to change them!
The few times I tried to leave him in his cage just so I could eat or change clothes, he cried out so much that I still feel guilty until this day for leaving him alone.
Steve was of very good company as well; we would chat for hours until late at night or until it was 7 or 8 P.M. Since we didn’t have any electricity, we had to sleep early. The sad thing is, despite the fact that Steve loved apes and was friendly with the vervet monkeys, Johnny was absolutely scared of Steve.
I think he saw Steve as a dominant male; hence Steve couldn’t pet him without him screaming his lungs out of fear and hiding in my arms. Only on a few occasions that Johnny approached Steve like a mouse approaching a cat to see how close it could get right before fleeing the scene.
Every morning we would cut fruits and vegetables for all the other monkeys, or we would cook rice for them—all that using one arm since I used my other arm to hold Johnny, who was holding on to my shirt.
And in the afternoon, we took care of the young primates, observe how the wild monkeys behaved when they visited us, walk the two Huskies as well as rescues, or we would do behavioral enrichment for the monkeys that usually stay in the cages. Aside from that, I also explored the village, the beach and the other primate sanctuaries owned by anyone living nearby.
The week went by fast and before I knew it, it was already time to pack my bags. I still had a month of discovering, visiting national parks and much more left. Steve wondered who would miss the other most: Johnny or me…
Saying my goodbyes to the monkeys and my friends Karin and Steven made me very sad. Luckily, Johnny was with his adoptive mother, Mika, so I knew he was in good hands. Steve told me that it was so amazing meeting me, which added to the pain of leaving them behind and made break out into tears.
And when I start crying, there’s no stopping me. Hence, there I was, still crying in the bus that took me to the next village that night.
Thankfully, Facebook exists and we can still stay in touch. I received several pictures of Johnny, who grew so much. By the way, Karin corrected me: he’s name is actually “Adjony”, which means “brave” in a Nigerian dialect.
It’s a name that fits him perfectly: he’s a brave little monkey who overcame so many obstacles and wouldn’t stop being so adorable. I hope that despite the difficulties the primates go through in South Africa, he will live a long and free life.
Author: Helena Arroyo
Translation: Noëlla Moussa