The Monkey Cemetery

It is raining now, and when I say “rain” I am not joking.  Nothing like this is found in my home in upstate New York.

We are in the rainy season of West Africa that runs roughly from April to August.  Though it rains frequently, it doesn’t rain constantly.  This season offers a wide menu of diverse rains from light misty precipitation to ferocious floods that create waterfalls off the edges of roofs.  These heavy tropical downpours do not distinguish between dirt and paved roads.  They cut deep gashes into both.

When it doesn’t rain, the air is thick with humidity.  The equatorial sun seems to boil the moisture hanging in the air and it feels like breathing the steam of a teakettle.  The volatile, moist, hot air creates waves of thermal updrafts that the large birds of Ghana really enjoy.  Vultures barely need to flap their lumbering wings when they find these thermals.  They ride the unpredictable contours of hot and not-so-hot air, using them to go about the business of everyday survival.

We traveled north last weekend to the Brong Awafo Region. Our bus was one of several that, like those vultures negotiating every bump in the air, crawled over countless pot holes (some the size of a Volkswagon) and deep ravines that were cut into the road by the previous night’s downpour. Without the grace of the vultures, the tall coach bus heaved and complained with the squeaks and bangs of metal scraping on metal…axles stressed to the limit.  If we were to reach our destination, there was no choice but to follow the rough, unpredictable road that nature gave us.  What little control we had over this semi-wild environment was concentrated in the hands of our masterful driver named Thomas.   He seemed to navigate them as easily and the large soaring birds navigate the thermals on a sunny day. Not the rest of us. We awkwardly bounced around the seat cushions with every wrinkle in the road. We were the guests.  We were the strangers. Our bus, our cameras, and our ipods made us look like visitors from some other planet in this lush, pulsating, green world.  We passed by a single construction vehicle, clearing dense vegetation for a new road.  But even the bulk of this massive bulldozer seemed to fight a losing battle against the singular will of the forest.

We eventually arrived in Boabeng.  The story goes that a hunter wandered into this area in 1827 in search of water.  At the river’s edge, he met a fetish, a forest spirit who protected the local Moma and Colobus monkeys.  The fetish told the hunter that if his people came to live there, they would need to live with the monkeys and never harm them.  The fetish explained that if they killed one of the monkeys, one of them would die soon afterward.  The hunter returned to his people and told them of the deal the fetish had proposed.  They agreed, and at the site of a huge ficus tree, their village was founded.  Since that time, the people and the monkeys have lived together according to this mutual agreement.  The monkeys attract tourists like us. We bring in a little extra income into this small village. In return, the villagers care for the monkeys, making sure that their habitat is kept safe from damaging forms of intrusion.  This has been working well for a long time.  The monkey population continues to grow with the help of their human partners.

We stopped several times to watch these two species of monkeys dance through the maze of tree branches.  The Momas were generally comfortable with us humans. Even though the Colobus monkeys stayed higher in the trees, they seemed willing to relax, drape their long, white ribbon tails over the branches, and allow us to fill up lots of digital real estate in our cameras.

At the end of the tour, we met Daniel. Daniel is a 50 year old Moma.  He showed up on the edge of the monkey cemetery with much of his extended family behind him.  Daniel walked with utter confidence among us, all the while showing the young ones the proper way to interact with the humans.  While some of the grandchildren dangled from low hanging limbs to the delight of our students, Daniel strolled over to a small patch of forest devoted to monkeys that have died.  Part of the partnership here includes a proper burial for monkeys. If they die in the forest, the villagers cover the body in a white clothe and bring it back for burial.  Often times, monkeys that anticipate their death (due to sickness or old age) emerge from the forest and come to the middle of the village to die.  Each monkey has a wooden grave marker stating its name, age, and date of birth.  Along side the monkeys, lies the fetish priest (who acted as the voice of the forest spirit).  This is a rare case where human and animal share a final resting place.  It is a testament to their profound connection. Daniel chose one of the wooden grave markers and gracefully jumped upon it.  He sat there for a long time, dividing his attention between his extended family behind him and the curious large primates with cameras and sneakers in front of him.  While the wonders of the forest often elicited joyous laughter and giggles from our students, Daniel demanded from us a certain level of respect.  His presence provided the appropriate gravitas to this sacred place. Our group got noticeably quieter without any human instruction.

In the Catholic tradition, there are stories of saints that helped negotiate the forces of the created world with the needs of human beings.  One of the most popular stories involves St. Francis and a ferocious wolf.  A frigid winter destroyed the food source for the animals that lived in the forest near the medieval hill town of Gubbio.  Out of desperation, the animals began entering the town in search of food.  A large wolf soon followed.  He terrorized the villagers.  As fear tightened its grip on Gubbio, a hunting party was assembled to kill the wolf. When St. Francis heard of the situation, he suggested a compromise. If the villagers promised to share some of their food with the wolf, the wolf would promise to stop his violent behavior.  A deal was struck. The wolf became a dear friend and protector of the people of Gubbio.  Like the monkeys of Boabeng, upon his death, the wolf was given a proper funeral and was mourned for many years by the villagers.

Americans have lost much of their connection to the forces of nature.  We proudly control our surroundings with powerful technologies and shrewd business acumen.  While we customize our attention by escaping into the virtual worlds of digital devices, we can easily forget the need to observe and respond to the all-too-real waves of nature’s give and take.  Every once in a while a devastating tornado, hurricane, flood or fire reminds us of the illusion of our control.  Similarly, every once in a while, a visit to a state park reminds us of nature’s staggering beauty that trumps any of our virtual creations.  When our scientists dive deep into the mysteries of the natural world, they add new opportunities to marvel at its power and complexity.  However, when our ability to explain and quantify nature reaches its limit, we are left with stories like Daniel and the people of the Boabeng.   It is these stories that help us navigate the unpredictable twists and turns of our time here in Ghana. That story was backed up by the actions of the Boabeng villagers and the thriving presence of Daniel and his extended family.