John Ssebunya, The Ugandan Monkey Boy

14th June 2010

It is generally accepted that John Ssebunya was cared for at least to some extent by green African (vervet) monkeys while in the jungle.

Captured by hunters

Details are confused, but it seems John was found by a tribeswoman or girl (called Millie) in 1991, hiding in a tree. She returned with menfolk from the village and, as is so often the case, not only did John resist capture but also his adoptive family came to his defence, throwing sticks at the villagers.

Hypertrichosis

Initial reports suggest John Ssebunya's entire body was covered with hair. When he defecated, he excreted worms over half a metre long.

Once captured and cleaned up — he was covered in scars and wounds, with knees scarred from crawling — he was identified as John Ssebunya. He was given by Millie to the care of Paul and Molly Wasswa, who run a charitable foundation for orphans. He couldn't talk or cry initially, but has subsequently learned to speak. This suggests that he may have learned some speech before his stay in the wild.

From monkey boy to choir boy

John now not only talks but also sings, and tours with the Pearl of Africa children's choir. John was the subject of the BBC documentary Living Proof, screened on 13 October 1999.

John Ssebunya — the facts revealed

John lived in Kabonge village near Bombo, north of Kampala. The village has no real centre but is just a series of houses and smallholdings spread out over a few square miles. John ran and hid in a forest, about 2-3 km from his house after witnessing the murder of his mother by his father. His father was known to be an alcoholic and violent.

John says he was so frightened of his father that he stayed in the forest. It is possible that he had some degree of mental handicap at that time and this may have contributed to the fact that he did not understand that he should have sought help from other adults.

He was aged roughly 4 or 5 at the time that he was found in 1989 according to witnesses like Mrs Milly Sseba who found him in the forest. There is no birth certificate.

I also spoke to a woman from another part of the village who had glimpsed John in the forest with the monkeys from time to time and who said to me "I could not catch him and bring him to my house because he was like a wild animal". Millie Sseba had a different attitude and attempted to rescue him as soon as she saw him. He was on the point of death from malnutrition and treated for parasitic worms. Had she not captured him on the day that she did he probably would have died within days and his story would never have been known.

At the time the fields near the forest were relatively unguarded owing to the effects of the previous 8 years of civil war in that area which caused frequent population movements. According to villagers the forest strip was heavily populated with monkeys at the time because of the civil war. Normally the people of Uganda would control monkeys as they are universally regarded as pests and vermin and are either killed or chased away on sight. Ugandans do not have any friendly feelings towards monkeys in the way that we might have when we see them in Zoos and Safari Parks. This is an important point.

I visited the forest in question and even today with a much reduced monkey population there were signs (when I filmed) that the monkeys were "crop raiding" — ie, they were running into the adjacent fields and stealing bananas and cassava and yams.

John says that in the forest he came across a group of monkeys. He says he was able to eat crops that the monkeys raided from the fields and that he went into the fields and stole food as well. There is no proof that the monkeys fed him — primatologists would regard this as very unlikely but are quite happy to accept that the monkeys stole more food than they needed and dropped some on the ground and John picked it up from the ground and ate it.

John identified the monkeys as Cercopithicus Aethiops (the common African Grey or Green Vervet Monkey). This is very significant as this is one of the very few species of mammal that lives in social groups and will accept and tolerate a lone individual of another species of monkey living alongside their group. Other monkeys and apes will not do this — chimpanzees for example would simply eat a human child.

The primatologist Dr Debbie Cox working at the Uganda Wildlife and Education Centre in Entebbe was able to observe John's behaviour with a group of Cercopithicus Aethiops and from her expert standpoint pronounced that John was unique in her experience in that he was able to interact and communicate with the monkeys to a degree that she had never seen before in an untrained individual.

She has observed Ugandan children with pet monkeys and they do not learn the monkeys' social behaviour in such circumstances. There is no evidence that John ever came into contact with monkeys before he went into the forest, and his life is documented since to the extent that one can say categorically that he has had no experience of monkeys since he was rescued from the forest. Monkeys are regarded as vermin as I said before and the worst insult a Ugandan can deliver is "You are the son of a monkey".

Dr Cox estimated that to have learnt the complex body languages and sounds that John exhibited, he must have been accepted and tolerated as a peripheral member of a group of Cercopithicus Aethiops. For a lone individual this acceptance normally takes several months — at least two and probably four or more — hence she concluded that John must have spent a period of several months with a group of Cercopithicus Aethiops.

However those findings are not evidence that the Tarzan myth is true (although they may show how the myth could arise apocryphally from a basis in fact). John was not raised by monkeys nor stolen by a baby, instead it is indisputable that he lived alongside a group of Cercopithicus Aethiops for several months and was tolerated and accepted as a peripheral member of the group but not a full member with a place in the social hierarchy. He is able to "play" with Cercopithicus Aethiops — you or I attempting to do so without prior knowledge or training would be attacked and/or injured if we attempted the same. It takes months to train students or keepers to the same level as John displays. He ran away and was able to survive in the forest because of a set of fortunate circumstances, but even so he would have died and been forgotten had he not been rescued when he was.

Mille Sseba described him as covered in body hair. At the time of recording the film I thought this might have been his clothes which had rotted on his body and had mould growing on them and Millie mistook this for body hair. However, I have subsequently learnt that pronounced hirsutism can be one of the sequels of chronic malnutrition in a child of John's age, and this would be further supportive evidence that Millie's recollection and anecdotal evidence was correct.

There are many witnesses who saw John when he was rescued. None sought publicity for him — indeed, he was kept from the public because of the perceived shamefulness of his experiences — it was only by chance the story appeared 10 years later as part of a web page about a charity that had taken him in.

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