After Agortime-Kpetoe, we made our way to Tafi Atome to frolic with some protected monkeys.
It doesn’t appear to be common knowledge, but there is a Monkey Sanctuary in Tafi Atome. Seven different monkey clans live and move around in this protected, U-shaped forest, which curves around the human-inhabited village.
Before coming to the monkeys themselves, there was one intriguing stop we made during our trek deeper into the forest. We came upon a two-in-one tree. I’ve forgotten what type of tree the legit tree was, because it wasn’t my point of interest. I was more concerned with the tree covering it.
This was my first time seeing a Ficus aurea tree. It’s a kind of life-sucking, parasitical plant that grows around another tree. The Ficus itself is incapable of self-sustenance, so it only grows and survives by feeding on a different tree’s life force: the one it’s wrapped around. But the Ficus, in doing this, kills the original tree, and when that’s dead, since the Ficus has no more life to suck, it dies too. Isn’t this a morbid story? The teenage tour guide told us it was a metaphor for life, about how you can help your neighbor to survive and that same neighbor can eventually turn around and hurt, betray or kill you. It’s supposed to be one of those proverbial, philosophical distins the elders tell you about life, validated through nature.
I love forests, but two things get in my way of enjoying them. One is the fact that I wear glasses. The other is that I am deathly afraid of snakes. So it really doesn’t help when you’re walking through a thick forest, and the people in front of you start screaming, and then you’re hearing rustling sounds in the leaves and trees but can’t see where they’re coming from and you suddenly start remembering all the stories your grandfather told you about his primary school struggles, walking miles and miles barefoot and always having to be on guard since the most common afflictions in his community were snakebites on the heel and… I’m sure you get the picture.
We eventually got to a clan of monkeys, and the tour guide finally put my mind at ease by informing our party of how the snakes in the forest never bothered anyone when the monkeys were present. (Now I know that if I ever decide to live in the Volta Region, best believe I’mma have a couple pet monkeys with me.)
The monkey specie is known as Mona. Apparently, it’s the only specie in the Tafi Atome forest.
The little rascals were playful and greedy. Our tour guide showed us the proper way to feed them bananas and make the feeding game drag out for as long as possible. You peeled a tiny fraction off the top of the banana, then squatted and held it out firmly. The monkeys would cautiously come over, break off the exposed piece of banana, then run away to eat it. They were strong, with firm grips, so you slack noor, they’ve snatched the entire banana from you and run beyond reach, leaving you befuddled.
I don’t quite know how to describe the sounds the monkeys made. The most accurate I can get is calling it a three-way intersection between a human clearing their throat, a high-pitched cat mewl, and the caw of a crow. I do know, however, that when I heard a louder, deeper version of the same sound, I actually got scared. It turned out that it was being made by the Alpha Male, who had come out to join the fun. The Alpha Male was the only male in the clan – and I learnt this was the same in all the other clans – and it was much larger and more serious than all the other monkeys.
The Alpha Male’s dominance and aggression was fascinating to me; whenever he was eating, he wouldn’t allow any of the females to eat, until he was done. Nevertheless, some of the females just didn’t respect, and tried to grab some bananas from us anyway. The pissed Alpha Male with the bruised ego always fought them until they gave it up.
Here’s a peculiarity about the Tafi Atome monkey: Nobody has ever found a dead monkey’s carcass in the forest. The only time a dead monkey has been found in the history of the village (at least since the sanctuary’s inception) is once, when an Alpha Male was trying to cross the street and a car hit and killed it. Aside that, nada. This, apparently, is not a normal monkey thing. In other sanctuaries in other parts of the country, the human employees and caretakers construct special cemeteries in which to bury dead monkeys. I’m sure Tafi Atome could have had one if they needed to, but it seems they don’t. Either the monkeys are immortal gods (which is a strange conclusion, since several of the females were pregnant and reproducing, yet the forest was never over-populated), or they have secret burial rituals that they understandably never want humans to be privy to. Super cool!
Our tour guide told us that presently, about 95% (or did he say 98%?) of the Tafi Atome population was made up of “Christians”, and that the remaining 5% (or 2%) were still “traditionalists”. Although I don’t know who exactly these traditionalists are, I imagine them to be old folks who are going to die soon. This makes me sad, particularly because in the Ewe context, one of the main reasons these monkeys are being protected is that they are considered to be messengers of the gods. It’s all connected to Tafian origin migration history, which, as is the case with much African history, is at least partly magical. The spiritual aspect is immensely important, especially considering why the sanctuary exists in the first place. Here’s the story, paraphrased from how our guide gave it to us:
When the European missionaries first came to Tafi Atome, they brought with them – as all the stories of “civilizing missions” seem to go – lots of violence. It seemed there was a rather specific violence directed towards the Mona monkeys. (I presume it was because the Europeans’ aim was to spread Christianity, and these sacred “messengers of the gods” were getting in their way because of how tied they were to local belief systems.) So, they apparently had to go. The monkeys were killed and their habitat was shrunk to accommodate for all the things the Europeans wanted to use the land to build. Understandably, this caused an ultimate monkey-human rivalry. In a community where, apparently, the humans and the monkeys used to live in perfect harmony – aside from the occasional theft from humans’ farms, which still happens – now the monkeys grew fearful and hateful of the humans and began reciprocating the violence. So, that’s the part about the role European missionaries played, which is my least favorite part of the story.
Next comes my second least-favorite part: the Americans. It appears, somewhere very late in the twentieth century, maybe eighties or nineties (my memory is shot, and I don’t seem to have enough sense to write important details down as soon as I hear them), some Americans from Peace Corps showed up in Eweland, and they were environmentalists, conservationists, all the -ists, and they were completely appalled by what was happening to the forest and the monkeys. It was these American activists that put a restriction on the Christian monkey massacre and established the sanctuary and made the protective laws currently being enforced. And get this: to this day, the government still has no part in the maintenance and governance of the sanctuary. Annually, some more Americans come to Tafi Atome to do maintenance and administrative stuff. For some unknown reason, however, none of them showed up in 2017.
Related: Things as simple as the provision of benches in the forest for tourists to just take a break from standing and trekking, are all left up to the Americans as well. The benches closest to us, when we got the farthest we would go, were ridden with termites, and my octogenarian grandfather could not sit down. Best believe he wasn’t one to blow off a chance to vocally highlight this problem. Granted, our teenage guide was not to blame for the termites. In fact, on his part, he was even trying. It turns out that the appointed Face of Tourism for the Volta Region had no clue the Tafi Atome monkey sanctuary existed, and our guide himself had to call her up and inform her. The government has apparently been actively ignoring the sanctuary’s existence, and refusing to claim any worthwhile responsibility – monetarily, legislatively, everything-ly – and thus contributing to the sanctuary’s continued dependency on abrokyirefoɔ. Headache.