Monkey trauma – a childhood story from Ghana

Chimpanzees and other primates are fine, but I still have monkey trauma from my childhood.

A present of sweets

In 1964, when I was six and we lived in Ghana, some elements of life from back home were hard to replicate. One was sweets. What Americans call candies. Whatever sweets were then available in the country must have been things things I didn’t like. Or, more probably, things I wasn’t used to. Mum bought “food from home” at the NAAFI, but it was a small general store with only a very limited selection. (It might not actually have been run by the Navy, Army, Air Force Institutes. It may have been a company store or even private enterprise, but all the parents called it the NAAFI. Remembering their war years I suppose.)

This all meant that a present of sweets from home was a big deal.

Monkey trauma: 1950s advert for box of Rowntree's Fruit Gums
1950s advert for box of Rowntree’s Fruit Gums

One day I received a packet from my grandmother that included a box of Rowntree’s Fruit Gums. The boxed gums weren’t like the round coins in rolls that Rowntree’s also made, though they tasted the same. Instead the sweets were formed in moulds that resembled the fruit, or segments of fruit, they tasted of: raspberries, blackcurrants, orange and lemon segments, and gooseberries. At least, that’s what my memory tells me. They were supposed to be better for you than other sweets because they were “made with 25% fruit juice”. I haven’t eaten them for years.

A trawl on the Internet tells me that Nestlé, who own the brand nowadays, still make the fruit-shaped version, though with just 1% fruit juice.

Don’t forget the gums, mum!

Back in 1964, the fruit-shaped gums were unusual since they only came in a box. They were in different colours (rasberry red, blackcurrant purple, gooseberry green etc). They tasted sweet and sour, had a pleasing variety of shapes and rattled intriguingly in their little cardboard box. The box I remember resembled a packet of cigarettes in shape, though perhaps it was a bit thicker. It was yellow with green bands and the lettering was white on green, with a coloured picture of the fruits the gums were made of.

I decided to take this wonderful gift and share it with my best friend David, who lived a few streets away.

It’s an indication of how safe everyone felt in Tema then that I seem to have spent long days out and about with friends or on my own. Not an adult in sight. This day was no exception. Walking to David’s took me out of our street, along the main road and then left down his street. I walked along by the side of the main road, with the open storm drain between me and the occasional traffic. Admiring the picture of the fruit on the box and looking forward to showing the packet to David, I walked without paying much attention. I passed by open front gardens and the occasional decorative mango tree or palm. I must have already opened the box because I was sucking on one of the sweets. Just, you understand, for reasons of quality control.

Suddenly the box was snatched from my hands.

Bullied by a monkey

Monkey trauma: Angry monkey with another Rowntree's ad
Angry monkey with another Rowntree’s ad

A monkey in one of the garden trees had leapt on me and stolen my sweets. Now it retreated up into its tree again. The monkey was a pet. It had a leather belt around its waste with a long leather leash that was attached to the trunk of the tree. But it clearly had enough freedom to be able to get all the way out of the garden and down to the roadside.

The monkey sat up on a branch in its tree and turned the box over and over in its long fingered hands. I stood by the road, red in the face, and shouted up at it. Furious rather than distraught, I demanded the monkey bring my sweets back. It ignored me, found how to open the box and started to take out the sweets and cram them into its mouth. I redoubled my shouting and came up closer to the tree. Though I was reluctant to enter a stranger’s garden, it wasn’t clear where the garden started. I got close enough to the tree to put my hand on the trunk.

My eyes were on the box of sweets and the monkey, and I was still shouting. I was trying to reach the leash to pull the monkey down. What I would have done if I’d managed, I don’t know. The monkey wasn’t even half my 6-year-old size, but it had sharp teeth. I’m sure it would have bitten me, and that would have been another story altogether.

Monkey trauma

Monkey trauma: this one with an old Fruit Pastilles box with green and white lettering
Angry monkey with old Fruit Pastilles box with green and white lettering

But that didn’t happen. When it saw me reaching for the leash the monkey started screaming and chattering back at me. Obviously it didn’t much like the sweets it had in its mouth. It started spitting them at me, and taking the ones that remained in the box to throw at me too. It was very accurate.

Now the monkey was screaming and I was still shouting, and crying out because the monkey was hitting me with the sweets. Yet, as far as I remember, we attracted no attention. It was like the whole neighbourhood was completely deserted. There was just the monkey and me.

Finally the monkey threw the empty box at me and retreated further up into the tree. I tried to pick up some of the sweets, but the ones I could find were chewed and covered with monkey saliva. Dirt and leaves stuck to them, and also some ants.

In the end, I took the box and left the sweets. I didn’t go on to David’s. What was the point? Instead I went home, in fury and weeping, and told my mother the story. She comforted me, but I had the feeling she found it all very funny too.

Personally, I didn’t see the funny side until quite a long time after. And I notice I’m still angry about the monkey’s theft even now, 56 years later.


Notes

This post comes as a response to my Writers Abroad friend Pete Armstrong’s challenge to “share your own stories of wildlife you’ve nearly walked into” in last weeks WA blog post. Though now I think about it, I’m not sure if a pet monkey counts as wildlife. I suppose I walked into the monkey’s territory, if not into the monkey itself.

Illustrations in the above are adapted from Rowntree’s advertisements on-line. Plus the monkey comes courtesy of Ryan McVay and Getty Images. (Yes, I paid for it!) It’s a Capuchin monkey, so not the same sort as the one I remember, but it seemed appropriately threatening.

The subheading “Don’t forget the gums, mum!” was an advertising slogan Rowntree’s used in the early 60s.


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