Of Mangoes and Monkeys


Every afternoon the giant mango tree, shading my little tin and wood cottage, is visited by the resident troop of Vervet monkeys. Small grey creatures, some with the most outrageous sky blue testis, which are beacons of their manliness and dominance, come to feast on the hard, green and spine shakingly sour mangoes. The monkeys sway high in the branches, tasting and discarding several mangoes before finally settling down to eat one. With visions of becoming a famous wildlife photographer I watch and wait, camera in hand, for the perfect shot. The monkeys have other ideas I soon become the target of dozens of half eaten mangoes. The monkeys know how to aim a mango.

The Indian spice vendor down in the Victoria market assures me that this is the ideal time for picking mangoes to make mango chutney. Laughingly I suggest that I swap green mangoes for samoosas. He is very keen but who will climb the tree? I assure him that with all the mangoes being flung about at my place that would hardly be necessary, but apparently monkey-bite mangoes are not in high demand.

Perhaps I should train the monkeys to just throw the mangoes at me before tasting them, they seem bright enough. Sometimes too bright as I soon discover. While absorbed in writing I sense another presence in the cottage. Turning I find a young female standing in the doorway. Shoo! Get out! Yell I, she jumps onto the terrace chair. Go away! I command in my most menacing tone, she takes a languid leap onto the table. I storm at her with all the aggression I can muster; she hops onto the roof, then dangles upside down. Watching. What ever will I do next?

What indeed? I am not about to climb the roof, so I fling a mango at her. Pathetic, she looks at me in pity. Shamefaced I get back to my typing. Only for her to arrive at the doorway again. We repeat the above scenario several times, I do however leave out the mango-throwing bit, it was all just too embarrassing. Finally, exasperated I call a friend more experienced than I in living with monkeys, her only comment. Stop playing with the monkeys and get back to work.

Simply ignoring the antics of my daily visitors worked well until yesterday, when a loud squealing drew my attention. As I stepped outside an adult male, the blue balls are unmistakable, fell off the roof. Teeth still bared he gave me one glance and set upon me with menace. Whoa, that’s no way for neighbours to behave, thought I, leaping back into the house slamming the door in his face. The bedroom window! I broadside into the bedroom just as the monkey also makes a run for it. Fortunately the sash window doesn’t stick this time and he bounces back off the glass. Not deterred he tries again and again. Brilliant photo moment, I point my camera and in so doing scare the fight right out of him. He leaps into the dense green foliage of the mango tree, scattering lesser monkeys in all directions.

The lesson to be learnt from this: If a monkey is harassing you wave a camera at him.

The monkeys are however not deterred for long … with a small tingling in my spine I can sense another presence, I am not alone, someone is in the tin cottage with me. Cautiously I peer into the living room.

A streak of grey bounds past the bedroom door and seeing me, levitates through the open front door, in his hand bright yellow. My bananas! Hey! That’s my breakfast! I bellow, charging after the little thief. He leaps onto the purple jacarada carpeted terrace, skids on the slippery blossoms, looses his grip on the bananas and sees them flying off as his momentum throws him under the garden bench. With a tremendous leap I land right by my prize, scoop up the fallen fruit and shout my triumph at that looser monkey who now has a different set of problems.

The rest of the troop spies the two remaining bananas in his paw. They descend on the thief as he desperately peels and stuffs the fruit into his mouth. But a monkey mouth is only so big, the bulk of the prize goes to the troop. I realize that the bananas in my hand are soon to be the next target and beat a hasty retreat into the house.

It seems though I have bigger problems. The monkeys come right onto the veranda, one bold chap sits in the doorway, all eyes on the bananas. I know a territory tussle when I see one and this calls for action.

Decisions decisions, beat them over the head with a broomstick or haul out the can of mace. But being a passive creature at heart I take the intellectual point of view. When plonking oneself into the midst of a brand new culture it has been proven through the ages to be fallacious to attempt to conquer and destroy the will of the natives. They merely become more hostile and a source of constant aggression is the result.

Looking into the future I would prefer not to argue with the monkeys on a daily basis and besides the feel good philosophy, it must be said there are about thirty monkeys in the troop. They are better than I by far at climbing just about anything, they have bigger teeth and frankly, unlike myself, they know how to aim a mango.

I decide I will firmly and without giving them the option of discussion mark my territory, which for now will be the veranda. Taking what remains of my breakfast, armed with a broom and dustpan, intellect sometimes needs a little physical back up. I sit myself at the veranda table and proceed to eat my breakfast with a great smacking of lips and show of bravado. The monkeys contemplatively chew at their mangoes. Occasionally, by silent consensus, a brave young warrior is sent to test the invisible boundary around the veranda, at which point I bang the metal dust pan with force against the tin wall of the shack. Did you know monkeys can leap about six feet in the air when so inspired. It takes about three or four monkey forays before the troop retires to the limbs of the Jacaranda, where they sit and watch. I feel almost obliged to start orating but stick to the plan of action. Finishing my breakfast I watch them right back. Soon bored they move on.

As the car-wash Durban calls spring, slowly moves to summer, I fling open the cottage doors to be greeted by sunshine and swarms of fruit flies.

With the turning of the season the mangoes have slowly ripen to a soft sweetness and the attitude of the monkeys has hardened to that of overzealous quality control clerks. No longer satisfied with even the slightness hint of sour, the mangoes are bitten into and discarded with a drumbeat of fruit on the roof of my tin cottage. The decay of the fruit in the moist heat is aided by a battalion of fruit flies that lift and settled with every small breeze. To try and stay on top of the situation I now don rubber gloves daily and fling rotten fruit into the ravine, where it can happily continue the natural cycle of things without getting up my nose.

This morning I notice the monkeys have progressed to a new level of fussiness and any mango that does not meet with today’s exacting standards is ripped from the tree and flung to the ground in disgust, without even the slightest taste. That these fruit will tomorrow or the next day reach the required level of ripeness that the monkeys now demand does not occur to the furry brained ones. But with the cunning that has carried my species to the top of the evolutionary pile I am quick to grasp that the fallen fruit will ripen just as well in my kitchen, nestled next to the bananas which the monkeys currently do not care for, as they will on the tree. So what’s bad for the monkey is good for me, I start gathering all the perfect, if somewhat green mangoes.

Standing with handfuls of mangoes I watch in fascination as a recent addition to the monkey family slowly releases its spidery grip on its mothers belly; where it has been safely transported through the treetops since its birth. No larger than a kitten, with disneyesque eyes, it tentatively puts one tiny paw onto the shaking leaves, with infinite care anther paw grasps the moving green mass until finally it stands independent and free; all be it with one paw firmly grasping its mother tail. As the tree sways in a sudden gust of wind the tiny monkey takes a giant leap (relatively speaking) onto its mother back.

I sense a movement at eye level and looking down discover that two small monkeys are sitting on a branch within touching distance. I am astounded at their bravery until I notice that their gaze is fixed on my mangoes. They look from my face to the mangoes as if to say. ‘Hey that’s our breakfast’, and indeed, with the careless attitude of the bigger monkeys – the smaller members of the troop have for some time been forced to ground level to gather mangoes as they can no longer reach the fruit on the tree. I look them in the eye, then at the dozens of half eaten mangoes all around, I remember all those breakfast bananas I never had, and I feel no guilt.

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