In a region where forest creatures are more likely to show up as bush meat or as desiccated heads in the fetish market, the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary in central Ghana comes as an absolute delight. The villagers who live in the reserve regard the protected mona and colobus monkeys as reincarnations of their ancestors, and revere them as benevolent spirits. The animals are welcome in the village and provided with a steady supply of bananas. Certain individuals are considered to have special powers of communication with the primates, and assume a life-long role as their guardians and intermediaries.
Through long association and attention to the monkeys, the villagers recognize the sounds the various troops make when a member has died. When deaths occur, the animals are located and lovingly retrieved from the forest floor, wrapped in the traditional funeral swaddling, afforded the customary libations by the guardians, and buried in monkey-sized coffins. Visitors can view their cemetery deep in the forest, where each monkey has a marker identifying it by type, sex and date of burial. The guardians, when their time comes, are buried there as well, sealing their eternal bond.
West Africa offers the visitor many dispiriting examples of indifference and casual cruelty to animals. But at the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary my heart sang.