There are over 250 monkey species worldwide. But many are on the brink of extinction due to illegal wildlife trading, forest destruction, and hunting for food.
At least 10 endangered monkey species are found in Africa, including the drill monkeys found in the Afi mountain regions of southern Nigeria’s Cross River State and mona, vervet, and Black-and-white Colobus Monkey species found in the Awka areas of the country’s Anambra State.
Over the years, the near-extinction of these monkeys has propelled wildlife conservationists and the authorities to build sanctuaries in the Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary to protect some of the remaining primates.
But in Awka and its surrounding areas, monkeys wear a kingly status among humans and are revered and religiously and culturally protected from harm.
Welcome to Awka
Awka is an ancient town designated the capital of Anambra in 1991 due to its population growth and fast-growing economic standing and propelled by its famed traditional blacksmithing dating back to the 1820s.
But these days, Awka is better remembered for its people’s generational attachment of sacredness to monkeys. Monkeys, regardless of species, are delicacies for people of several other Nigerian backgrounds. But in Awka, people are forbidden from either killing or eating them.
And it is not due to any conservationist consciousness or science but some ancient tale.
According to one narrative, the Awka people once had a dispute with a neighbouring town over a piece of land, and the neighbour planned to launch a surprise attack on Awka. Unfortunately, the forest the enemy encamped was one dedicated to an Awka deity.
So the deity sent his emissaries, the monkeys, to alert Awka people of the sinister plan. The monkeys roamed in the village square in a manner that raised suspicion, compelling the people to consult a diviner who exposed the invasion plan of Awka’s enemy.
“Any time the enemies were approaching, the monkeys would start to cry or make signs indicating imminent danger. With that, Awka people got battle ready and warded off their assailants,” said Monday Onuorah, a native of the town.
“So, it was due to that important role played by monkeys in helping our forefathers to battle the enemies that they revered monkeys and made it a taboo for any native of the town to kill or eat monkeys.”
But there is an exception!
“There is a specific specie of monkeys we were forbidden from killing or eating. They are black monkeys with white stripes [the Black-and-white Colobus Monkey]. They are called enwe Imo Awka (monkeys belonging to Imo Awka),” explained Kanayochukwu Obidigbo, another native.
“Those that are yellowish or brownish can be killed when seen destroying our crops,” Obidigbo said. But these black ones with white stripes are the sacred ones. No matter what they do, even if they destroy farms and other things as they have done severally in the past, you dare not kill them”.
The tradition prescribes that if the black-and-white Colobus Monkey is killed for any reason, it must be buried the way humans are buried, with respect and reverence.
“I remember a man killed one of those monkeys, and the monkey was buried like a human being,” Obidigbo said.
While civilisation and the introduction of Christianity have eroded certain cultural practices in southern Nigeria over the last two centuries, they have not succeeded in influencing the people of Awka out of their rare reverence for the monkey.
“Christianity is on its own, and civilisation is on its own. As far as this issue is concerned, Christianity can never abolish it,” said Anthony Chidebe, another native.
“Both Christians and adherents of other religions believe that nobody should injure the monkeys, not talk of killing them. It is regarded as a human being, and if you mistakenly kill it, it should be buried like a human being”.
There are other stipulated penalties and rites to be performed by anyone, whether natives or strangers, who intentionally or inadvertently kills any of these sacred creatures.
“Any stranger who kills enwe Imo Awka by accident will be forgiven, but he must do all the burial rites as stipulated by our tradition,” Onuorah said. “He will be driven out of town. But, if it’s an indigene, he would not be driven out of town, but he would be left to suffer whatever fate the deity which owns the monkeys brings him.”
However, thousands of natives who had since embraced Christianity claimed the taboo does not bind them since they are not adherents of Imo Awka, the deity that owns the monkeys.
“If any of the monkeys destroy my things, I will kill it, and nothing will happen,” one of them, who preferred to be anonymous, bragged.
Be that as it may, Obidigbo opined that the history behind monkeys is an aspect of the rich cultural heritage of the people of Awka, which should be publicised.
“It is a very important aspect of our history that we have not been able to put together for studies. But, I am happy that documentary is a part of it for record purposes,” he told Prime Progress.