/ 21 November 1997

Child of the wild still spurns life as a human

A boy found in the wild 10 years ago and placed in care still behaves like a monkey, writes Wonder Hlongwa

It has been a decade since a five-year-old boy suspected of living with monkeys was discovered in Sundumbili in KwaZulu-Natal. He has been in professional care ever since, but still behaves more like a primate than a human.

In 1987, a bedraggled boy aged about five was discovered by Sundumbili residents, showing strange, animal-like behaviour. He liked climbing trees and on to rooftops. He loved fruit, especially bananas.

He was taken to the nearest police station and then put in the care of the Ethel Mthiyane Special School for the disabled. He was named Saturday, because he was found on that day, and has not been given a Christian name.

“He was very violent during his first days here. He used to break things in the kitchen, get in and out through windows. He didn’t play with other kids and instead he used to beat them. He liked uncooked red meat. He used to steal from the fridge – even now he still steals meat,” said Ethel Mthiyane, founder and head of the special school.

When she first took him to the hospital, staff insisted he needed a surname and she gave him hers, Mthiyane.

He was found near the Tugela River, after being spotted roaming with monkeys and scavenging fruit thrown away by hawkers. Psychologists say he is mentally retarded, but Mthiyane thinks he is not – he has yet to recover from his experience in the bush with the monkeys.

Today, his behaviour is still strange. When he was offered fruit, he took one bite from an orange and then threw it aside. Then he grabbed a peach, took a bite and threw it down. Later he picked them up and finished them. But bananas are still his favourite.

Mthiyane says he used to run using both his legs and arms, like a monkey. One leg was broken when he was found, and he walks with a limp.

But Saturday still can’t utter a word and numerous attempts to get him a speech therapist have not been successful. Mthiyane said he can understand what she tells him, though he never responds.

His lessons at the school have included how to bath, comb his hair, dress and play, which he didn’t do when he arrived. Interestingly, Saturday has not been sick since he was brought to the centre and Mthiyane says she thinks he is immune to natural diseases.

“When he came to the centre, he didn’t like blankets. He wanted to sleep naked and he hated clothing, but now he has improved. He accepts clothes and takes a bath,” said Mthiyane.

When the Mail & Guardian visited the centre, Saturday climbed into the car through an open window and sat inside, later to be joined by his only friend, Thulani.

He was nearly run over when we left, but fortunately one of the workers at the centre spotted him hiding under the car seconds before it rode over him. He was very possessive and stubborn. He refused to share his fruit, especially the bananas, with his teachers and Mthiyane, and absolutely wouldn’t give the other children any.

When he first arrived at the centre, though, he used to toss food into his mouth and dig holes in the ground with his bare hands. Staff at the centre are convinced that Saturday lived with monkeys.