By Juliet Njeri
BBC News, Nachu, central Kenya
A troop of vervet monkeys is giving Kenyan villagers long days and sleepless nights, destroying crops and causing a food crisis. Earlier this month, local MP Paul Muite urged the Kenyan Wildlife Service to help contain their aggressive behaviour.
But Mr Muite caused laughter when he told parliament that the monkeys had taken to harassing and mocking women in a village. But this is exactly what the women in the village of Nachu, just south-west of Kikuyu, are complaining about. They estimate there are close to 300 monkeys invading the farms at dawn. They eat the village’s maize, potatoes, beans and other crops. And because women are primarily responsible for the farms, they have borne the brunt of the problem, as they try to guard their crops.
They say the monkeys are more afraid of young men than women and children, and the bolder ones throw stones and chase the women from their farms. Nachu’s women have tried wearing their husbands’ clothes in an attempt to trick the monkeys into thinking they are men – but this has failed, they say.
“When we come to chase the monkeys away, we are dressed in trousers and hats, so that we look like men,” resident Lucy Njeri told the BBC News website. “But the monkeys can tell the difference and they don’t run away from us and point at our breasts. They just ignore us and continue to steal the crops.”
In addition to stealing their crops, the monkeys also make sexually explicit gestures at the women, they claim. “The monkeys grab their breasts, and gesture at us while pointing at their private parts. We are afraid that they will sexually harass us,” said Mrs Njeri.
The Kenyan Wildlife Service told the BBC that it was not unusual for monkeys to harass women and be less afraid of them than men, but they had not heard of monkeys in Kenya making sexually explicit gestures as a form of communication to humans.
The predominantly farming community is now having to receive famine relief food. The residents report that the monkeys have killed livestock and guard dogs, which has also left the villagers living in fear, especially for the safety of their babies and children.
All the villagers’ attempts to control the monkeys have failed – the monkeys evade traps, have lookouts to warn the others of impending attacks and snub poisoned food put out by the residents. “The troop has scouts which keep a lookout from a vantage point, and when they see us coming, they give warning signals to the ones in the farms to get away,” said another area resident, Jacinta Wandaga.
The town has been warned by the Kenya Wildlife Service not to harm or kill any of the monkeys, as it is a criminal offence. Running out of options, residents are harvesting their crops early in an attempt to salvage what they can of this year’s crop. Unfortunately, this only invites the monkeys to break into their homes and steal the harvested crops out of their granaries. Even the formation of a “monkey squad” to keep track of the monkeys’ movements and keep them out has failed. The area is simply too large for the few volunteers to cover, they say.
Some residents have lost hope and abandoned their homes and farms, but those who have stayed behind, like 80-year-old James Ndungu, are making a desperate plea for assistance. “For God’s sake, the government should take pity on us and move these monkeys away because we do not want to abandon our farms,” he said. “I beg you, please come and take these animals away from here so that we can farm in peace.”