A Real-Life Mowgli Brought Up By Monkeys


Marina Chapman was just 4 when she was abducted by two men and left for dead in the Colombian jungle. Battered and bewildered, she survived for the next seven years thanks to the inspiration, compassion and companionship of a troop of capuchin monkeys.

In this extract from her memoir, The Girl With No Name, Chapman describes how, when she fell ill, an old male monkey came to her aid.

I was going to die soon, I was sure of it.
 I had no idea why, only that the sense that I was dying was one that was diffusing through the whole of my body, causing me to clutch my stomach and whimper in pain.

I tried to think back, though the fog of pain, to what I'd eaten that might have done this thing to me.

Tamarind! It suddenly came to me. The day before, I'd eaten tamarind. It was one of my favorite things to feed on. Similar in shape to the bean pods that used to grow on our allotment, the tamarind pod was dark brown and furry, and, when spilt open, the insides were sweet and sticky, with the texture of figs.

But even as I'd tasted it, I'd known it wasn't like the usual tamarind. This variety—doubtless one of many others to be found—had lots of small fruits inside, similar in size to peas, and, if anything, tasted even sweeter, like dates.

I couldn't stand. I couldn't sit. Trying to work my muscles defeated me. But through my dizziness I felt a grim certainty form inside me. I had eaten delicious tamarind's deadly twin. If there was one thing I'd learned from my time with the monkeys, I thought wretchedly, it was that things can look almost identical in every detail, but just a couple of tiny differences could have a seriously large impact—the difference, perhaps, between life and death.

But as I writhed, I saw that sympathy, if nothing else, might be at hand. Though my vision swam, I could just about see Grandpa monkey. I'd called him that simply because that's what he looked like. He was older than the others, moved differently from the young ones and had the same sprinklings of white fur that triggered a clear if distant memory of the few old people I'd encountered in my former life. I recalled one clearly—not someone related, so perhaps a neighbor or friend. A white-haired woman who had no front teeth. Grandpa monkey had lots of teeth, but he was similarly white-haired in places. And grey in others, especially on his face. He also walked slowly, just as the old woman in my mind's eye had done, and had an old injury to his arm or shoulder, I thought, because he didn't range around the treetops like the others.

Grandpa monkey had kept a very close eye on me from a very early stage. But I didn't think it was because he was concerned about my welfare. There had never been any warmth in the way he behaved when he was around me, so I decided it must be because he was very protective of his family. Perhaps he hadn't quite decided if he liked me or not.

I watched him jump down from the tree he most liked to sit in and then approach me. What was he about to do? I had no idea but couldn't care less, in any case. I was much too busy crying from the horrible gripping pain.

Grandpa monkey drew level, squeezed my arm firmly, then began shaking me slightly, shoving me, almost, as if determined to herd me somewhere else.

He was purposeful and determined, and I wasn't about to resist him. Scrabbling to get a purchase, I half-crawled, half-stumbled into the foliage, in the direction his repeated shovings seemed to suggest he wanted me to go.

It was out of the question to disobey, but I was still very fearful as I edged my way deeper into a patch of thorny bushes. And once in them, at least I had the pain of repeated stings and scratches to divert my mind from the pain inside me. Where we were going, however, I didn't have a clue.

It was mere seconds before I found out. One minute I'd been scrabbling through a tangle of branches, now I was falling—tumbling over and over down a mossy, rocky bank, which was running with cool water and which eventually deposited me into a little basin below.

I looked around, panting as I tried to catch my breath. It was around eight feet wide, surrounded by rock and earth and tree roots, and looked almost like an open-topped cave.

A tight collection of black rocks had created a lip to one side, over which a steady stream of water formed a waterfall. The water I had landed in wasn't deep, not enough to submerge me, but right away I could see that Grandpa monkey had come too. Was he going to take advantage of my weakened state and try to drown me?

It seemed I had my answer, for almost immediately he began shoving me again, trying to force me towards the stream of water. I sobbed. All the worst things that could happen to me seemed to be happening all at once. I was terrified and in agony, and I hated the water—it was something I'd been afraid of all my life. Apart from drinking small quantities and being hammered by rainfall, I'd not seen water—water that could drown you—for a long time, and I hated to see it again now.

But Grandpa monkey was relentless and, though we were of similar size, he was also very strong. He kept trying to push my head under, keeping a tight grip on my hair. Was he trying to drown me? Or was he trying to make me drink the water? Or maybe he knew I was going to die anyway and was just trying to help me on my way.

Whatever his intentions, I struggled, heaving myself away from him and slapping the surface of the pool, splashing him, and as I did so, he yanked my face up and looked me straight in the eyes.

As I looked back at him, I could see something I hadn't before. His expression was completely calm. It wasn't angry, or agitated, or hostile. Perhaps I'd been wrong, I thought, as I coughed and spluttered and tried to catch my breath again. Perhaps he was trying to tell me something.

I didn't know what it was, but in that instant I trusted him. The look in his eyes and the calmness in his movements made me realize he was trying to help me. Accordingly, this time I did as he seemed to want. I went under and drank in great mouthfuls of muddy water, swallowing as much as I could and feeling it force its way up my nose.

At this point, Grandpa monkey let go of me. I wasted no time in scrambling out and up onto the rocky bank, where, completely spent, I just collapsed on the ground, face down.

I began coughing again and soon the coughing turned to vomiting—first the water and then behind it great heaving gouts of acid liquid that burned my throat and washed painfully over the skin of my scratched limbs.

But Grandpa monkey wasn't done yet. No sooner had I stopped vomiting than he began chivvying me all over again to get back into the pool, this time to the other edge where the water was much shallower and where a second smaller waterfall dripped steadily.

I needed no urging. I drank from the waterfall thirstily and was happy to remain there, even as leeches clamored to attach themselves to my legs, just to feel the flowing water cooling me and healing me, and the tortuous spasms inside me subside.

I have no idea how long I sat there, semi-conscious, trance-like, but at some point I felt restored enough to clamber back up again. Grandpa monkey had been sitting at the pool's edge, immobile all this time, just watching and waiting. As I moved, so he did, rising up to his feet, then, seemingly satisfied with his efforts, turning and scuttling off ahead of me, back to his tree.

I will never know for sure what it was that had poisoned me, just as I'll never know how Grandpa monkey knew how to save me. But he did. I am convinced of it.

And the encounter didn't just teach me yet another survival lesson. It also marked a point when my life with the monkeys changed. Because from that day on, Grandpa monkey's attitude towards my continued presence changed completely. Where once he'd been indifferent and then obviously wary, he now felt like both my protector and my friend.

Now he seemed happy both to share food with me and groom me, and would often feast upon the wealth of bugs that lived in my mat of hair. And, bit by bit, my sense of loneliness and abandonment began to fade. Though there would still be nights when I'd be overcome by what I'd lost and weep for hours, these instances of grief were getting fewer. Curled up in my little ball, in my hollowed-out piece of tree trunk, with the comforting, familiar sound of the monkeys up above me, I was gradually turning into one of them.

Chapman's daughter, Vanessa James, who helped write the book, describes how she went about teasing the story out of her mother.

My mother actually has no sense of chronology in her life. That's something we worked through together by taking a research trip back to Colombia in 2007, interviewing people, visiting places, gathering dates, etc., and relying on a bit of imagination to fill the transitions in between. So her floating memories have been stitched together by us with as much backing as we've been able to.

As for the first year in the forest and the events presented there, all the events did occur (the making paint out of leaves and berries, the monkey memories, their games, specific incidents, the Indians, etc.). Nothing was made up. All of it happened, but probably not in that order, though there was some reasoning/logic behind the choice of order. The opening few jungle days were strongest in her memory in terms of order and events.

So the first day when she was dumped, and her feelings, was very strong, as was being lost and wandering in between, although her concept of time was hazier. The monkey circle event was also strong in her mind, being a bit traumatic, but after that the days became less "eventful" for her to remember specifics, and her concept of time had really gone astray by then. Life had become more routine and became a mushy blend of basic jungle life and survival.

So, for that part of the story, I originally recreated a potential "typical day" or two from memories of specific events she did have. And those have taken a long time to gather, they've leaked out over my whole life very naturally, like when visiting a farmers market and her seeing a Brazil nut pod, or a small banana, or seeing her grandkid hit the other with a long branch—naturally occurring triggers like that would always pull a story out, and I've just always collected them, which came in use for putting pen to paper on the book.

The scene with the monkey was definitely an out-of-the-ordinary event. It is those out-of-the-ordinary events that Mum remembers more clearly than the rest. Why he knew what to do...well, Mum can't answer that. None of us can. Maybe it was coincidence that he acted like that and that it luckily happened to be the very thing she most needed—to either drink water or to purge. But she vividly remembers eye contact with that monkey. Trust was there.

She knows her memory is a fragile platform, but in her animal-minded child's perspective, those isolated events and details have clung to her. To her, this memory was not a weak one. She had an animal mind, and that's how she read it then and recalls it still.

Excerpted from The Girl With No Name by Marina Chapman and Vanessa James. Copyright © 2013 by Marina Chapman. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved. You can buy the book from Amazon here.