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Armagh woman helped boy raised by monkeys to speak

Speech therapist Claire McManus tells our reporter about Moses, who was found in a Kenyan forest

By Stephanie Bell

The heartbreaking story of a little boy who was raised in a forest by monkeys and knew no human contact for the first eight years of his life has been told by a very special young woman.

Claire McManus (27), from Armagh – who has just been recognised nationally as a 'Rising Star' in the health service for her dedication as a speech and language therapist – worked voluntarily with the little boy, who is called Moses, to help him communicate and say his first words.

The exceptional circumstances Claire found herself working in at the children's home in Kenya where Moses now lives were recognised as she was presented with the accolade at the Advanced Healthcare Awards in London this month.

As Claire recalls the disturbing details of what happened to Moses, it is hard to comprehend that this is a real story and a real child she is talking about.

Moses was rescued from the forest four years ago when a search for him was launched after repeated sightings by locals of a little boy living with monkeys.

No one knows his exact age, but it is believed he was around eight years old when he was found.

He was taken into the care of a children's home in Nairobi, where everything was alien to him.

He had never spoken, eaten cooked food from a plate, worn clothes, slept in a bed, interacted with humans, played with, or even seen other children before.

When Claire used her annual leave from work with the Northern Health and Social Care Trust to fly out to work on a one-on-one basis with Moses in 2012, she had no idea what to expect.

In three short weeks she made huge progress with the little boy, who was so withdrawn he could not communicate when she initially met him. With great patience and using only basic resources, she taught him how to interact through gestures, as well as speaking his first words.

She also arranged with his school to have continued one-to-one support put in place for Moses before returning home to Northern Ireland.

Even the fact that the local language is Kiswahili did not deter Claire, who found a way to translate so that she could give Moses the confidence to say his first words. Claire explains: "Moses was found in what is a very rural area where apparently there had been stories of sightings of a young child living with animals in the forest for some time.

"It had become a local legend in the area and then there got to be so many stories that locals started to believe there must be truth in it and they launched a search and came back with Moses.

"He was rescued two years before I went out to work with him. I was told he was raised by monkeys. I pictured big friendly monkeys like chimpanzees but apparently they were little monkeys."

Young Moses had never worn clothes before, says Claire. "And when they put his first pair of shoes on him, he didn't know he had to take them off and he was going to bed with them on.

"He had never slept in a bed. Also, when he was first given food on a plate he would tip the food onto the ground and eat it from the ground with his mouth like an animal. He had to be taught basic things like how to be a human, how to be a person.

"Even though two years had gone by since his rescue when I watched him in the playground, he would hunker down like an animal picking at the ground the way you see monkeys doing on TV or in the zoo.

"He was not like a normal child of his age. So many children are abandoned in Kenya that there was no real investigation into Moses' background."

Claire's trip to Kenya came about after an earlier visit to Uganda as a schoolgirl had left a lasting impression on her.

She was 17 and a pupil at St Catherine's College in Armagh – which is part of the Sacred Heart Convent – when she went with a group of other pupils to a school run by Sister Carmel from the city.

After two weeks working with the children in the school, Claire knew she wanted to go back again.

"I felt that I got more out of it than the children who I was helping because at that stage my skills were quite limited," she says.

"I wanted to go back with qualifications and have a bigger impact. It definitely also influenced my decision to do speech therapy. It made me want to work in a career where I could be helpful to people."

Claire stayed in touch with Sister Carmel as she went on to study for a Speech and Language Sciences degree in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Shortly after graduating she got a post as a speech and language therapist working in the Community Children's Team in Ballymena where she has made such an impact that her colleagues nominated her for the Rising Star Award.

Three years into her career Sister Carmel told her about Moses and Claire arranged to spend her annual leave helping him.

"When I met Moses he was copying what the other children were doing. He just followed them. When they finished their lunch and put their plate away he followed along after them," she says.

"On my first day I sat in the classroom and just observed him. He sat at the back and didn't take part in the lessons. He just spent the time writing away in his wee book and when I later looked at his book, he had been drawing pictures of animals and flowers.

"He had no verbal communication and didn't interact with the other children in the classroom.

"In the playground, however, the children were very good to him and very protective of him."

Claire had brought some picture books, flash cards and first word books with her to Kenya.

She overcame the language barrier by getting a teacher to translate the words into Kiswahili which she then taught herself to pronounce.

She had to spend time building up a rapport with Moses and in just three short weeks made amazing progress.

Because he had not been spoken to in the first eight years of his life or had any opportunity to communicate with people, Claire focused initially on teaching Moses basic skills of communication by gesture which most of us do instinctively.

She says: "At first I had to try and build up a rapport and it was difficult to explain to him why I was there but very quickly when I went to get him from his classroom he was all packed up and waiting for me.

"He was very keen and didn't want to go back to the class after our sessions.

"It was difficult for him at the start and so I made it more of a game for him and after a few days he was picking it up very quickly.

"He made really good progress and was saying some words before I left. His non-verbal skills improved a lot as did his eye contact and his ability to listen and follow instructions.

"He was trying new words and was more expressive and had learned little signs and symbols and gestures which were useful to him as well.

"His willingness to communicate was great as he had been so withdrawn when I first met him. It was as if he was living in his own wee world and then suddenly he started to engage with other people.

"He really thrived on the one to one attention he got when I was there and the wee boost to his confidence was very good for him.

"My worry leaving was that there was no support for him in the school and so I met with somebody from the education board who assessed Moses and arranged for another teacher to see him on a one to one basis once a week and continue on what I was doing.

"I spoke to the principal of the school and he assured me that they would continue to work with Moses and help him to reach his potential."

Claire added that she found the opportunity to work with the child "a great privilege" and naturally found it very hard to leave him.

She has kept in touch with the principal of his school through email and plans to return to see Moses in the next year or two.

She says: "I'm not sure if it is difficulties with technology but I usually have to wait a long time to get a reply to my emails.

"However, I got an email just last week and was told Moses is doing well and still getting the support.

"I will definitely go back to see him, hopefully sooner rather than later."

Claire was thrilled to pick up the Rising Star Award at the national awards ceremony in London.

The award shines the spotlight on people within five years of qualifying, who have already made their mark and shown a level of initiative, skill and commitment that is truly exceptional.

Claire was praised at the ceremony as being efficient, innovative and working to a very high standard in her job, having used her skills in exceptional circumstances.

It was also recognised how on returning from Kenya, Claire implemented some of the knowledge and skills she developed during her time with Moses, making a significant impact on many of the children she treats.

Mildred Bell, Head of Speech and Language Therapy & Associated Services at the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, says: "On a daily basis Claire makes a significant difference in the lives of the children she works with.

"Speech and language therapy is more than a job for Claire; she is passionate and enthusiastic about what she does."

Claire said she was surprised and honoured to have been nominated for the award by her colleagues.

"The awards night was wonderful and it was lovely to hear the stories of the other winners," she adds.

"I was really pleased and a bit embarrassed to win as lots of people are doing lots of different things that deserve recognition.

"I've very honoured to have my work recognised and get credit for it. Who doesn't like praise?

"I love my job and working with Moses made me realise how fortunate we are to have the resources that we do in Northern Ireland."

How she helped another Kenyan boy

  • During her three weeks in Kenya, Claire McManus was also asked to work with a little boy who had a severe stammer. The 10-year-old later confided in her that his mother beat him when he stammered.
  • She said: "I had to do very different work with him than I would with children on my caseload at home, due to the limited time I was there, and also because I did not have the opportunity to meet his parents.
  • "I worked with him on encouraging him to use a slow rate of speech and also encouraged him to be more open about his stammer to his friends, which he had never done before.
  • "I also gave him a note to bring home to his mother, who he claimed 'beat' him when he stammered; this gave her advice about giving him time to finish what he wants to say and not punishing him for stammering.
  • "I had to write this in simple language, as I was unsure of his mother's level of English or her literacy skills. After working with him for three days, he thought his speech was much better and I had 'fixed' his stammer."

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