February 09, 1976 12:00 PM

He is three feet tall and sturdily built. He walks with a waddle, scratches himself constantly, stuffs bananas into his mouth with his hands, and is unable to say a word. His nurses in Gitega, Burundi say he is enormously destructive—he hurls objects, kicks things with his feet and tries to throttle small animals. His name is John, he probably is 7 years old and there are some African observers who think he may have been reared by apes.

No one knows for sure. Only this seems certain: three years ago, farmers living near the shores of Lake Tanganyika spotted a small hairy creature climbing the trees with a band of apes. They chased him—he was slower than the apes—and caught a tiny boy who seemed about 4 years old. It was believed that the child was one of the survivors of the Hutu tribe, which was massacred by the Watusi in 1972.

The captors of the ape-boy took him to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, where he was placed in a mental hospital. There, surrounded by lunatic adults, he remained for more than two years, walking on all fours and behaving like a monkey. Last October, Catholic missionaries rescued the nameless boy and set him down among the 40 other children in their orphanage at Gitega. They decided to name him after John the Baptist, who lived in the bush.

Today John walks on two feet, his large stomach protruding. His most common expression is a scowl, but he cries when he does not get the food he likes—fruit or a mash of rice, beans and vegetables. He spits out hard food and sometimes blows bubbles as he eats. His coordination is poor, but he can rattle a small box, twist a piece of grass and hold a ball. He is incontinent. His nurses, who address him with a few simple words (“Ngo!”—”Come!”), think of him as an animal.

Even so, John seems to be showing some signs of progress. He no longer huddles nervously against the walls of the orphanage or seems about to climb them, his behavior when he first arrived. The thick body hair which covered him has largely disappeared. And although he ignores other small children, he is responding to adults. In fact, it is not unusual nowadays for the grim-faced John to hurl himself at grown-ups, plop into their laps and, best sign of all, break into a broad, toothy grin.

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