Feral family on the mend after therapy

By Siyabonga Mkwanazi Time of article published Aug 14, 2006

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Two years ago they shocked Free State health care authorities.

In tattered clothes, dirty and in poor physical condition, they walked on all fours, leaping about like monkeys.

They were a family that lived as ferals for two decades and had to be rescued by health authorities.

The mother and the three children could not speak a recognisable language, but would grunt and growl.

They communicated with their father by using a sign language. The siblings - the boys, aged 28, 21 and 18, and the girl, aged 14 - shied away from people and would run away to the mountains when people came to visit.

Sello Majola, 67, their father, was the only one who had contact with the outside world.

He could speak SeSotho and isi-Xhosa.

The authorities were alerted to the situation by a new farm owner who was stunned at the strange behaviour of the four.

The family was immediately admitted to the Free State Psychiatric Complex in Bloemfontein.

In explaining his children's circumstances, Majola said his former employer, Fred Willie, had refused permission for his children to have contact with other humans.

But this was dismissed by Willie's widow, Lets, who in an interview with a local newspaper in February 2004 said the children were retarded from birth.

Each time she and her husband went to give the family food or pay Majola his wages, the children would either run away or sit on the wall of the animal pen, she told the newspaper.

Assessments found that the children were suffering from severe mental retardation, while their 54-year-old mother was moderately retarded.

Explaining the children's animalistic behaviour, Welkom psychologist Henriette Oberholzer said at the time the children's development might have been retarded as a result of a lack of contact with the outside world.

The children, Oberholzer said, had adopted the wrong social behaviour because they received more stimulation from the animals on the farm than from humans.

Today they have adapted to the human social environment.

After two and a half years of rehabilitation the family has made tremendous progress learning the basic necessities of life.

Although still undergoing therapy, the family had recovered, but health care experts said they would remain mentally disabled and would not become fully functional.

The mother and her daughter, now 16, were discharged late last year because they had recovered sufficiently.

But they remain moderately retarded.

Dr Daniel Mattaka and the hospital section's acting assistant manager, Sister Angie Kaladira, said the three brothers also had improved since they were brought to the hospital.

"When they were brought here (in February 2004) they were wild. They were crying a lot. They didn't understand why they were here. They were unable to stand on their own. They used to squat the whole day," said Kaladira, adding that when given food they ate like animals.

Mattaka said when they were in a ward with other patients it took them a long time to mingle with fellow patients. They isolated themselves.

Kaladira said the first few months were really tough because they had to teach them basic social skills such as using a toilet, washing themselves, brushing their teeth, communication skills, mobility and eating habits.

Before learning the basic necessities "they were like babies as they would even soil themselves", she said.

It took about a year for them to understand and implement these daily routines, said the staff, adding that they now responded when called.

Staff described their mental capacity as equivalent to that of six-year-old children. They said they were "borderline" in terms of mental growth.

The three young men can walk, but not upright.

They no longer shy away from strangers, but try to interact with them. The hospital staff said the brothers liked watching television and listening to the radio.

Meaning wild, the term "feral" is used to refer to children who have been reared in complete isolation, either through abandonment or confinement.

Sometimes they have been treated this way because of an impairment or disability.

- How do they behave?

They often seem mentally impaired and cannot speak, communicating with grunts and gestures. They may also be physically impaired. If raised with animals, they may walk hunched or on all fours.

- Can they be socialised?

Some social skills may be learned but attempts to teach language have been unsuccessful. Researchers still do not know whether the mental abnormality of feral children is developed before or because of isolation.

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