How this cheeky monkey saved a Big Issue vendor’s life

Big Issue vendor Mark Siequien was diagnosed with a schizoid personality disorder, and had a drug problem. Then he went to a monkey sanctuary in South Africa, and his life turned around...

I was diagnosed with a schizoid personality disorder a number of years ago, and on top of that I’ve had long-standing problems with drugs. But over the years, it’s the depression that’s caused me the most problems.

I had jobs and bounced around the country but I was never really able to hold anything down or maintain any consistency. The only consistency was cannabis and amphetamines. I was basically a functioning drug addict.

I thought, I’ve still got 40 years left on this planet but I had no idea what I was going to do with that time

In 2015 I decided I needed to do something. I’d been in prison for a couple of years and when I came out I was sleeping rough or in hostels or sofa-surfing. I was at a bit of a loss really. I thought, I’ve still got 40 years left on this planet but I had no idea what I was going to do with that time. A friend began to help me look for a new direction. I knew it had to be something significant, something big.

Mark Siequien

So he found me a job in South Africa working as a photographer at a primate sanctuary. I’d taken photographs before but not for many, many years, back when I was in my teens and early 20s.

I’d always had some sort of camera. I used to go fishing with my cousin and you’d take a photo of yourself holding the fish before you release it. For me, the photography became as big a part as the fishing. I’d always had issues with the fishing itself. I knew there were aspects of it that I enjoyed but I felt guilty about what I was doing to the fish. I was always troubled by that. Is this cruel? Am I hurting this fish? Then I realised I always kept hold of the photos and it dawned on me that it was really the photography that kept me fishing.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

My friend helped me get a second-hand camera and I set off for South Africa for three months. The primate sanctuary, Monkeyland, took monkeys and primates that had been used as photographer’s props or in testing laboratories, or kept as pets, and tried to rehabilitate them and turn them back into happy, functioning monkeys.

They have a 30-hectare, fenced-off forest with 600 monkeys of 13 species from all over the world all roaming freely inside it. Experts told them this wasn’t possible – that they’d fight with each other. But Monkeyland had found a way of taking these animals and teaching them how to be monkeys again before releasing them into the forest.

A white lar gibbon
A white lar gibbon

Watching the monkeys, I began to see that we’re not so different from them. There was a process that could be used to get them back to being healthy and functioning. I wondered if I’d been overcomplicating my own life – I’d thought there must be some complex process for getting better that would involve time in hospital and lots of therapy.

But the process they used there was simple. When monkeys first arrived, they were put in large cages within the forest. They’d put, say, some capuchin monkeys into the cage and the other capuchin monkeys in the forest would come and hang around outside.
The ones inside the cage would simply watch and learn how to be monkeys again.

The main rehabilitation was done by immersing these damaged monkeys into the lives of normal, functioning animals. In doing this they’d learn how to climb and how to interact. How to be a monkey. After about a month they’d be released into the forest and would be able to act as functioning animals again.

A red backed bearded sak
A red backed bearded sak

At the same time, I was having to interact with other staff and tourists who visited the sanctuary. As the months went by I noticed that I was getting better.

By the time I came back to the UK I’d made it to the top of the housing list and I took a council flat. At first, I fell back into old habits for a while. I wasn’t going out and I became negative all over again.

I realised that my attitude to people was wrong. People are much nicer than I thought. Everyone has their struggles

The difference was that I wasn’t immersing myself into life and into the world. I began to think about selling The Big Issue – I thought getting out there for a couple of hours, even if I didn’t sell very many, would mean I’d be out there again talking to people.

So at the beginning of this year I got my badge, my first five Big Issues and I took up my pitch at Cambridge station. I saw a lot of the same people every day and after a while they would start to talk to me each morning. I realised that my attitude to people was wrong. People are much nicer than I always thought they were. Everyone has their struggles. Regulars would ask me how I was doing and I’d speak to them.

Mark with his South African finacée Anita
Mark with his South African finacée Anita

But as well as getting me out there interacting with the world, The Big Issue helped me with other things too. When I was in South Africa I met one of the tour guides at the sanctuary, Anita. We got together and after I got back we carried on a long-distance relationship. It was hard, Anita tried to come over here on a tourist visa but she couldn’t get into the country because neither of us had enough income.

I contacted a lawyer but he said the help and advice I needed would cost £800. I went in for a free consultation with him and realised that I saw him every day when I was selling the magazine. When he found out who I was and what I did he said he didn’t feel comfortable taking the money, so he ended up helping me pretty much for free.

And so, as I write, Anita arrived in the UK yesterday at half-past two in the afternoon. Our impossible dream has become possible. We’re planning to get married in the next five months. Selling The Big Issue helped to pay for Anita’s visa, and I’m hoping that it will help pay for our wedding as well.

I’m a different man to the Mark who left for South Africa in 2015. Completely. I stand on my pitch while all these people rush around me getting on with their lives and I watch them and sometimes I get to know them. I’ve been re-socialised.