This Digital Journal reporter visited the Agodi Gardens, Parliament Road, Ibadan, recently. The experience was hauntingly reminiscent of Dante Alighieri's "lost in the woods" metaphor in his Inferno, Divine Comedy.
That government-run enterprise never succeeds is universal wisdom, but probably nowhere in the world does the "government business = failure" equation offer proof of its compelling nature better than in Nigeria where you only need to visit the nearest government-run enterprise to witness a demonstration of its truism.
Before I visited Agodi Gardens, Ibadan, I read a few online comments on the current sate of the "Gardens." Most gave a positive impression. Sample this:
"The Garden is a fine example of multiple use of land for forestry, nursery, arboretum, park boating and fishery, zoo, recreational and relaxation purposes. One remarkable aspects of the garden is the unique educational value of bringing various species of animals together as the garden presents a captivating site for seeing rare species to tourists."
"Agodi Gardens, an alluring but rustic zoological park. The expansive garden, in contrast with the hustle and bustle of the city life outside, showcases nature and freshness. And in spite of the occasional fuss and bleat of monkeys, the roar of the lions and the chirp of crickets, Agodi Gardens is serene and welcoming."
Wow! Great! An alluring park in Ibadan! So I decided to pay a visit, not minding that the first quoted endorsement was government sponsored.
Agodi Gardens: "Abandon all Hope all ye who enter here"
There is nothing like the facade of an establishment for communicating an accurate message about the state of its management. Even by the standards of a state-run establishment, the facade of Agodi Gardens couldn't have been better if it had been purposefully designed by a craftsman to proclaim the message, "Out of Order," in the effort to repel prospective visitors. That would have an effective message for dissuading visitors and tourists if Agodi Gardens were understood to be a privately-run establishment, but the meager trickle of visitors to the park that I witnessed testifies to the fact that Nigerians don't expect much better of the facade of a state-run establishment.
So thoroughly dilapidated is the facade of the park that it took several minutes of dilly-dallying at the gates to summon up the courage to walk past the threshold to investigate, in a frame of mind that could only, otherwise, have been evoked by a chilling warning at the portals: "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here!"
I felt like Dante Alighieri, walking past the portals of Hell, more than "halfway along his life's path," into dark woods in the front of a mountain (The Mokola Hill visible afar off, on which the Premier Hotel perched); into an ominously uncertain realm, a deep place where the sun, obscured by an arboreal host, is dark and silent.
But unlike the fourteenth century poet, there wasn't a poet Virgil to come to my rescue, no muse to accompany and comfort me as I began my journey into the underworld of Agodi Gardens.
The reader looking through the photos below will notice that I include only very few photos of the facade of Agodi Gardens. The reason for this will be understood when I relate the bizarre encounter that I had with the mostly semi-literate and illiterate staff who, along with the man who appeared the manager, played the role of the Devil and his fallen Angels, meting out punishment to the sin-burdened traveler who wandered of his own accord, in spite of the warning at the gate, into the dark woods of Hell.
Having encountered eerily silent dilapidation at the unmanned portals, I wandered to my right in the direction of an open space, instinctively repelled by the ominously dark-looking forest of trees to my right.
I may encapsulate my impression of Agodi Gardens at this point by commenting that if abandoning the facilities and natural environment of a park to follow, freely, a natural and unguided path to decay is the best way to create a nature haven then you might as well abandon your backyard garden and let it become overgrown with weeds, allow your garden shed rot away, as decreed by the law of universal entropy, and then hang a sign at your gate, proclaiming a nature reserve in your backyard, and sit back waiting for tourists to flock in.
I took note of the dilapidated set of buildings I saw as I walked into the premises and concluded, in spite of having encountered a pen of swans and tortoises, that the park was "Out of Order." I was preparing to retrace my steps and leave the park when I encountered a man who walked past me casually with a short "hello." It occurred after several moments of confused hesitation that the man could be what, in the Yoruba language, we term "aso-bode orun," that is, "Hell's gate man."
The man was inspecting a low rectangular cage with a wire mesh-covering when I walked up to him. The following conversation ensured:
"Are you in charge around here?"
"Is this all you have to show?" I waved around at the advanced dilapidation around me.
He pointed towards the dark woods beyond, and said absent-mindedly: "Walk down that path. There are animals, including a lion."
I looked in the direction of the dark forest of trees ahead, pierced by a single narrow, leaf-littered path with a small bridge spanning a dirty looking stream (a tributary of the Ogunpa) and asked: "There? Are you sure, is it safe?"
"Very safe," he said.
My caution would be understood when I explain that the natural environment in Ibadan's watered, woody or bushy areas are typically infested with black cobras and mambas. The cobras, in particular, are scary. They could grow to the size of a small python. I have had a few encounters with black cobras in similar environments in Ibadan and I know walking over leaf-littered forest floor close to a stream could be dangerous. You could step on a monstrous black cobra taking a nap under the leaves.
Incidentally, the small cage he was inspecting housed a specimen of the species of black cobras native to Ibadan riversides. After inspecting the cobra in awe, I decided to walk into the woods. He stopped me.
"Are you just coming in?"
"Have you paid?"
"The fee is N200."
My suspicion was aroused. No one had been at the gate as you would expect at a fee-charging establishment. He had walked past me a few minutes before without making any inquiries. Was he trying to extort me? We were alone.
After a brief argument and assurances from him that the fee was standard practice, I made the payment reluctantly, but made sure he issued a receipt. Not that it really matters. The promise of photography opportunities in the woods beckoned.
"Lost in the Woods" of Hell
I walked past the "vestibule" over the river Acheron into "Hell proper," and as the poet Virgil told Charon the ferryman at the portals of Hell, when he (Charon) objected to Dante's entrance, being a living man, I made the journey because "So it is wanted there where the power lies." Let the photos below tell the stories of my wandering "lost in the woods" of Agodi Gardens:
Midway upon the journey of [my] life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Divine Comedy
I became conscious of the fact that I was alone in the woods with a lion somewhere ahead. The lion was supposed to be caged. But could I trust the quality of staff that I met at the gates to keep a hungry lion safely in a cage?
In traditional folklore, including Yoruba, a stream is a symbol of the boundary between two levels of existence in the pilgrimage of a soul. Crossing a stream is symbolic of moving to a new spiritual level, either for good or for bad.
"Day was departing, and the embrowned air/Released the animals that are on earth/From their fatigues; and I the only one/Made myself ready to sustain the war/Both of the way and likewise of the woe/Which memory that errs not shall retrace." (Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto II, Divine Comedy)
....I moved closer, cautiously, now intensely aware we were alone together. The enclosure was old and rickety. I know that it takes a lot of professional skill and care to maintain an enclosure to hold a restless and powerful canine animal safely. Certainly not the level of professionalism I could ascribe to the indifferent, semi-literate staff I saw at the portals of this half-heartedly managed establishment
...My instinct was to get away from the place as quickly as possible. I looked around for a tree I could shimmy up hastily if by a stroke of fickle chance the lion manages to escape. High smooth-sided trees all round, I would stand no chance against a hungry lion in this environment.
I returned to the gate and found the staff lounging around idly, one picking his teeth in a hillbilly manner. The manager was preparing to leave. I said nothing. Everything about them told me it would be fruitless exercise to raise questions about the security of their rickety pens. But trouble began when I attempted to snap close-up photos of the Gardens' dilapidated facade.
'You are not allowed to snap pictures at a park'
Just as I focused my camera to begin snapping. I heard a call from behind. "Hey, mister." I looked around. It was the guy I assumed was the manager. He walked up to me.
"I see you've been busy taking photographs all day."
"Photography aren't allowed here."
My jaws hung open. I wasn't sure I heard right. "Photography not allowed in a public nature reserve?"
"Yeah," he said, a little awkwardly. "You need special permission."
"May I now apply for special permission?"
"Well, you see, it is part of civil service regulation."
"This is a tourist park, not the ministry of defense building," I reminded him.
"Look," he burst about at last, "you've been photographing everything. Why? What are you up to?"
"Am I the first visitor with a camera at this park?"
"Well, y'know, others only take a few shots, you've been snapping everything."
"No more photographs!" He turned to a scraggy-looking subordinate. "Follow him around. Make sure he doesn't take any more shots."
"Are you afraid of something? Is there something going on here you fear my camera would capture?"
He eyed me over. He seemed unsure of himself.
I was thinking quickly, trying to make a quick guess. A truck loaded with timber was parked a short distance away. It seemed it had broken down.
Were they felling trees illegally? I ruled that out. Not likely.
"Are you afraid I am a journalist and will write something not very nice about your run-down park? Its too late y'know, I have a large collection of photos already."
I switched on my camera and asked him to come and have a look. "Over fifty snapshots. What are you going to do about that?"
He shrugged and spun round on his heels and marched towards his car, barking an order at his subordinate to guard me carefully.
He got into his car and drove off.
I sighed. I didn't want to be guarded like a criminal. I smiled at my guard, told him "dismissed," and walked past the gates, back to the outside world.