A Horse With No Name

Memories of a zoo

Preceded chronologically by It's all about who you know

James and I found ourselves walking around the old town trying in vain to find a store that carried second-hand English language books, preferably something we hadn’t read yet. What we found was a range of African literature in multiple local languages, a huge selection of bibles and Islamic literature in English and Arabic, and the complete Harry Potter saga in English, with bootleg covers featuring what seemed to be Japanese artwork combined with lettering in glittery Microsoft Word Art. On the back was a summary of the contents in a language neither of us understood, but the text of the story itself was solid English.

Upon us asking for English novels one of the store owners disappeared in a back room, returning with a very dusty but unused 1994 United Kingdom Road Atlas. James used it to point out the village where he was born just south of Huddersfield, to great amusement of the seller who was disappointed when we didn’t buy it from him. We asked if he knew any places where we could find more conventional English books, but he just shrugged and pointed to the tables covered with religious literature around the neighbouring shops. Many of the bibles featured grotesque and brutal drawings highlighting the lessons of each text, which made sense in a country where only just over half of all adults can read and write. The artists appeared to have taken more than a little inspiration from Hergé. Jesus and the apostles were always drawn in great detail, resembling more or less a blond-haired immaculately groomed Dave Grohl, but the other characters were simple stereotypes of black Africans, straight out of Tintin in the Congo.

The next day I took a late breakfast of toast, fruit, and coffee, before walking out into one of the main streets and calling for a taxi to the local Zoo. Having previously seen the Zoos in Havana and Dakar my hopes weren’t high, but as a biologist I figured I could spend some time strolling around it regardless of its condition. James was going to try and locate an old acquaintance in town today and promised that he’d bring some hashish on the way back. The group of Belgian students residing in our hostel had been trying to find something to smoke for a few days now and was eagerly hoping that James would deliver on his promise.

“Do you believe in god my friend?”, the taxi driver asked as he was weaving through traffic, honking and yelling occasionally. I replied in the affirmative, having learned my lesson in Ghana where I would invariably get the same question from taxi drivers and fellow bus passengers. Naively answering no the first few times I was then met by a barrage of further questions such as “How do you know right from wrong?”, “Do you believe in ghosts?”, and of course the classic “You should come see my pastor, he will make you believe”. Discussion of course never went anywhere with people whose society was dominated by religion to the point that pastors bought billboard space to advertise their specific services in curing erectile disfunction or hair loss, and every taxi and truck was plastered with “By the power of Jesus I will grow” and other such slogans. So whenever religion came up, I would just smile and nod, and change the topic. Thankfully the driver didn’t pursue it further as he was busy honking at a herd of goats crossing the road, while little boys with sticks ran around trying to coax the animals into a pen next to the marketplace. Goats are hardier than sheep, more likely to survive adverse conditions and more aggressive, less likely to be carried off by predators, which is why you see so many of them all over Africa. They also make for very tasty shishkebabs, and stews.

The zoo was located along one of the boulevards radiating out of the city towards the highway, a wide street with low walls on either side with neat rows of trees behind them. There was nothing but through traffic here, which meant no stalls, no hustlers, and very little bike and foot traffic. The taxi dropped me off at the entrance and the driver, eager for my continued patronage, promised to be there when I came back.

The ticket office for the Zoo was a small concrete box with broken light fixtures on each corner and haphazard wires and a broken antenna dish on the roof. The green metal board next to the window that at some point had advertised entry prices had become illegible with rust, and a disinterested looking young woman took the equivalent of a dollar fifty and handed me a paper stub featuring a baobab tree and a giraffe. The entrance was marked with a rusty metal arch adorned "Parc Zoologique", which lead to a cobblestone street with old-fashioned concrete-and-metal animal enclosures on either side. The entire park was covered in tall trees, both along the paths and inside the enclosures. Along the otherwise empty main street a table was set up with bottles of water, soda, snacks and leaflets, tended to by an elderly couple. The woman laid snoozing in a chair while the man stood straight up behind the table with an innocent smile revealing several missing teeth. I purchased some water and cookies, and while handing me my change he asked if wanted a tour. I looked around; there were no other people in sight except for my taxi driver and some squatters lingering on the kerb outside the gate, and there didn’t seem to be any signs or markings around. I asked how much it would cost, to which he replied with very deliberate pronunciation: “Oh, not too much”. He introduced himself as Steven, approximately sixty years old, for he did not know his exact birthday. He looked closer to eighty.

He walked at a slow pace, almost shuffling his feet. His English was excellent, and his gentle manners made me feel elated. “Did you know this Zoo was originally a forest? It was constructed in 1907 on the land of a French bureaucrat, who donated what was then a forest, on condition that no trees would be cut down during construction. That’s why we have these tall trees everywhere, the zoo was built around it”. We had gone maybe thirty meters down the main path, and he stopped at an empty enclosure with broken and bent metal bars. It was little more than a concrete box with a stinking green pool full of insects in the corner. A lonely tree stood in the middle, crumbling up the plaster around it, and smaller plants and roots were slowly coming over the walls and through the cracks. He pointed to the pool. “We had one hippopotamus, who died four years ago”. He pronounced the word as if he was in a television game show, almost spelling it out. “It was a female, and she was brought here as a gift when the president of Tanzania visited in 1986. We don’t know how old she was”.

He gestured for us to move along. “When the Zoo was first built the cages were made of bamboo, so we did not have any large animals. Mostly reptiles, some monkeys, and some European deer. The wife of the Frenchman who donated the land would come by every week with her friends to feed the animals. Then, in 1928 the Zoo was rebuilt with concrete and steel, so we could have larger animals. The main path we are on now was built then, and for that they had to cut down a few trees or they could not build it straight. As compensation for the trees, the Frenchman’s wife had a teahouse erected on the far side of the park. After she died it was used as a restaurant until 1964 when we became independent. Then it was bulldozed by the government because the architecture was Western”. We reached a crossing, and he pointed down the right path. At the end of the path stood a circular concrete kiosk with a green pointy roof. “I first visited the Zoo in the year after they destroyed the teahouse. I was maybe eight years old. They built the kiosk on the site, and for a long time it was full of posters with socialist propaganda. Now it’s just graffiti”. I asked him if he had seen any pictures of the old building. “Sadly no. I have never seen it, but I was told it was very beautiful, and they served the best croissants in all of Africa”.

It turned out that "Zoological Gardens" was a rather generous term for the park. Most of the enclosures were empty and being reclaimed by the forest. We passed a small herd of ostriches, some large lizards and a dirty pool full of crocodiles. Chimpanzees sat quietly hugging the bars, staring into the distance and ignoring us entirely. A single small monkey sat quietly in a metal cage full of rubbish, nibbling on an apple. We met no other visitors during our hour-long stroll, and Steven explained that other than the odd tourist like me, the park was mostly abandoned. “Twenty years ago we had a herd of elephants, and on the weekends there were more than a thousand visitors every day. We had cleaners, and entertainers, and you could have a tour in Arabic, or German, or Swahili. Schoolchildren would visit, to learn about zoology, and about the savannahs. We even had researchers from America come in a few times, because one of the bull elephants had taught himself how to undo the lock that closed the stables at night. But then the crisis came, and there was fighting in the capital. The foreigners disappeared, and they never came back. The elephants were sold to a German Zoo, and most of the people working here lost their jobs. Now it’s just us, and a handful of people who sell the tickets and feed the remaining animals. My wife and I, we don’t really need the money. I have a government pension, but I don’t want to leave the place where I worked for so long”. His soft-spoken anecdotes made the decrepit state of the place more than bearable, and I found myself dreading the end of the tour.

As we circled back to the main entrance, we came across a rusty but surprisingly intact bulldozer. I asked Steven about it, but he couldn't remember how long exactly it had been there. Probably since around 2000, when someone had made an attempt to remodel and revitalize the zoo, but had obviously failed. "A few years ago some of the monkeys escaped, they now live across the boulevard in the bushes. They raid the garbage bins of the buildings further along, and sometimes return here at night to sleep in the open cages". We turned left onto the main path back to the entrance. His wife was still in the chair, fast asleep. The taxi driver waved at me from beyond the gate. I took another bottle of water from the table, and Steven pocketed the tip, nodding politely. He spoke briefly with the taxi driver, then shook my hand carefully. "I appreciate your visit, I like having something to do here. But do us a favour, please? When you go home, tell them the truth unvarnished".

Followed chronologically by Six thousand screwdrivers