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Stroll around this zoo and you’ll see the usual suspects: two skinny elephants; a dozen napping crocodiles, mouths agape. But here in Maiduguri, now known as the birthplace of Boko Haram, these verdant walkways promise more than a chance to peer at animals. For some zoogoers, it’s privacy: a rare chance to get away from “prying eyes,” as one young couple says. For science students, it’s a chance to see textbook lessons come to life. And for thousands more, it’s one of the city’s few green oases – something especially precious during the darkest days of the insurgency. Even as Boko Haram attacks showered the city, the number of zoo visitors soared. Throughout Maiduguri, “People have determined that life will go on,” says Geoffrey Ijumba, local chief for UNICEF. “They are saying, Boko Haram won’t shut down this city. They can’t.” In the early days of fighting, “even coming to feed our animals was a risk,” says zoo employee Tijjani Ahmed, who nursed the lion cubs in his own living room. “But we did it for the love of this place.”
The war came to the zoo here on a Friday, just after the afternoon prayer.
It was 2014 and Aliyu Yusuf, the head of the zookeepers, was doing his rounds. He looped past the crocodile enclosure, where a dozen of the scaly green reptiles napped on the concrete beside their pool, mouths gaping. Nearby, the zoo’s two skinny elephants, Jummai and Izge, dangled their trunks over a muddy vat of water. He passed by them and moved toward the primate enclosure, where a teenage chimp swung from the bars of his cage like they were, well, monkey bars.
That’s when the first explosion hit, a clap of sound so powerful it rattled the ground beneath him. When Mr. Yusuf looked up, he could see a cloud of smoke rising from the direction of the post office just beyond the zoo’s gates. People were screaming. Around him, the animals began to panic.
His ostriches ran frantic zig-zags across the length of their pens. An eland antelope charged back and forth in his enclosure, horns bared. And Yusuf ran, not stopping until he reached the zoo’s administrative building nearby.
“You don’t think when you become a zookeeper that someday you’ll become afraid to do your job,” he says. “But that day, I became afraid.”
Nearly a decade ago, a violent insurgency began to put this city in Nigeria’s arid northeast, known locally as “the home of peace,” on the global map for a very different reason. Splashed across the world’s front pages, Maiduguri suddenly became “the birthplace of Boko Haram,” a place of random terror and brutal suicide bombings.
But it was never only that.
Even in the war’s darkest days, as hundreds of thousands of people poured into the city to escape Boko Haram’s campaign of terror in the countryside and attacks showered the city, normal life also carried on, as mundane and ordinary as ever.
Maidugurians still gathered for meals of goat meat and fragrant red jollof rice. Students at the local university still stayed up late cramming for exams in biology, accounting, and engineering. The city prayed, it haggled, it gossiped.
“It speaks to the resilience and vitality of the place that people have determined that life will go on,” says Geoffrey Ijumba, chief of the Borno field office for UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency. “They are saying, Boko Haram won’t shut down this city, they can’t. We will keep going.”
And people went to the zoo.
They went to the zoo a lot, in fact.
“When the insurgency was at its peak, this was one of the safest places in the city, because it was a kind of no man’s land where you wouldn’t be worried that you would be a target,” says Peter Ayuba, the director of forestry and wildlife for Borno state, where Maiduguri is located. “It got to the point where we could hardly manage the influx.”
All day long, people would stream into the zoo, and they often stayed for hours, looping around the enclosures or slumped on park benches. Every evening at closing time, many visitors had to be coaxed to leave, says Mr. Ayuba. “No one wanted to go home.”
But if people’s reasons for going to the zoo shifted over the course of the war, it had long been one of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions. For decades, during holidays and festivals, its green walkways had filled with families in shimmery boubou robes and dramatic wax-print dresses, posing for photo after photo against the verdant backdrop.
“There is nobody who’s somebody in this city who doesn’t come to the zoo, especially during festivities,” says Tijjani Ahmed, head of veterinary and conservation education at the zoo.
It’s also the place where an untold number of the city’s romances have begun.
“It’s a place away from prying eyes, like our parents for instance,” says Ali, 20, as he and his girlfriend Ruqayya, 17, sat watching the zoo’s two elephants chow down on acacia leaves on a recent afternoon. (They asked that their last names not be used in this story, since the whole point of going to the zoo was to avoid drawing attention to their relationship.)
In the zoo’s small tin photo studio, meanwhile, Elizabeth Siktuwe and her boyfriend, Alex Ibrahim, had just changed out of the matching red dashiki tunics they had donned for a zoo photo shoot.
“I’m studying to be a microbiologist, but this is maybe the only place I can actually go safely and be in nature,” she says, her eyes flicking over the photos.
Ayuba, too, discovered the zoo as a student. When the young ecologist began coming here, “It was like seeing my study books in three dimensions,” he says. “It sparked my curiosity. I began to ask questions.”
And he quickly became committed to the zoo’s mission. “It’s so our kids and those still unborn know the natural heritage of the place where they come from,” he says.
As Boko Haram has devastated communities across northern Nigeria in recent years, it has also blighted the country’s landscapes. The Sambisa Forest, for instance, is now the insurgents’ hideout, where they keep camp and hold hostages like the Chibok girls, who were kidnapped from their boarding school in a nearby town in 2014.
And so for many in Maiduguri, the zoo is the last remaining patch of open space they have.
“The place I come from looks a lot like this,” says Binta Lawan as she wanders between enclosures one morning recently. Ms. Lawan has come to the zoo with a group of about 100 others, all of them residents of a bleak displaced persons camp on the city’s outskirts called Bakassi. In the four years they had lived in the camp, several say, this is the first time they’ve gone into the city for anything other than collecting firewood or buying food. In the camp, Lawan explains, the landscape was flat and monotonous, row upon row of tents staked in the gray dust.
“Here there are trees, there is shade,” she says. “It revives me just being here.”
Nearby, meanwhile, the organizers of the trip – representatives of a local businessman preparing to run for office in next year’s elections – have rigged a pair of speakers to a generator. A campaign song blasts out:
All the people are yearning for him to run.
He is cool headed.
Just like cold water.
He is the man for us.
'We did it for the love'
Still, Mr. Ahmed is the first to admit, the zoo has challenges far beyond the insurgency. For one thing, they’re broke. Each day, zookeepers trawl the city looking for acacia branches they can prune to feed the elephants, and some months they have to beg rotting meat off local butchers to feed the carnivores. (The park’s 50 naira admission fee – US $0.15 – can’t cover the costs). The crocodiles, meanwhile, swim through thick knots of garbage – ice cream wrappers, pineapple juice bottles, empty water sachets – that have gathered in their pools.
On a recent morning, as Ahmed circled the zoo with a visitor, shouts went up from the elephant enclosure. When he glanced over, Izge had her trunk curled around the waist of a small child, and was lifting him off the ground.
Then, just as suddenly, she dropped him, and the boy, a street child wandering the zoo to collect plastic bottles for recycling, scrambled out of the flimsy enclosure to safety.
The zookeepers seemed unperturbed. “Kids are always breaking the rules and jumping into the cages,” one muttered quietly.
The crowd around the child quickly broke up and moved on. A boy clutching his mother’s hand motioned toward a woman walking past with a tray of dates and peanuts balanced on her head. An ice cream vendor’s cart clanged as it made its way over the rutted paths.
For Ahmed, who has nursed the zoo’s lion cubs in his own living room and let baby chimps roam his office until they were ready for their adult cages, seeing the zoo alive like this reminds him why he keeps showing up to work each day.
“There have been times, in the early days of insurgency, when even coming to feed our animals was a risk,” he says. “But we did it for the love of this place.”