By Samuel Odamo
The road glows in its asphaltic majesty, giving motorists the confidence that they are in for a good ride. Maroko/Epe Expressway is the dream road. It is smooth even though it is a one lane road.
The ride from the CMS bus stop on Lagos Island to the Kilometre Six Junction of the road was relatively smooth. The mission to locate and interview Mrs. Ajoke Muhammed, the widow of the great General Murtala Muhammed, at her paradisal botanical garden off Maroko/ Epe Expressway was however not an easy task.
The long trek begins as soon as the bus halts in front of a huge sign-board proclaiming: “Welcome to Murtala Muhammed Memorial Botanical Garden… experience nature at its best.” Standing a few meters off the expressway, the sign-board directs visitors to a wide, sandy road lined on both side by thickets.
The road is desolate. Throughout the thirty-five minute trek in the burning afternoon sun, no human being crosses the path of this reporter. The first noticeable scene on embarking on this sandy road is the sight of a farm on a vast portion of land.
There are signs of life nearby alright. The birds within the vicinity whistle and whisper among themselves. The frogs and toads croak and the crickets in turn sound out their trumpets. Then the rumbling of a stream gives this reporter the impression that the site is not lying fallow. The first sight of being near the garden, while almost becoming despondent, is the sudden change in vegetation. Many beautiful flowery plants are neatly arranged there. Some tall, some mere shrubs; they are a glorious departure from the erratic and the undisciplined thickets showing visitors the way to the garden located on this vast land.
Some attendants at the entrance, trimming the grass confirm the reporter’s suspicion. That does not mean the garden is left to the ‘agents’ of nature to guide. There are security men on 24-hour rotational duty. The manager of the botanical garden and the proprietress at the time of the reporter’s arrival are touring the garden together. Whether out of pity or official directive, one of the officials at the garden tells the reporter to check madam and the manager among the mass of plants mostly imported. It isn’t easy locating anybody among these plants.
Mrs. Ajoke Muhammed adorns a pair of white trousers, a multi-coloured shirt and an exaggerated Hausa-type hat, slammed on her head. A scarf covering up her head drops to her back. And another scarf is wrapped around her neck, dropping onto her chest, shoulders and back. Quite unassuming, Mrs. Muhammed instantaneously beckons on the reporter on hearing of his mission from the attendant. Along with her manager and the reporter, she heads towards a bungalow donated by a commercial bank for nurturing some exotic plants which to a neophyte are replicas of cocoyam plant.
Mrs. Muhammed, despite her larger-than- life image, is simple. She never allows her status to influence how she relates with people. To her, a human being is first and foremost a human being until he or she proves otherwise. She is a committed gardener, lover of nature. Though the epic garden is stocked with various plants from all the continents of the world, it is under the care of a competent professional. Mrs. Ajoke Muhammed finds nothing repulsive in picking things or uprooting some weeds with her bare hands.
Her knowledge of the plants in the garden is as up-to-date as that of any other worker. She knows the uses of all the plants and the operation of all the implements in the garden. She perfunctorily issues instructions to erring workers and proffers alternative ways of carrying out the bungled tasks simultaneously. The former First Lady is firm without being harsh. Even when she is sure things are not right, Mrs. Muhammed still gives the culprit ample chance to defend his or her action. She prefers to offer advice rather than give command.
Mrs. Muhammed is a jovial woman. She is strong, having being toughened by the absence of her better half over the years. Once she holds a view she defends it tenaciously. However, behind this facade of stoicism and toughness is a caring mother. She is a devoted Muslim. Ironically, she rarely attends the mosque but she never forgets to pray five times a day nor forget to offer alms to the needy among other Islamic injunctions. Walking with elegant strides, she moves from one set of plants to the other.
Mrs. Muhammed is actually in love with her botanical garden. She endeavours to be around at all times. Even when she is not around the belief among her workers is always that she will soon arrive. Mrs. Muhammed wakes up before six every morning except on a few occasions. She spends most of her days at the garden. She is often at the garden before 11a.m. She does not relish the comfort of the air-conditioned office, rather she prefers to be out in the garden with the workers plucking, uprooting, planting and wetting the plants. On most days, Mrs. Muhammed tours the garden four times before the close of business. She leaves for home between 6.00 and 6.30 p.m. every day.
First published Saturday, 19 June, 1993.