Writing Obsessions: Avocados

I was never a popular child. Hard to believe, but the one thing that brought me a semblance of popularity was a fruit. Growing up, my grandparents had the best fruit farm in the world. Or so I thought, and that’s what mattered. We had an orange orchard (never called it so then but it still did the magic), a lot of bananas, lemon trees, passion fruit vines coiling up poles and wires like strippers in a 50 Cent video, and even a plethora of wild fruits and berries like ndare and nathi that joined the party uninvited but were welcome to stay. However, my favorites were the rows upon rows of avocado trees on the piece of land that lay next to the stream, the land we called Ngurumo, the valley. I spent a sizable chunk of my childhood there.

I remember the feeling of being under the avocado-tree canopy. Dark but peaceful. Often, birds, both sweet and predatory, would hum in the vicinity. Other creatures like crickets and hyraxes added to the symphony. Yet the acoustics still remained a sweet quietness despite, or maybe because of, this cacophony of life. These days, when I am trying to focus, I search for sounds of nature on YouTube or Spotify and guess where they take me back to.

The avocado trees in Ngurumo were the first trees I climbed as a boy. In the village, climbing trees was a major key. (As aside: in tree-climbing I had my first encounter with gender bias; girls were not supposed to climb trees lest they be tagged Wanja Kihii, Wanja the naughty boy.) I spent hundreds of hours on those trees. Often alone. Sometimes with my youngest uncle, Kiarie, who was more like a brother – being only three years older than me and stuff. I made up visions on those trees on all the things I would achieve growing up. Only the visions that my view of the world then would let me see.

***

I also remember spending time on those trees helping some of my less than 10-year-old friends from primary school steal avocados. I particularly remember this chap called Waciuri who lived less than a kilometer away from us on the other side of the hill. Waciuri was this lanky fellow who was pretty good at football – which we would play in and out of school about three to six times every day. Where he excelled in most, however, was in branding people with nicknames. To this day, I remember a few of his nicknames that stuck with me most of my primary school years: Santuri, Tuliza Boli, Ronaldo, even. (A brother could move his feet at the beautiful game back in them days.)

Those days, we would leave school at around 1:00 PM. As we lived close to each other, Waciuri and I would walk the three kilometers home together. It would usually take an hour (or two hours when we joined other kids in a random game of roadside football). But before we got home, we would surreptitiously detour into the avocado farm – lucky because that side of the my grandparents’ shamba was uninhabited. We never got caught. I remember one time when we almost did. Waciuri was on the tree picking the fruits and I was at the base collecting them into our school bags. My grandmother had heard sounds from the river downhill where she’d been fetching water and decided to investigate. Waciuri noticed her from the distance and sat still on the tree, hoping the leaves below would shield him. I noticed her late but when I did, I acted like I had just been going around collecting fallen fruits to save them from marauding neighbourhood hounds. We managed to escape the hook that day—but we had to change tact.

The new strategy was to carry the avocados to school. Not only would I have more friends to offer them to, it would also make me new friends. Talk about two birds with one stone! That we lived three kilometers away from school and also had to carry several liters of water to douse our dusty classroom floors (and all our books too as we had no lockers – carry them, not douse them, jeez!) did not factor into my pre-teen calculus. News would travel fast in this school. Have you heard Tuliza is bringing avocados to school? In a few weeks, there would be an entourage of more than a dozen kids waiting for me, or rather my bag of fruits, outside the school gate. Actually, that’s not 100% accurate because that was before the school had a fence, hence a gate. So let’s just say they were waiting on the end of the school closest to one of the 15 or so “school gates” that I usually used. In the distance between the meeting point and the classroom, the fruits would gone. Woe unto the kid who waited for me to reach the classroom.

Looking back, I don’t think I made many permanent friends that way. Plus I think my mom realized my trick and soon I couldn’t carry a bag full of both books and avocados. I sometimes wonder why I never thought to sell the fruits to my classmates. It’s probably because that was before I understood how money influenced your “status” in the world. That I had enough food, a place to call home and my school uniform (even though I remember the sweater being longer than my shorts creating an optical illusion that made me look semi-naked) was good enough. I saw the fruits as a way of connecting with my schoolmates. Of sharing something from us. It’s not like my grandparents made much from selling them anyway. If they managed to get brokers to take them to the market, they would only get a shilling or two per fruit—the equivalent of one to two cents in USD.

For high school, I went to a boarding school about an hour’s drive away from home. Before the school administration barred bringing food to school, I brought my avocados—and soon enough, my classmates and dorm mates (a few of them) knew to look for me for a slice in those first few weeks of school when little learning happened. I remember how well the avocados spiced the otherwise boring cuisine – which was so boring we literally called it boring, and not in the punny way that Elon Musk has named The Boring Company. A slice of avocado in Nakuru High’s githeri was equivalent to, or even better than, the one piece of meat we got with our ugali once a week. In that school, both were rare, hence precious. Talk of learning theory of demand and supply the tough way – yet some kids still flunked Business Studies! Shame.

***

When I went on to study in South Africa, the US and Jamaica, it wasn’t as easy to sling the avocados across borders. With a whollipa tings fi carry inna mi suitcase, there simply was no space for dem fruits. Though, again, that’s not entirely true because my mother once bought me a suitcase that could fit a whole family in it – not the nuclear family, I am talking a clan.

But this story is about avocados so let’s focus.

My international avocado story came in my third year of Colgate. Colgate is this brilliant liberal arts college that prides itself in being in the middle of nowhere. But because it’s in New York state, you still have to field questions like, “So, how do you enjoy weekends in New York City?” You smile off the questions but you just wanna say: Actually, dude, it takes at least 5 hours to get to the City and there are only two buses in a day. In between the corn fields of Upstate New York, though, we were blessed with a Price Chopper mini-supermarket. It was at this Price Chopper that we bought supplies now that we didn’t have the unlimited meal plans of our freshman year and we had to have back up plans in case there was no free food event on campus that day or (hush hush) we got caught sneaking into the dining hall with the school ID of one of them freshmen brothers from the motherland – milking that stereotype that white people can’t tell black faces apart to the bone.

So this one Saturday I am going down the aisles of the Price Chopper and I decide to check the fruit and veg section. There are sukumas being called fancy names (ati collard greens *rolls eyes*) and spinach and broccoli and squash (which doesn’t seem different to me from pumpkins). My old friend beckons me in the midst of all this fruit-veg competition for attention.

“So, you’ve missed me?” the avocado seems to ask me like a clingy girlfriend who’s been away from you for a few days.

“Of course. Please come with me,” I want to reply but before I show a sliver of love to this rare find up in these streets, I read the price tag.

$2.50 for two Hass avocado fruits!

 

Now, I ain’t killing it in no Maths-related course in college but even I know a raw deal when I see one. This is (cue Chris Rock’s voice) not the best avocado in the world ; it looks shrunken and ashen anyway. Even if it was the best in the world, is it worth the price of 120 avocados from my grandpa’s farm? I feel so discriminated on behalf of my grandparents’ avocados that I decide not buy the fruits at Price Chopper. I am not a traitor. Fucking white people fruits pretending like they better than our fruits!

 

That does not prevent me from wondering about what caused the disparity in prices. Maybe the fruit quality is different – but surely, that can only account for a proportion of it. Maybe the fruits are out of season. Maybe Price Chopper prices are inflated and I can get better prices online. (Spoiler alert: I check and the prices are no better.) Maybe it’s a matter of good old demand and supply.

Need I say more about my sad avocado story in college? I settled for the rare servings of guacamole in free food events that served Mexican food or in the once-a-year visit to La Iguana, the solo Mexican restaurant downtown.

***

A wise man once said, home is where you can afford to buy avocados. So, once I had my diploma in my suitcase (a smaller one this time) in May of 2015, I boarded a Qatar Airways vessel back to Kenya. The heroics of return are their own story but today, I’ll cut straight to the avocados.

In 2016, I worked for one of the leading banks in the country and lived in a “spacious” bedsitter at Allsops along Thika Road. The previous weekend, I had visited my parents upcountry and as usual, I had hauled a gunia of goodies back to the city. There were at least 30 avocado fruits in that gunia. And not just any other avocados, Hass avocados. Quick Maths will reveal that, going by Price Chopper prices, I had 3,750 bob worth of avocados (Funny thing is, when city people go to the countryside, we take shopping worth about one thousand and carry stuff worth five times as much and then trash the countryside on Twitter). I don’t know why I carried so many fruits yet I lived alone and at that stage in my life had very few friends both at work and in the neighbourhood. I guess I had just gotten addicted to having a lot of avocados around. In the first several days, just a few ripened. But a week in, I had about 20 ripe fruits at the same time. And because I was wearing suits and ties to work and not getting money that spoke to that look at the end of the month, I didn’t even have a fridge.

So I decided, well, I can make a few friends in the neighbourhood like I did in primary school. I had barely spoken to people on the fourth floor of the flat I had been living in for the five months I had been there but I thought I would try. I took a handful of fruits one evening and decided to knock on some doors. I would not ask for money—but maybe I would not refuse it either.

First door:

Me: Niaje? Niko na avocado hapa zimeiva pamoja, unaweza taka moja?

First door neighbour: Eeeh, mimi huwa sikulangi avocado…labda uulize hawa wengine. (points to the next door)

Me: Sawa. Thanks.

Second door:

Me: Niaje? Unaweza taka avocado – niko na extra hapa zimeiva pamoja.

Second door neighbour: Thanks – but huwa sikulangi avocado.

Me: Sawa.

What! It had made sense when the first neighbour had said he didn’t eat avocados but when the second one said the same thing, it stung. It felt like there was a conspiracy against my avocados. It felt personal. Do these people think I want to poison them? For crying out loud, I live around the corner.

I went back to my bedsitter and hatched a plan. If my neighbours would not accept my avocados, I would give them to total strangers. That made perfect sense to me then. The next morning, I packed both my tie and my avocados into my backpack. I planned to give a couple of fruits to street children on my commute and maybe spare a couple for lunch in the office. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any kids on the streets that early in the morning. Then I figured, why don’t I give them to boda boda riders—there were plenty of those. But it turns out, like my neighbours, Nairobi boda boda riders also “don’t eat avocados.” I was hurt and decided to carry the fruits to work – I gave several to the security guy on our floor and a few to colleagues at work. Sadly, most of the fruits simply went bad and I threw them away. Few sadder stories have been written.

Fast forward to 2018 and I work with a great team at Nova Pioneer, an educational startup changing the way education is done in Africa. The office feels like home and the team feels like family. I’ve shared the joy of avocados with the team more that six times now. A colleague asked why I don’t sell the avocados to them and I joked, “I am just giving samples like a drug dealer, and soon you’ll all be hooked and I’ll start charging.” And just like any good joke, there’s a kernel of truth in this joke.

My mother planted over two hundred avocado trees early last year. For context: all the fruits that I have brought my peers at Nova Pioneer come from a single tree, the same tree that my parents can make upwards of 5000 shillings from, annually. Now, a wise person looks ahead. But sometimes, the wiser person looks at what is right in front of their eyes and then, with the mind’s eye, looks beyond the horizon. The avocado business is booming around the world. Prices are at an all-time high – last September avocados retailed at $2 per fruit in the US. Of course, local prices are lower but they’re not what they used to be when I was in primary school. I don’t remember buying an avocado fruit in Nairobi for less than 20 bob, and these are the poorer varieties. On average, avocado prices range from 50 to 70 shillings. Furthermore, Kenyan exports of the fruit are growing rapidly: between 2016 and 2017, exports of avocado grew 19% from Sh5.4 billion to Sh7.1 billion according to data from the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA). Most of the fruits are sold to Europe and the Middle East. More farmers are getting certified to export and companies like Sasini are aggregating produce from small farmers. New transport and storage technologies now allow avocados to be exported even farther without going bad. The per capita consumption of avocado is growing as experts and digital influencers tout their health benefits in an age of healthy lifestyles.

Two months ago, with the help of my mother, my father and my grandfather, I bought a piece of land, and I plan to get into the business of growing avocados. I plan to start with a conservative crop of about 100 Hass avocado trees. What excites me about this project—well, apart from the rich personal history I have with avocados hence this 3000-word article about it—is the long term nature of the project. I don’t expect my first crop until about 2021 but the trees could keep producing fruits for at least fifty years! As millenials, we’re often slighted for not looking ahead. But fewer generations have been as passionate and informed as we are. I believe with the right support, we can develop our ideas into sustainable, long-lasting projects. Another great thing about avocados is they do not need constant attention. Later in the year, I will be leaving for the UK to continue my studies, but on my little farm in Subukia – less than a mile away from where Waciuri and I played soccer and lifted my grandparents’ avocados a decade and a half ago—my beloved avocados trees will be extending their roots deeper and dancing to the wind, getting ready to quench your thirst for guac in Nairobi, Lagos, Dubai, Edinburgh or even New York City.

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