No cheese and butter, our avocado man has the trick

African presidents- averse to much physical exertion – are not known for their athletic figures.

So we assumed that the fit-looking man walking along the village street shouting at the top of his voice, “Avocados plus prayers and exercise equal prosperity”, was probably a trader from a neighbouring village. His head was completely shaven, and he wore a track suit covered with drawings of the fruit he was advertising.

On one shoulder, and with one hand, he supported a wicker basket, from which he would draw an avocado and toss it in the air. Then, positioning himself below the dropping fruit, catch it neatly between his teeth. After this perfect display of eye- mouth coordination, he would reward himself with a generous bite of the fruit.

It was only after the man asked for directions to Old Nyati’s compound that we took an interest in him, but try as we might, we could not place him.

“Sir,” I said, “I will show you to the compound.”

He thanked me and gave me a huge avocado. We walked side by side in silence, the stranger stopping every once in a while to shout his slogan and demonstrate his eccentric skill.

We found the village sage in his element, narrating to those gathered his narrow escape from a most inconvenient marriage to a woman famous in several villages for her gargantuan figure and appetite. Old Nyati’s body was convulsing with heart chuckles. Then he looked up and saw us, and suspecting the stranger was a VIP, stood up hurriedly and stepped up to us.

“I am Pierre Nkurunziza, the President of Burundi,” announced the stranger, and repeated – to the considerable astonishment of Old Nyati and his guests – his avocado trick.

Pleased with the effect on the gathered faces his display had produced, the President explained that he sought the quiet of the village to complete his thesis that avocado plus prayer and sport equal prosperity.

Peers

Burundi is similar in important respects to neighbouring Rwanda. It has the same ethnic make-up, almost the same population size and the same history of ethnic conflict.

Yet today, while Rwanda confidently moves forward socially and economically, its neighbour seems bewildered by its many problems. And what accounts for this unambiguous difference is leadership. Paul Kagame has provided a leadership style characterised by unshakeable determination to see his country succeed. He has encouraged out-of-the-box solutions to social and economic problems and accepted nothing short of excellence in those he has put in key positions. Thus slowly, the Kagame leadership is socialising a national culture characterised by confidence, personal responsibility and patriotism.

In Burundi, the well-meaning Pierre Nkurunziza encourages the growth of avocados as way out of the economic mess, and prayers and sports and as a way out of the distress of harsh times. Today, the difference between the two tiny neighbours is the difference between great hope and sad despair.

But such thoughts were far from Nkurunziza’s mind, for he could be seen- every morning -writing furiously in a notebook, before reclining in the hammock for a well -deserved afternoon nap. In late afternoons, he was seen running in the plains, practising - with ever cleverer variations- his signature trick. Evenings were spent sitting on the bench in fervent prayer.

It was while he was deep in the latter routine that I found him one evening. I had been sent by Old Nyati to bring the President a consignment of avocados. I waited for an opportunity to present myself, but no sooner would the President open his eyes than he would close them again, now even deeper into a transcendental state. I gave up, placed the wicker basket full of avocados on the table near the bench, and turned to leave. But before I reached the gate, the President called out, “Bwana, come and have a bite.”

The Mr Right

We ate in silence as the evening grew around us.

Then the President said thoughtfully; “You know, I become convinced everyday that I am right.”

“Sir..?”

“You see,” he continued, almost as if he was talking to himself, “if every Burundian grows avocados, we will become the number one exporter of the fruit.”

“True,” I said, “but don’t you think, sir, that superior economic policies, making government more efficient, inculcating in the populace a sense of renewal ....”

“Bwana,” he interrupted me, “that is the beauty of this fruit, it does all that...”

“Sir..?”

“You see, we will not only export it, we will eat it as well, and it has properties believed to make people more innovative more hopeful... especially when supplemented with prayer and exercise.”

I felt the beginnings of despair in my breast. Suddenly, the evening seemed cold and sad.

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