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Insights and ironies: Being an African vegetarian

Most African staple foods are plant based yet the notion of being a non-meat eater is deemed “un-African”, “bourgeois” or “finicky” by many. If you are thinking of making the change, here are some of the things you can expect as a new vegetarian in an African city.



I have not been vegetarian for very long; in fact, less than half a year. Nonetheless, it has been such a unique experience that I have felt the impact deeply. Although the genesis of my becoming a pescatarian is somewhat murky, my overall guiding principle is similar to that of most vegetarians: a cruelty-free and healthy lifestyle.

As an African, the shift should be a natural “return to tradition”, as described by Tadzoka Pswarayi in the article below.

Read: African vegans are a return to tradition

But it is not. Here are some of the insights and ironies you are likely to experience:


Irony: Vegetarians are seen as “un-African” and “bourgeois”

In reality: The bulk of traditional African staple foods are in fact plant based, and in low-income households meat is a luxury. Although for the latter the omission is not voluntary, meat-free was the preferred dietary option for older generations for its health benefits, which points to the prevalence and sustainability of the lifestyle.

Irony: Being a vegetarian is more difficult than being a meat eater

In reality: Before you figure out your way, being a vegetarian can be difficult. For starters, it takes active planning because you quickly realise that you cannot turn to your regular food options. You are forced to reimagine how you prepare your food and balance your meals.

Vegetarians need to supplement the vitamins and nutrients that meat provides, and trying as much as possible to incorporate substitutes in your food intake is a struggle. In food preparation, you suddenly have to analyse everything you make or change your level of consumption.


Being a vegetarian is also expensive, especially in the beginning. To maintain a balanced diet and prevent yourself from getting bored, variety is key. Buying a wide range of fruits, vegetables and vegetarian health or food substitutes in bulk is not cheap at all.

Irony: A vegetarian diet can make you gain weight

In reality: Everyone thinks “vegetarian” automatically means “healthy” and “trim” but vegetarian food has a tendency to not keep you full for long. This, coupled with the lack of quick meal options, may result in incessant snacking or other unhealthy eating habits. In fact, the fastest, most convenient and most popular vegetarian fast food option is some form of potatoes.


In addition, restaurants seem to offer only variations of carbohydrates, starch or wheat to their vegetarian customers – a sure recipe for weight gain.

Pro Tip: Always add a healthy fat or a protein for a more filling meal, such as olive oil, avocados, eggs or nuts.

Insight: You are the minority and therefore not a priority

In reality: If I could monetise the number of times I have been to a function or gone to visit someone and nothing had been prepared for me, I would be on my way to a nice nest egg. People do not plan for vegetarians because it is so “rare” to host one. Even in a country like Kenya, which has a large Kenyan-Asian community that is mostly vegetarian, people are still surprised to host a vegetarian or often forget to include the option on their function menus.

In restaurants you are unlikely to find anything beyond passable on the menu for the different kinds of vegetarians. Expect about five or so vegetarian options on the menu, all of which (aside from soup) are likely to be a pasta dish, the boring standard vegetarian burger and, of course, salads.


Pro Tip: Save yourself from possible hunger or the lack of food options by eating before you go out.

Insight: People think there is only one kind of vegetarian

In reality: It is bad enough being the general kind of vegetarian; being a specific type of vegetarian is unfathomable to most people. Imagine telling your African parents and relatives that you no longer eat meat – then imagine going on to turn down anything that contains animal products, as vegans do, or, in the case of raw vegans, explaining that you do not eat cooked food.

Insight: It will be assumed that the presence of leafy vegetables or salad and starches constitute a meal

In reality: Most people think that the traditional accompaniments to meat would suffice as a meal for a vegetarian. It really does not. Serving me the dry rice and vegetables meant for the meat stew is not a meal – and before you even ask, no, the gravy from the meat stew is not an option.

Rule of Thumb: If you would not pair food items together for your own meal, assume that the vegetarian you are offering the food to would not either.

Serving the dry rice and vegetables meant for the meat stew is not a meal.

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