Let’s get straight to the meat (or rather the vegetable) of the issue: Globalisation and the cultural appropriation of traditional African ways have relabelled ancient practices and made them seem obscure in the places they originated. Before farming started, Africans were known to be hunters and gatherers (the foundation of the paleo diet). They would gather leaves, roots, tubers, corns, rhizomes, bulbs, seeds, buds, shoots, stems, pods or edible flowers. Occasionally, they would hunt down game. The operative word is ‘occasionally’. Nowadays, most African societies are carnistic (centred on meat) and meat features daily in the diets of most middle-class African families. But this culture is colonial.

Meatless diets as an African tradition

Until about five centuries ago, Africa remained mainly dependent on traditional food. When adventurers and slave-traders came to the African continent, they introduced various crops and the larger-scale domestication of animals for commercial consumption and export. These capitalistic farming methods exacerbated the spread of animal diseases among humans. The nomadic lifestyle of some African tribes, which required smaller herds, also began to dwindle as meat production became a lucrative industry and changed the eating patterns of people on the continent.

Read: The plight of vegetarians in Egypt

The colonial era saw a huge reduction in the farming of indigenous crops and the increase in the farming of crops that had been introduced: maize, cassava, groundnuts, sweet potato, tomatoes and pumpkins from Mexico and America; and bananas, sorghum and rice from Asia. Ironically, these plants are today the staple food of many African countries and are often referred to as ‘traditional’.

africanveganchefcolaRoasted eggplant 🔥. Photo: ChefCola/Instagram

The interesting thing about colonialism is that it often leaves its traits behind in a culture that it dominated. Those traits become associated with the colonised culture, while the former colonisers move towards a way of life that is more similar to that of the people they colonised. The sad aspect of this cycle is that the colonised cultures then adopt what was bad about the colonisers’ culture and have to be re-taught their own culture by the dominant one. Case in point: vegetarianism and veganism.

Why people become vegans

First, let’s get a few definitions out of the way so that there is no obscurity. In general, the ending ‘-ism’ refers to a belief system and ‘-arian’ refers to the people who follow it. However, this is not always the case, as being a “humanitarian” does not mean you like the taste of humans along with your salad. Vegetarians do not eat meat at all, though some eat eggs and dairy products, while vegans stay away from all animal products or by-products and will not even eat honey or butter.

The top three reasons why people decide to become vegan are:

– Animal rights Vegans believe that animals have the right to exist freely without human interference.

– The environment Livestock farming has a negative impact on the environment because animal feed production takes up a lot of land, fertiliser and water that can be used for feeding humans instead. It is believed that livestock production accelerates topsoil erosion, lowering its productivity for the cultivation of crops. Animal waste also increases pollution in groundwater and rivers.

– Personal health Going vegan increases one’s energy, assists in weight loss and helps maintain a healthy weight and younger-looking skin.

Beet wellington by Chef Cola.

The ethical reasons are the most interesting, especially in cases where people are intensely conscious about not eating animal products, yet they do not follow the source of their fruit and vegetables. The farming of some plant food can cause major ethical issues, as is the case with the soy farms that are destroying large parts of the Amazon, or the pesticides used on bananas by the Dole Corporation, which is resulting in infertility among its plantation workers. You could be saving furry animals while killing humans, if you are not careful. So, if you really want to be an ethical vegan, research all your food – even the plants.

On the other side of the vegan discourse are meat eaters who do not realise that veganism is extremely healthy, and has been proven to be so. Too often in African societies today, meat eaters mock vegetarians and vegans. The most common anti-vegan/vegetarian statement by omnivores (those who eat both meat and vegetables) is that ‘people don’t get enough protein from vegetables alone’. This is a myth: Vegetables, in all their glorious diversity, pack all the vital nutrients a person needs to survive, when eaten in the right proportions.

Read: The strong black woman and those who don’t fit the stereotype

Many non-meat-eating cultures and people would be extinct if veganism resulted in malnutrition. Half of Hollywood would also be dead (here is a list of Hollywood vegetarians). For example, actor Liam Hemsworth, the ripped lead in the film The Hunger Games, is clearly not experiencing the first word of that movie’s title. Hip-hop producer Russell Simmons and pop singer Ariana Grande also live a plant-based lifestyle. Rapper Wacka Flocka Flame (see him making vegan blueberry muffins here) went vegan to avoid becoming fat. Athletes such as Carl Lewis would not have made Olympic gold (see his video on winning Olympic gold as a vegan).

Pre-colonial Africans did, in fact, rely predominantly on a plant-based diet. Photo: Alan Levine/Flickr/CC

Even the Bible advocates veganism. That is where the annual ‘Daniel Fast’, practised by many Christian congregations, comes from:

“But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine … Then Daniel asked … ‘Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink.’ … At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations.” – Daniel 1:8, 11–12, 15

There is plenty of scientific evidence confirming the benefits of a predominantly plant-based diet, from the prevention of chronic diseases to a better-functioning system.

Shifting false perceptions

In Zimbabwe, the concept of veganism is trending but it is positioned as a niche industry that requires supplies and education from the Western world. There is the view that becoming a vegan is expensive. This is because of processed and imported vegan food options such as tofu, tempeh and nut and bean milks.

However, if we look at the traditional Zimbabwean diet of our grandparents it had many interesting and nutritious options that are gaining superfood status across the world today. These local options are mostly small grains, leafy greens, legumes and nuts. It is a vegan’s haven if you know what to look for. It is the fancy and often not-so-healthy processing of plants to try to make them taste and appear as close to meat products as possible that leads people to believe that it is hard to be an African vegan.

Africanveganchefcola #AfricanVeganChef Photo: ChefCola/IG @dresnaps

Thankfully there are people on the local scene shifting these perceptions one Beet Wellington and pumpkin-leaf soup at a time. Nicola Kagoro, publicly known as Chef Cola, is a 28-year-old Zimbabwean, born in New York. She is a vegan chef and the founder of African Vegan on a Budget, a movement to increase awareness of the vegan movement in Africa. Chef Cola’s aim is to show that a vegetable-only diet is not just for rabbits.

Dinner With Cola is an exclusive dinner held once a month by Chef Cola. She invites 20 foodies, ranging from creatives to top restaurant owners, journalists and media personalities, into her world of veganism. Chef Cola was also a participant in Battle of the Chefs Zimbabwe, a reality cooking show that is now in its third season. 

Being an African vegan on a budget is not a paradox, nor is it out of reach. It is, in fact, the easiest way to eat here, should one choose to do so.

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Other definitions for goofy people:

Carnism: Lovers of flesh – meat is king.

Reducetarian: For this one, let’s go with reducetarian.org’s definition:

The reducetarian movement is composed of individuals who are committed to eating less meat – red meat, poultry, and seafood – as well as less dairy and fewer eggs, regardless of the degree or motivation. This concept is appealing because not everyone is willing to follow an ‘all-or-nothing’ diet. However, reducetarianism is still inclusive of vegans, vegetarians and anyone else who reduces the amount of animal products in their diet.”

So perhaps poor people are automatic reducetarians, as well as people on a weight loss mission…?

Flexitarian: Sometimes described as “vegetarians with benefits”, this is a fake “-ian” because it really is just eating normally with an emphasis on vegetables and legumes, but people felt left out without a fancy label.