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A Journey in Vegetarianism

Publishing Date : 22 April, 2015

Author : KAGISO SENTHUFHE

‘You’re what you eat’ – unknown origin

Growing up in Gaborone of the 1970s and 80s, in what some might have called a regular, lower-middle-class, single-income family, food for us at home nearly always consisted of nothing else but traditional Tswana/Setswana cuisine –mabele [sorghum], bogobe jwa lerotse, morogo [traditional greens], dinawa [black eyed beans], ditloo [Jugo beans], mmidi [maize], and, of course, this being Botswana, meat, meat, meat – though even this latter commodity would over the years become increasingly unaffordable for many urban households, without the option of slaughtering their own stock!


Only occasionally, on a Sunday, after church or Sunday school, as the case might be, or, for that matter, on Christmas Day, as those of our generation might care to recall, would one ever get to taste the much desired chicken and rice combo.


So you can imagine my shock when, in 1992, on an excursion to the East African nation of Tanzania, I was told that of all things, rice, which we here in Botswana have long considered to be something of a;’[ special treat, and definitely something to write home about, was for them, along with ugali, just another staple – eaten almost every other day (sometimes with milk!) by both the urban elite and the common people in the countryside.


Then in 1986, when, like a soldier headed for battle, I went out on my national tour of duty in Tirelo Sechaba, I experienced what I might regard as my first major dietary disruption – since TS was, if nothing else, all about tin-stuff – those cartons of Luck Star fish, corned beef, baked beans, and the like, that one hoarded in their kitchen.


So with neither mum nor sisters, at home, to prepare any of those nice and sumptuous family meals, for many us, TS participants, the scheme also coincided with a major decline in our eating habits, essentially reducing many to a life of only tin, rust and zinc.


Then a year later, in August 1987, while I was registering as a fresherman at the UB, my stomach hit rock bottom again, with the advent of institutional and communal eating arrangements, with then UB head cook, Mme Mma Dichaba, spoiling us to her treats of boiled chicken and rice and the like - which one would suppose were not too different from what they ate in government hospitals and the prisons services, for instance – and which we, freshermen, relished so much and gnoshed with gusto and glee, as befits highly active and blooming youth.


However, I would not be for too long an ecstatic and enthusiastic guest at Mma D’s table, for mid-way into my academic programme at the UB, I would soon be railroaded to stop eating meat and subscribe to a strict and sparse form of vegetarianism – no beef, no chicken, no eggs, and the like - by my rasta minders on campus.


And even though I would once in a while find myself shuffling indecisively at the head of the food queue, not sure whether to dig into Mma D’s piles of boiled chicken in front of me, or just simply settle for the standard soya, which the kitchen staff had taken to preparing as a stop-gap measure ‘for the rastas’, I would over time take my vegetarianism to even newer heights by finally throwing the eggs and fish out of the kitchen window - essentially rendering me an ultra veg, or vegan, in the process.


And still talking about fish, I had been told by none other than Ras Bupe, a dreadlocked Jamaican émigré and one my rasta friends and interlocutors in Dar, that it was ‘actually a very dirty animal’ that absorbed all manner of impurities under water – despite it being eaten in virtually all parts of Tanzania since the country is not only coastal but is also home to many inland water sources, rivers and lakes.


Then, years afterwards, while living temporarily outside Botswana as a foreign student, I would find being a vegetarian one of the simplest things one could ever do – even though my housemates, who from other African countries, would swear to God that they could not, in all honesty, reconcile being vegetarian and being African, at the same time!


Around the same time, too, almost everyone at home was on my case, turning up the pressure on me, my dad even asking my ‘better enlightened’ brother-in-law to help to make me understand that ‘man could not live without meat’ and that you needed beef in order to develop strong bones and a sound mind!

In this, they were apparently not alone.

For in his book The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (first published in 1884), Marx’s old friend and confidante, Friedrich Engels, had stated quite bluntly that "The superior development of Aryans and Semites is, perhaps, attributable to the copious meat and milk diet of both races, more especially to the favorable influence of such food on the growth of children. As a matter of fact, the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico who live on an almost purely vegetarian diet have a smaller brain than the Indians in the lower stage of barbarism who eat more meat and fish.” (Italics mine).


But finding it increasingly difficult to tie together a solid and steady vegetarian regimen in a new and shared setting, and with my shoulder length ‘dreadlocks’ to also tag along (and feed), I was massively famished and undernourished, weighing only 45 kg on the bathroom scale - which I would grow to dislike.


And, finally coming home to settle, in the dreary late nineties, my choosiness on matters of food and diet began to slowly fizzle out as I came upon and re-entered that shared, traditional cuisine that I had grown on and quit some seven years earlier – arguably in favour of something healthier, more ethical and ‘spiritual’, to use a popular cliché!

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