Should Africans go vegan?
My vegetarian journey led to veganism mainly because I preferred the black and white rules. There was no gray area; no animals; or their secretions, period. I became vegan thanks in large part by listening to Vegetarian Food for Thought, Colleen Patrick Goudreau’s informative podcast.
Over my one year period of vegan living, I learned a great deal about veganism, animal rights, and cookery. I ate produce I’d never considered. In fact, I became hip to fruits and veggies I didn’t even know existed! Most significantly, I learned to adapt African recipes to fit my newfound vegan lifestyle.
I learned how to make family favorites like spinach stew and Okra soup complete with Zomi palm oil but with chopped eggplant instead of beef. My jollof rice was perfected with brown rice minus the corned beef (or any other meat for that matter). Soups, stews, and other dishes were veganized and could stand up to any traditional method of cooking—seriously, my grandma wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference. My culinary adventures led me to wonder if, with some conditioning and education, West Africans can be vegan? Our food most certainly can.
I’m always amazed at how big people in the African community can get after their arrival in the United States. “It’s not natural,” I remember complaining to my friend. “How did she just blow up like that?” I know now, it has a lot to do with the Standard American Diet (SAD), consisting of obscene amounts of meat, dairy, eggs and other ingredients unnatural to the West African way of cooking and eating. Of course, you add inactivity or reduced activity and you have a recipe for yam arms and disease.
Why Africans benefit from a vegan diet
Growing up, here and in Ghana, I never heard of anyone dying of cancer. Okay, my great-grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer in old age, but she was 88. I think that had more to do with her age. But of all the (very many) funerals and wake-keepings (Africans, you know what I’m talking about), my mother, grandmother or other relatives went to, it was almost always of a person (always too young to have died, and always with about 4 or 5 kids and a spouse left behind) killed by stroke or a heart attack—especially the Africans who die here, in the U.S. Is this coincidental? Not at all. Let’s unpack this a bit.
Tropical African food consists mainly of plants, fruits, tubers, legumes and some vegetables. In fact, I may be able to count Ghanaian staples on two hands and a foot. There’s some regional variation, but for the most part, we eat cassava, yam, rice, plantain, peanuts, tomatoes, onions, palm fruit, beans, various green leaves, and…other miscellaneous veggies and seasonal fruits. Mostly starch, but always fresh. The meat came afterward, I’m convinced, (seafood is different and regionally influenced) and now Africans are eating more meat than necessary, with increased disposable income, a burgeoning middle class, and the West as a role model for the good life. As a result, we’re looking at diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and other chronic ailments dictated by a sedentary and indulgent lifestyle i.e. stroke and heart disease.
I’ve heard the argument that the West African diet isn’t particularly transferable to the west, especially in the case of palm oil. Some cite it as too thick to be healthy or too fattening. I disagree. There is nutritional wisdom in our foodways beginning with its plant base. So going all the way and being vegan isn’t a stretch.
*update: Dr. Oz named red palm oil as the miracle food of 2013 because of its insane carotene content, ability to coat the brain in a healthy fat that prevents Alzheimer’s, and its fat unclogging effect in the arteries. Apparently, it metabolizes (burns immediately after ingestion, thereby not stored as body fat) quicker than any other cooking fat.**
Being in a country with accessibility to a variety of produce opens the way for plant-based experimentation that’s healthy. The next time someone tells me, “it’s impossible to be African and vegan” or jokes about their inability to trust a person who doesn’t eat meat, I’ll have a whole lot to say. There’s no need to take unhealthy cues from our environment by weighing down our soups and our stomachs with obscene amounts of God’s four-legged, two-legged, swimming, and crawling creatures. In this case, When in Rome, do not eat as the Romans. Stick to plants and seek out your local African market.