When a diet free from animal products is determined by class.
As a young African woman who has decided to undertake a change in diet by switching to a mostly plant-based one, I recognize that my choice has heavily been influenced by both Western media and social media; it was one made out of curiosity rather than necessity.
Coming from a relatively privileged background in a rapidly developing African nation and having access to knowledge digitally — and therefore instantly — exposed me to many global ideas; one that made a long-lasting impression on me during my teenage years was the ideas surrounding the health benefits and ethical reasons behind vegetarianism, veganism, and other plant-based diets or movements. Following a deep dive into the details of each type of diet including countless hours spent watching documentaries and youtube videos, reading journals, blog posts, and research papers I felt that all but one aspect of my curiosity had been satiated. Having declared myself a proud meat-eater for as long as I could recall with memories surfacing of polishing off plates of bloody pink steaks and slivers of freshly caught fish faster than anyone else at the table, I had a burning itch to challenge myself to a weeklong purge of all animal-related products, fueling my body on fruits and vegetables alone.
To spare you all the finer details of my epic failure, it took me another two tries of strict vegan adherence before discovering the general plant-based way of eating; where animal products are only consumed infrequently with vegetables and fruits making up the largest portion of one’s diet. Without my ever-supportive mother whom I sent to the humid and pungent local market with itemized lists tailored to include ingredients for whatever Pinterest recipe that had caught my eye that week, there would've been no chance of success. She would always remark on the cheap prices of seasonal produce and the abundance and variety of fruits in our small local area.
A holiday visit to my grandparents’ rural home is where I was first hit with the realization of the existence of forced veganism and vegetarianism. When questioned by my grandfather over the absence of meat on my dinner plate, he was entirely unfazed by my “alternative” lifestyle choice. The conversation we had was a much-needed refresher on the socio-economic struggles faced by over a third of my country’s population who live under the international poverty line. While I have enjoyed a diet far more affordable than my plant-based counterparts in developed nations (excluding imported goods) where the occasional consumption of meat, fish, butter, and eggs would never run me — or rather my parents — more than the equivalent of two to five dollars per kilo or tray, there are hundreds of thousands who are unable to even entertain the thought of spending such amounts on these luxurious items when they could easily feed and satisfy themselves and their families on rice, maize meal and leafy greens for the same sum or less.
Ayere explains that many traditional African meals are already vegan: yam and vegetables, Ghanaian beans and plantains, South African pap and chakalaka, and Kenyan chapati and vegetable stew. These everyday African meals contain no meat, dairy, or eggs.
This remains true for many African countries. In times where nomadic ways of life were commonplace, plant-based diets weren’t anything exceptional. Hunting was less than reliable so foraging for root vegetables, fruits, and edible plants was the obvious way to go; infrequent findings of eggs, honey, and marine creatures were largely dependent on migratory patterns and pure luck whereas the availability of non-animal derived foods was predictable. This was changed by the turn of culture. As people began to settle down in larger semi-permanent to permanent communities and previously unexplored societal rules and norms began to take hold of the population; segregation through perceived value to the community began to dictate the distribution of materials and resources within the group. Meat has always been considered of higher value than most vegetables due to its nutrient density to weight comparability in terms of protein. It is, therefore, more expensive than a plant-based source of protein of the same weight; only the wealthy and privileged could afford to consume it.
There was and is no alternative to the masses that are forced into living a plant-based lifestyle. Sure, hunting and foraging are often suggested as a means for the impoverished to obtain these nutrient-dense animal products but this doesn’t take into account those who live in shanty settlements near big cities or those tied down to jobs that provide some type of financial stability rendering them unable to dedicate their precious little time towards expending large amounts of energy in a futile task that may not replenish that which they have wasted.
In the developed world, the opposite is observed. With much of the food eaten being sourced from the developing world increasing the overall prices of food, only the elite are able to eat the freshest foods and afford to maintain a vegan/plant-based diet. The subsidization of animal products benefits the mega-corporations the most by allowing them to massively cut down on production costs and sell their goods at a greater volume due to the cheap purchasing price to the detriment of the health of the least fortunate in the society.
One thing that the poverty-stricken in the developing and developed world have in common is the non-discriminatory malnutrition that plagues them despite the vastly different foods and nutrients that are available to them. While fats, proteins, and simple carbohydrates are common in the fast-food heavy diets of those from a lower socioeconomic background in Western countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom, omega fatty acids and vitamin B12 are missing from the forced vegan diets of those in developing countries; those in the western world lacking in nutrients could do with a lot more fruit and veg while cutting down on protein, fats and carbs in order to prevent lifestyle diseases like obesity and high blood pressure while those in developing countries may find themselves suffering from long term effects of their deficiencies such as anaemia, neurological disorders, depression, dementia or osteoporosis.
While veganism is a noble path chosen by some in order to reduce harmful carbon and chemical emissions into the environment, protect the wellbeing of innocent animals from torturous treatment or simply to restore good health to one’s body, I do believe it should be just that: a choice.