This guest post is by Danielle Nierenberg from the Border Jumpers blog. Danielle is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director for their Nourishing the Planet project. Visit Border Jumpers and learn how to make two traditional South African vegan recipes.
Before Bernard Pollack, my travel partner, and I left on our year-long trip across Africa, many of our friends and family asked “how are you going to be vegetarian or vegan in Africa? There’s nothing for you to eat there.” A few months later, over a mushy bowl of nshima—a kind of maize porridge and a staple food in both Zambia and Malawi—I looked at Bernard and smiled. Nshima’s definitely not the most attractive looking food, but it’s a tasty vegan dish that’s similar to mashed potatoes and often served with pumpkin leaves, which are a bit like collard greens, as well as cabbage and carrots.
In Uganda, there is a dish that’s similar in taste to nshima called posho (maize flower), often served with matooke (banana), rice, and cassava (pumpkin). Since the food is served steamed, it is often accompanied by a dipping sauce made of ground nuts and tomatoes cooked in a covered box sauce pan.
In rural parts of South Africa, we are grateful for everything we eat, but often don’t have many choices. Most people who can afford meat, eat it. Sharing meat with guests is the local cultures standard way to demonstrate hospitality. Declining to eat meat when people welcome us into their homes can be uncomfortable, or worse, misunderstood.
We’ve spent the last seven months traveling to 17 countries and visiting more than 130 projects dedicated to alleviating hunger and poverty for the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project. As we travel, it is impossible not to notice the migration of youth towards the cities. Traditional villages are viewed as “uncool” and local agriculture and traditional foods are snubbed for imported and packaged meals.
Like in the United States, a new generation of Africans are growing up not knowing where their food comes from. In Senegal, people buy expensive imported rice and cereal from Europe rather than locally grown options from their neighbors (who really need the income), deeming it an inferior product. In cities like Nairobi and Lilongwe, it can be easier to find “fast food” than local juices or vegetables.
We’ve seen many projects working to improve the quality of nutrition by bringing local fruits and vegetables back into the everyday diet. While in Uganda, we met with Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC), a terrific organization supported by Slow Food International, that works with schools to build gardens. Teaching the children about planting indigenous and traditional vegetables and fruit trees, the DISC project puts a big emphasis on food preparation and processing as they educate students about nutrition and where the food on their plate comes from.
“If a person doesn’t know how to cook or prepare food, they don’t know how to eat,” says Edward, one of the founders of DISC. Cultivating and harvesting the fruits and vegetables that go into the traditional meals they prepare during their classes, kids at Sunrise—and the other schools working with DISC –learn how to grow, prepare, and eat food, as well as its nutritional content.
As a result, these students grow up with more respect—and excitement— for farming. At Sirapollo Kaggwass Secondary School outside Kampala, we met 19 year-old Mary Naku, who is learning farming skills from the people at the DISC project. This was her school’s first year with the project but already Mary says, “we have learned to grow fruits and vegetables to support our lives.”
As traveling vegetarians, we avoid the temptation of imported food, and try to taste as many locally grown options as possible. Edward from DISC and others are our inspiration.
When eat at restaurants, we don’t get any funny looks when we announce our dietary restrictions— but we do have to carefully inspect our food. Some restaurants even list vegetarian meals on the menu, but that can be a misnomer. One time we had to pick out large meat chunks from our “vegetarian” spaghetti sauce. There were other occasions when fish, eggs, and chicken all seemed to fall into the menu category of “no meat.”
It feels silly sending food back, especially as we write about projects helping to feed hungry people, and so sometimes we bend the rules. I normally eat vegan but have occasionally had dairy products in Africa. Bernard, who’s normally eats vegetarian, has sometimes had a piece of fish.
We travel on a shoestring budget, looking for hostels and home stays where we can cook our own meals, often buying canned chickpeas, corn, and kidney beans. Sometimes we find the most random items in stores in the most out of the way places, including cans of soy milk in a middle-of-nowhere gas station in Botswana and once in a rural town in Ghana.
The truth is we see the connection between our efforts to travel on a vegetarian diet, with much needed efforts to improve access to food and proper nutrition in Africa. Because once people are fed, the next struggle is to ensure a balanced and nutritious diet.