I have observed that many Africans, specifically West Africans, share this idea that there is a checklist of things one must do in order to be a “real African”. Some things on that list may include eating jollof, azonto-ing and reading Things Fall Apart. I most recently found out that eating meat is also on that list. Being a vegetarian, my African pass, as I jokingly say, was called into question when I revealed I don’t eat meat to many of my African associates.
“You are a vegetarian and you are African?” I often hear. “How can you be a vegetarian and an African? That is unnatural.”
My decision to become a vegetarian is a part of my African identity and not separate although many have argued that, “I am not a real African because real Africans eat meat.” My decision had nothing to do with animals or the environment. It really had nothing to do with health either, as I’ve always been conscious of the food I eat even when they included meat. I became a vegetarian because of my views on immigration reform, the meatpacking industry and how it directly relates to Africans. About 3% of all undocumented immigrants in the United States are from Africa. Almost a quarter of the workers who butcher and process meat, poultry and fish are undocumented. We always hear the stories of those Africans who immigrated to the United States and worked their way to the “American dream”, but what about the others whose voices we never hear?
I became a vegetarian because I disagree with the exploitation of immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry. I disagree with the cruel work environments. According to a report by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the meatpacking industry has a rate of 7.5 cases per 100 full-time workers when it comes to injuries. This may not seem high, but in fact, it is about 21% higher than the food manufacturing industry as a whole and 50% higher than the manufacturing industry as a whole. Furthermore, almost none of these immigrant workers have health insurance to treat their injuries due to the cost. Besides a poor work environment, they are paid wages that anyone would find ludicrous. Wages are based on the judgment of those in charge and can range from $2 an hour to $9 an hour. Undocumented workers are unable to assert their rights and have no protection of labour laws. They are faced with abuse and discrimination.
Being a vegetarian is a personal choice I made due to my views on this social and human rights issue. Just as I do not wear diamonds due to the conflict, I do not eat meat. These are not decisions that I would force on anyone, but I find it disheartening when my African identity is put into question because my eating habit is considered “unnatural” for an African.
My question to this thinking is simply, why? Why is it unnatural for an African to not eat meat? Africa is a continent compromised of 54 countries. Fifty four countries bursting with tribes, traditions, languages and eating habits. Of those 54 countries, are you telling me that all of its citizens have the same diet? From the North to the South to the East to the West, are we really all meat eaters?
For those who believe it is unnatural because “it is a part of our culture”, who creates culture? Is it not the people? Furthermore, seeing that Africans are dispersed all around the world due to voluntary migration and the trading of enslaved people, can we really box what African culture is? Who determines what culture is for an African on the continent and an African in South America?
I am an African woman. I am a vegetarian. There is no “and” because those two identities aren’t independent of each other. My Africanness led to my decision to become a vegetarian.
*Immigration statistics sourced from migrationpolicy.org.
Bilphena Yahwon is a Liberian artist, writer, womanist, social justice activist and student currently pursuing a BS in Information Systems/Business Administration. She is editor of Rise Africa, a blog written by a group of individuals who seek to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Connect with them on Twitter: @riseafrica