Coming out of the green closet

If African meat eaters don’t find the vegetarian lifestyle abhorrent, at best they find it intriguing. The carnivores around us find it unfathomable that a person could actually sit down for a meal in which meat is absent. Yet more and more South Africans are going green, stretching their consciences to their mouths.

My interest in the vegetarian lifestyle is not only professional but also personal. I have eaten meat with less and less regularity since 2003 and have almost stopped buying meat (red meat mostly) for cooking at home.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from eating rather copious amounts of meat (chicken especially) when I eat out. It’s not for religious or health reasons. I just don’t like the idea of meat but I am rather too random and disorderly to actually say I won’t dine on the dead anymore.

Last weekend I met three vegetarians and a raw vegan to find out how they cope.

Mlibokazi Mayeza (23)
I met Mlibokazi Mayeza, a recent Wits University graduate in film studies, at the Greenside Café in Johannesburg, a cheerful and extremely sober establishment that is popular with the vegetarian and vegan community (smoking is not allowed on the premises).

Her decision to live sans meat — which she describes as “toxic” — was made two years ago when she was about to turn 21. This decision to excise meat from her diet was “not forced. It was a choice. You always want to get the best out of your body. Have you realised how after eating meat at a braai you become lethargic?” she asks.

Mayeza is dating a Rastafarian vegetarian and says she “can’t imagine kissing a meat eater”.

The benefits, she says, go beyond moral concerns. While doing dance classes at university, Mayeza discovered that when she hadn’t gorged on meat she felt “lighter and was able to manipulate her body better”.

It’s spiritual, too, bringing a certain kind of awareness. “Vegetarianism brings you closer to something. You feel things in a particular way,” she says, adding, “you don’t want your stomach to be a burial ground for dead animals”.

In choosing to become vegetarian, she was revolting against the kind of common sense that’s propagated by the meat industry. “It’s capitalistic,” she says, “it’s not natural”, referring to the way the animals are fed, penned and slaughtered.

She speaks of her lifestyle as a journey; already eggs, milk and chocolate have been chucked off her grocery list. Mayeza still eats cheese, which she describes as her “weakness”; the long-term aim, she says, “is to go vegan”.

But being vegetarian has not been easy. A green diet is still something of a novelty in the black community. Whenever she goes to non-vegetarian restaurants black waiters consider her “fussy. Sometimes they ask: what has meat ever done to you?”

If it’s difficult out in the world peopled by strangers, it was even more difficult at home. When she announced her new lifestyle choice, her family thought she was being a “diva”. Her grandmother remarked that a vegetarian lifestyle wasn’t for her. “You don’t eat grass because you’re not a goat,” she told her.

The family’s antagonistic culinary preferences will soon be tested. In two weeks’ time she’s holding a graduation party and her family is insisting meat will be served. “Yet it’s my party,” she says.

Elijah Phekani (38)
Elijah Phekani has been a vegetarian for more than two decades. “It’s both religious and a health-conscious choice,” says the Rastafarian son of a deceased butcher, who was naturally opposed to the idea of his heir scorning meat. “They would secretly put meat potions into my food,” he recalls.

“My religion encourages me to be vegetarian,” he says to me at the Sweet Pot, a vegetarian restaurant he runs on Rockey Street in Yeoville, Johannesburg.

“My religion encourages me to live healthy. My body is the temple of Most High. Eating anything that’s not healthy is defiling that temple.” When he mentions his diet preference in the presence of black people they always chuckle, and remark: “You don’t know what you are missing.”

Throughout the interview, Phekani refers to meat as flesh. “I call it flesh because I want to make it sound as raw as possible. We shouldn’t window dress it. Flesh is flesh,” he says. “Once you eat one flesh you can eat the next piece of flesh.”

Drawing from the book of Genesis, Phekani argues that the “Most High” originally didn’t want human beings to eat meat. Then quoting the Bible, he notes that “Jehovah” said: “I have given you every herb bearing seed … and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” He says it was only much later, after Noah’s flood, that animals were also included in this designation: meat.

His palate has since forgotten the taste of meat, he says, and when his body needs zinc and iron he doesn’t have to eat meat, as some people advise him. “I don’t need a ‘middle man’ when I need minerals. I go direct to Mother Earth.”

Samora Ntsebeza (25)
If a clueless matric learner had sat in during my interview with musician and raw vegan Samora Ntsebeza at the Greenside Café, it’s likely he would have come away with a lot of valuable facts about chemistry and biology. The son of advocate, Dumisa Ntsebeza, the Wits-trained musician (part of Sankofa, an African marimba band) has been a vegetarian since 2003, and a raw vegan for more than five years.

“You have to go out there and study, get information and make sure it’s clear to you,” he says in response to my queries about his fierce erudition.

“A green juice is important for clearing the system,” he says to me while casually sipping from a wheatgrass-based drink which, in true vegetarian bonhomie, I also ordered. But after one glass of this thick green concoction, and being the rather decadent person that I am, I switched back to my old favourite: coffee.

His decision to become vegetarian was somewhat revolutionary — he was named after former Mozambican Marxist leader Samora Machel — perhaps in keeping with the revolutionary tradition of his name.

One day he went back home from university and told his parents he wasn’t going to eat meat again. “I was militant,” he recalls. “I remember I went home and said to my parents that no meat was to be kept in the fridge and nearly got myself a backhander,” he says, chuckling.

If Ntsebeza is not the evangelical proselytiser that he was then, his fierce erudition more than compensates for a cooling off that has occurred over the years. His religious fervour has paid off. Castro, his younger brother, is now a vegan and his mother is a strict vegetarian.

“Being black and eating meat are not analogous,” he insists. In pre-colonial Africa meat, he argues, was meant for special occasions. The post-colony has become the space in which people eat “oddities” like the penis of this animal and the tail of that animal. “That’s not just malnutrition, that’s murder.”

Obakeng Leepile (27)
When I met Obakeng Leepile at Kitchen Café, his restaurant in Rockville, Soweto, he was wearing a Bobo Ashanti turban popularised by reggae artistes Sizzla and Capleton (Bobo Dreads cover their locks with a turban and are fundamentalist in their interpretation of the Rastafarian religion).

I met him in Soweto where, with his vegetarian business partner Thulani Mathebula and Kagiso (his brother), he runs a restaurant from his family home.

Although he has been a vegetarian for nine years, his restaurant caters for meat eaters because of commercial reasons. “We have to be sensitive to what the industry wants. I must serve what everyone wants to eat,” he says.

I spent the larger part of Sunday afternoon at his restaurant and a steady stream of meat eaters, including myself, were served. “Vegetarianism is the new Prada. It’s a good lifestyle trend to follow,” Leepile says as he paces about his kitchen.

“The meat industry is crazy. Look at the numbers of livestock that have to be artificially raised, stuffed with hormones. Cattle was a source of wealth,” he says. He insists “we don’t need meat, we want meat. It’s disrespect for life, which is what made me choose to become vegetarian.”

Since his decision to go green in his diet, he has “become more aware of his impact on the environment”.

Unlike the Sizzlas and the Capletons, Leepile is less rigid in his worldview. Even though he is a teetotaller, he stocks his fridge with beer and even boasts a wine collection.

“The worst thing you can do is impose your views on other people. I don’t mind the smell of meat. I can’t allow petty prejudices to get in the way of my job,” he says.

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