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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View: Being vegetarian in Sierra Leone

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

I’m a vegetarian. I eat dairy products, but I mostly don’t eat eggs, and never meat or seafood. Before I left for Sierra Leone, one of the questions I was asked the most from people in Seattle was, what would I eat there?
Being vegetarian is not the norm in Sierra Leone. Though everyone seems to know the word, I often have to explain exactly what it means, and which foods I do and don’t eat (which also happens fairly often in the US). I’ve been told that practically all Sierra Leonean food is made with meat or fish. In the first few days after I arrived, before I’d yet been able to eat a full meal, multiple people said to me, “I don’t know how you will survive.” Not exactly comforting.
The good news is, I’ve survived, and I still follow my vegetarian diet.
An unavoidable reality of being a vegetarian is being asked why. Why follow this diet? This is especially true somewhere like Sierra Leone, where it’s highly unusual. I’ve been vegetarian all my life, and I continue to be mostly for ethical reasons. In my opinion, there’s no justification for taking animal lives  which are a lot more similar to our own than most people appreciate — for food, when we really don’t need to. Plus, being vegetarian is less wasteful and has less of an impact on the environment.
Of course, most people don’t think about why it’s okay to eat meat in the first place  but even when they do, and come up with the reasons they believe it’s acceptable, I’m still not persuaded.
But I don’t start arguments about this anymore (I got most of that out of my system when I was 12 years old). And I understand that being vegetarian must seem like a luxury for people who live in a poverty-stricken country like Sierra Leone.
I agree  it probably is a luxury. I’ve been discovering that it’s hard, and takes more time and sometimes money, to be vegetarian here. So I know that it might be difficult or impossible for Sierra Leoneans to follow this diet even if they wanted to. Meat and fish are probably the easiest way for people without much time or money to get the protein and nutrition they need. And because traditional Sierra Leonean cuisine isn’t really designed to be vegetarian, it would take a lot more work to cook dishes that are.
I’ve known a few vegetarians who changed their diets after visiting poorer parts of the world, because they thought this was the only polite thing to do. Shouldn’t I adapt to the local way of doing things while I’m here?
My personal answer is, no. I don’t think I should have to abandon a firm value of mine just because local customs are different. Everyone who spends time in a foreign country adapts to some customs, and keeps some values of their own unchanged. My being vegetarian hurts no one (if I wanted to be obnoxious, I could point out that it literally causes less hurt). Why should I assume that other cultures are unable to accept difference? And even if they’re not, why is this something to be accepted and respected without a challenge?
It’s important for all people in today’s globalized world to accept different customs and ways of doing things. I wouldn’t expect a Muslim who comes to the United States to eat pork (and indeed, my Muslim brother-in-law, though he’s adapted to many American customs, still doesn’t eat it), a Hindu to eat beef, or an Orthodox Jewish person to give up their Kosher diet, if these things are important to them.
So with all that said, what have I been eating here? I have baked beans and bread in the mornings, along with a multivitamin to make sure I get the right nutrients. At lunch time, my colleague at Awoko who usually makes food to sell to the staff has kindly started bringing vegetarian dishes like rice and vegetables that I can eat. I even tried a vegetarian version of the traditional Sierra Leonean potato leaves and palm oil with rice. Once or twice, I’ve also gotten falafel from a Lebanese restaurant downtown. For dinner I usually cook a vague dish of lentils, couscous, onions and spices. It’s certainly enough to survive on.
I’ve enjoyed trying the food Sierra Leone has to offer  just as long as it’s vegetarian. And there’s a lot to enjoy. Boiled and roasted peanuts (or groundnuts as they’re called here), fried plantain and cassava chips, sesame cakes, bananas and mangoes (I haven’t yet bought a coconut from the market, but I’m determined to). There’s a bakery near my workplace which sells sweets, tarts and banana bread. And with banana bread as good as that, I know I have nothing to worry about here.
Tuesday July 26, 2016

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