Food & Drink

#MeatlessMonday: The Journey

For me, the process of becoming a vegan was a step-wise approach.

My whole life, I never ate much beef or pork, mostly due to my mother’s taste buds. We ate a lot of chicken, some fish, the occasional burger and rarely a BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato) sandwich.

As I got older, I still mostly focused on chicken and turkey, often making excuses by saying they’re ugly and stupid so it doesn’t matter that I eat them.

I distinctly remember one day in college when I was cooking dinner, seeing the tendons and a huge vein in the chicken breast I was preparing and being revulsed. I thought to myself, why am I eating this?

Why am I eating this?

The food system in the US is so disconnected from what is on your plate. Very few people make the connection between buying pre-packaged meat at the supermarket, and the animal it comes from. I started to become disillusioned by the whole system and realized I didn’t like nor did I want to eat meat any more.

When I came to Rwanda, I had fully become vegetarian.

While the food system here is more holistic – the animals are raised in better conditions, they eat what their bodies were made to eat, people know their chicken wings came from an actual animal – I had already made the decision to stop eating all types of meat.

My first day in my new home, my neighbors were kind enough to bring me dinner. They brought chicken and rice and some other foods. I kindly told them I was a vegetarian and I don’t eat meat; they apologized and quickly went to make something else, against my protests. Every time after that day when I would eat in the community, I would be given a vegetarian meal! My entire village knew I didn’t eat meat and were accommodating and kind.

I had some delicious meals with my neighbors and friends and learned how to cook some of the Rwandan foods that I had never heard of or seen before (ibitoki, intoryi). This is really how I learned to be a vegan in Rwanda.

I didn’t have a fridge, so cheese/milk/butter were rare foods in my diet then and I learned I didn’t really need them! I did eat a lot of eggs during this time, convincing myself that it’s natural and normal – the hens produce them anyway! When I would come into Kigali, I gorged myself on cheese. The “Quatre Fromage” pizza at Sole Luna was my JAM!

During this time though, I also started reading more about the food system in the US.

One of the books I read was Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he goes through the process of tracking down just how a big mac was made.

It made me see more clearly how gross the meat industry is in the US and other ‘industrialized’ countries. Again, Rwanda’s isn’t the same. Cows aren’t force-fed soy and corn, they eat grass, they roam. Chickens can be found walking around eating what they need. The treatment of the animals is more humane, but to me, it’s still flesh and I can’t get around that fact.

For many  years, I continued to eat milk, cheese, eggs, etc. until I tried ‘Veganuary‘, a vegan January. I did it for the first time in 2016, then went back to eating my dairy products. I did it again in 2017 and again went back. In 2018, I did it more seriously and started learning more.

The dairy industry in the US is also pretty horrific and I decided I didn’t want to support it. Almond milk and soy milk are delicious and provide me with the same satisfaction as cow milk, so why bother?

Cheese and eggs were my huge stumbling blocks from 2016-2018. I LOVE cheese. The stinkier the better! My favorite meal in life is a baguette with brie and olives with a nice dry red wine.

When Trump won the election in November 2016, I bought myself a baguette, a tranche of brie, a block of manchego, filled a container with a variety of olives and a bottle of wine. It’s my comfort food.

It’s my happy food. I never imagined I could give it up. But then I tried.

I realized there are so many other foods that bring me comfort and happiness – a big bowl of vegetable pho, gyoza, bao – that I didn’t need cheese. I could have all this delicious food and still feel satisfied and happy without my beloved cheese. I didn’t like the dairy industry, I didn’t want to bring any unnecessary harm and suffering to cows and I now realized I CAN survive happily without cheese in my life.

To do it right, where it will stick, you need to do it for you. You can’t just one day say, I’m going to give up meat and dairy when you still love it and don’t truly believe it’s a necessity to save our planet and your health. It’s a hard road and you need to truly believe in the ethos of it if you want it to stick. I know vegans who reverted to full-blown carnivores because they did it for the wrong reasons, or they weren’t ready yet.

Being a vegan comes with its challenges, but I truly believe in it. It’s better for the environment, better for your health, better for the animals.

If you’re interested in trying a vegan lifestyle or just curious about it, I suggest reading articles on The Vegan Society and Veganuary, following vegan bloggers on Instagram and joining the Kigali vegetarians and vegans Facebook group!

And as always, you can follow me on Instagram for ideas or to ask questions.

All views & opinions expressed are the author’s

Featured photo: Vegan Peanut, Sweet Potato and Kale soup with coconut milk [Image & recipe credit: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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