International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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15th World Vegetarian Congress 1957
Delhi/Bombay/Madras/Calcutta, India


A VEGETARIAN IN CENTRAL AFRICA
W. S. James
V. News 1956. No 291
(The writer has recently returned from a six-months' tour in East Africa, visiting colleges and schools, followed by a three-months' holiday trip in the Congo, Nyasaland, the Rhodesias, and the Union of South Africa.)

Fellow vegetarians, especially those who may be considering venturing overseas to Africa, may be interested to have a few notes and impressions from one recently returned from touring in the Central and Southern part of that vast continent. How easily does a vegetarian get around in the depths of the so-called dark continent? The difficulties are few indeed, and I would say that no one should hesitate to go out there either permanently or temporarily merely because he is a vegetarian. On the contrary, the tropics seem an ideal place in which to be a vegetarian.

Many kinds of fruits abound and prices are often surprisingly low. Ripe juicy pineapples are available in many places and at prices as low as 3d each, while bananas are abundant everywhere in the tropics, usually at a shilling a stalk on the plantations. On one occasion I had 96 bananas on my shilling stalk. This was a price, which as I happen to have a soft spot for bananas, enabled me to eat my fill. I recall, too, those lovely paw-paws, costing a few coppers each, which I ate most mornings with my breakfast; they are like sweet melons, but as they unfortunately do not travel well, are most unknown in this country. Then again, there are the the grapefruit, limes, oranges, coconuts, mangoes, guavas and other tropical fruits. On the other hand the soft fruits, such as strawberries, apples and pears do not flourish in Central Africa lower than 5,000 feet, and many people out there express a longing for English apples. Nuts may usually be had in shops, and groundnuts (or peanuts) grow in most parts of the tropics and may be purchased in the African markets. I was surprised to find that imported goods like the well-known brands of chocolate and tinned goods from England may be obtained in extraordinary remote places, but these, it should be added, cost about twice what they cost us here at home. Dried fruits, raisins, prunes, figs etc., are commonly available at prices similar to those in this country. When travelling out into the bush or jungle one can still buy such useful things as tins of baked beans or spaghetti, in the little Indian "dukans", a hundred miles after the last real shops have been left behind. Baked beans and chocolates we used to take as iron rations when we made journeys lasting several days into the more uncivilized parts. Eked out with fruits obtained locally, these provided all the sustenance one required.

Cheese is a difficulty in many parts. It is manufactured in such areas as the higher farmlands of Kenya, from where it is sent into Uganda from time to time, but the small boxes of processed cheese can usually be obtained in the larger towns. Salads too are easily obtained and all the African hotels catering for Europeans serve a salad meal at mid-day. In the rainy season lettuces grow to an incredible size, rather like cabbages and in the dry season they may be cultivated in the shade if watered well. Salad stuffs, however, have to be washed very carefully in the tropics, and all the milk and water have to be boiled. Milk is scarce and of poor quality, and I suspect not always very clean. I avoided it as much as I could. Eggs are plentiful, and hotels here as indeed hotels in all other places, are always ready with the offer of an omelette in place of meat. Moreover the Indians have settled in many parts of East and South Africa in considerable strength, and they own most of the shops. In their own stores, catering for their own people, one can obtain all the delicious foods of the vegetarian Hindu - their spices, their curries, their vegetables, rice, cereals, pulse and other specialities. In the midst of plenty then, no vegetarian need go short in Africa, or even experience difficulties; I have indeed experienced far greater difficulties in getting a satisfactory meal in Norway and Germany than ever did in Africa.

What sort of diet do our African friends eat? How do they get along? In a land of poverty and poor communications the food consumed has to be produced on the spot. The majority of those Africans, not yet lured into the cities by the prospect of high wages, grow their own food and raise their own cattle. Their staple diet is necessarily, then, a restricted one, conditioned by the local rainfall, temperature, height above sea-level and quality of soil.

There are no completely vegetarian African tribes, but I did meet one African student who had turned vegetarian on principle. Many tribes, however, out of sheer economic necessity are mainly vegetarians. Well known among these are the Baganda and Kikuyu. The former are banana eaters whose staple diet is steamed or boiled green banana with small additions of beans, sweet potatoes, fish, or very occasionally meat. Bananas grow best where the rainfall is plentiful and the heat not too intense, so we find banana the main food-stuff in Uganda and the Eastern Congo. The Kikuyu in Kenya live chiefly on maize (they laugh at the banana eaters of Uganda) for maize requires less moisture. Maize is, in fact, the main diet from Kenya right down as far as Cape Town. The corn may be eaten in the form that we know - corn on the cob or more usually is ground into flour, maize meal, from which a stiff porridge, mealie-mealie, is made. Many tribes live almost entirely on this maize meal porridge, with a few titbits added from time to time. Other tribes, in still drier areas, live on cassava roots (from which our tapioca comes) or millet. Then there are the cattle people who are not agriculturists at all, who live on a diet mainly of milk and blood. The latter is obtained by puncturing a vein in the animal's neck, often with the bow and arrow, so providing the African with his salt and iron, not given by milk in sufficient quantities for health.

Tribes who live on this diet are the very primitive ones like the Karamojong in north-east Uganda and the Masai of the Tanganyika plains between Nairobi and Mwanza. These tribes show no desire to imitate the white men or adopt his culture, religion or diet; they wish to keep their own way of life. But the Missionaries are now encouraging these folks to cultivate maize and millet, so improving their diet and health. I have vivid memories of taking one meal with some Karamojong. I sat with these men around a large bowl of maize meal porridge cooked for them by the missionaries. We all dipped into the common bowl with our hands. It was not an enjoyable meal for me at all. For one thing, maize meal is tasteless and insipid in the extreme ; for another, the Karamojong never wash.

Deficiency Diseases

It is not surprising that almost all tribes suffer from deficiency diseases of one sort or another. In hotter and wetter parts, like the Congo and West Africa, the natives use red palm oil for cooking. and this is the only vegetable oil known to contain vitamin A. I found that the Europeans in the Congo turned up their noses at this red palm cooking oil, saying it was only fit for Africans. But in these areas where it grows Africans never suffer from Vitamin A deficiencies as they do in drier areas, where eye diseases and skin eruptions are far too common. In the maize eating 'Districts beri-beri is found, due to lack of aneurin, or vitamin B; and here too, pellagra (or rough skin) due to lack of nicotinic acid, another of the B complex vitamins. Scurvy is reported from the still drier areas, where owing to the lack of fruit and fresh vegetables, people do not get enough Vitamin C. And almost every where one can see kwashiorkor, a disease are found in the children below the age of six, caused by insufficient protein in the diet after meaning, when, in place of mother's milk, a child is fed on maize, or cassava, or millet, or banana, or some such starch food. Children suffering from this disease often have swollen feet and a distended abdomen, patches of skin become dark and their black hair becomes dry and brown. Many die, but an increasing number are now being cured with skimmed milk, and active research is being carried on by the medical authorities, Perhaps the most intense malnutrition is to be found in the native suburbs of Johannesburgh, the wealthiest city in the Commonwealth. These people have left the land, attracted by the gleam of a Golden City. Here are the worst slums and the worst schools I have ever seen. These town dwellers, divorced from the land, are adopting an European diet at its worst and tending to live more and more on white bread cheap jam, margarine, tinned milk and meat, if and when they can afford it. The patent medicine manufacturers have not been slow to enter this very profitable field, pushing their aspirins, iron tonics and the like by means of vast advertising campaigns. I had the privilege of accompanying one of Father Huddleston's organisers of the "African Children's feeding scheme" on her rounds of the feeding centres, and was interested to see that the children were being given a slice of whole meal bread smeared with peanut butter, together with a cup of skimmed milk. Records of heights and weights were kept and it was found that with this vegetarian supplement to their diet the children grew far more rapidly and were healthier. In the workers' dining rooms of Johannesburgh gold mines, on the other hand, the African miners were being given a thoroughly adequate diet, balanced and scientifically controlled so that there was an absence of deficiency diseases. Much might be written about the Johannesburgh mines but here, at least, is one of the few places in Africa where Africans get such a diet. If the same attention could be given to the school children living outside the mining compounds Johannesburgh would become a happier place.

Also at Makerere College, Kampala, where I spent a large part of my time, the students are given an adequate diet; very little meat. owing to its cost, but a variety of vegetables, cereals, including rice, nuts and fruits. At a high table it in the dining-hall, the staff, mainly Europeans, ate their typically British diet - meat and two vegetables followed by a sweet and coffee. Much to the amusement of the African students and almost horror of my European colleagues, I would frequently refuse the high table diet and descend to the students' tables to cadge some steamed banana, curried rice, or roasted peanuts.

.But in general the African peoples remain badly fed. The British Government is taking in hand this problem as best it can under the handicap of mass poverty. infertile soil, soil erosion bad communications, ignorance, and illiteracy. In many respects 50 years of British rule have made vast improvements which have, however, in their turn given rise to fresh problems. Diseases and epidemics are slowly being conquered, hygiene is being introduced, insect plagues combated. nutrition improved, infant mortality reduced, and tribal warfare prohibited. All this has inevitably resulted in a rapid increase of population. The human birth rate in Africa for thousands of years has been high enough to counteract such ravages amongst the population and keep numbers fairly steady: now under more favourable conditions the population is doubling itself each thirty years. We shall soon face this problem in its stark grimness, for improved agricultural techniques cannot hope to keep pace for long with this fantastic increase of population. A reduced birth rate suitable for civilized condition, is seen to be essential if hunger and famine on a colossal scale are to be avoided. Unfortunately, family limitation is opposed by two of the most powerful religious bodies in Africa, although they have no other solution to the immanent threat ; and nationalist political parties see in the proposal only the cunning of the white man anxious to retain control. One can only hope that a reduction in population pressure will follow the introduction of mass education as it seems to have done elsewhere.

The presence of the white man has thrown things in tropical Africa into confusion, and out of the present chaos a new Africa will in time emerge. And one condition for the new Africa will be an ample balanced diet, suitable for the climate, and able to meet the needs and pockets of the people. Such a diet will have to be largely vegetarian to satisfy the hunger of the new millions. It may well be that vegetarians in the older civilizations will have much to offer and contribute, from their wisdom and experience to the young and developing African state.