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Interviews with Vegetarian/Vegan Activists
February 2009

Interview with IVU International Council Member in Botswana

Professor P K Jain is a member of the IVU International Council, an IVU Fellow and an IVU Patron: www.ivu.org/members/council/pk-jain.html

Hi, P.K. What made you decide to become a vegetarian? When did that happen? How old were you at the time?

I was born in a Jain, religious, vegetarian family, and was brought up as a vegetarian. In fact, up to the age of about 20 years I had not even seen what meat, cooked or raw, looked like. It was only after I left home for further studies that I was exposed to the look of meat. Just to add about the Jain dietary practices, I would like to draw the attention of readers to an article on the subject available on the IVU website which has also been translated in to a number of languages: www.ivu.org/congress/2000/jainism.html

What made you decide to become active in promoting vegetarianism?

When I came to Africa about 25 years ago, I discovered that the concept of vegetarianism was totally alien here. Not only could one not find reasonable vegetarian food in hotels and restaurants, but these establishments were casual about serving it, for example using the same spoon to dish out vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. It is for this reason, and of course because of my emotional attachment to vegetarianism that I together with a group of likeminded people formed the Vegetarian Society of Botswana in 1995.

What are the special challenges and opportunities in promoting vegetarianism in your country?

Most of Botswana is covered by desert, with very little annual rainfall and no major surface water sources (rivers, streams, lakes) except the Okovango Delta in the north, and the ground water is either very deep or not fit for consumption. As a result, there is very limited agricultural activity, and people have mostly relied on meat consumption from hunting and cattle farming. Meat eating is deeply ingrained in Botswana culture, tradition, and lifestyle. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to convince an average person to pursue vegetarian options.

What is it that sustains your desire to be active?

Less than 1% of the population in Botswana is fully or partially vegetarian, either because of their faith, such as Seventh Day Adventists and the Rastafarians, or for health reasons. This presents ample opportunity to create awareness about vegetarianism in the country. But as stated earlier, people in Botswana are traditionally cattle farmers, and meat eating is part of their culture and tradition to which they are emotionally attached. The cattle population of the country is about twice the human population, and Botswana is a major exporter of beef products to EU. It is thus an important source of the national revenue. This makes the propagation of vegetarianism a daunting task. There are risks of being misunderstood as being un-nationalistic for speaking against an important sector of the economy.

In addition to your activism in support of vegetarianism, you are also a university professor of Physics. Do you see any connection between the two?

Although, vegetarianism and related matters are not directly linked to Physics, diet and nutrition are major academic fields in which large amount of research has gone on, and still continues. Vegetarianism, as we know, has its origin in religion, compassion towards animals, and respect for all life. It is only through academic research in the past half a century or so we have learnt about the health and medical benefits of vegetarian diet, environmental ills of the meat industry etc. Amongst the “converted” vegetarians today, the majority are because of this newfound knowledge, rather than because of religion. Thus, academics has played a major role in propagating vegetarianism in the modern information based society.

What is an obstacle that you face in remaining active in promoting vegetarianism? How do you overcome this obstacle?

Most of Africa has had little to no exposure to vegetarianism. Most African tribes had been hunters, gatherers, herders and warriors, with limited opportunity for agriculture. When tribal Africa came in contact with the outside world, it was with Arab traders, the slave traders, the missionaries, and the colonists, none of whom carried the vegetarian message. In many cases, the outsiders were plain savages who killed human and beast indiscriminately. In the last fifty years or so, as Africa has been emerging from the bondage of colonization, it has been exposed to alternate lifestyles. Fifty years is a rather short period to overcome the barriers of traditions. This poses the biggest hurdle to vegetarianism. As to how I overcome it, all I can say is that persistent effort, no matter how small, may some day bear fruit.

Do you have any fundraising tips for vegetarian organisations?

In Botswana, we have raised funds mostly through organizing vegetarian dinners. One way of doing this is to negotiate with a reputable hotel/restaurant to provide a respectable western vegetarian menu, and sell tickets above the cost price. This we have organized for up to 200 guests. This is a costly option, and it is getting more difficult as the costs keep going up. Another way is to involve volunteers to cook food, and organize at some private venue. For this, one can sell cheaper tickets, if one is able to find people to donate most of the food and services.

In addition, if you publish a newsletter or a magazine, it can be made self sustaining through selling advertisement spaces, or by outright business sponsorship, and by negotiating discounted rates for printing or photocopying.

You have been active on the international vegetarian scene for many years. What changes have you seen?

In the past decade or so, the information explosion, easy access to information through internet, and globalization have significantly changed all aspects of life. Vegetarianism is no exception. In the West, vegetarian and vegan awareness has grown phenomenally, and there are many more young and old vegetarians today than two decades ago. In Africa, many vegetarian societies and related groups have become active, networking has grown, and all are trying to do something within the limitations of their financial and human resources. In contrast, young generations from the traditionally vegetarian societies, such as the Hindus and the Jains, are beginning to embrace non-vegetarian food habits under peer pressure, or due to easy access to meaty food from fast food retail chains at almost every street corner and their aggressive advertising.