It is an argument used by parents of picky eaters the world over: think of the starving children in Africa. But in Kenya where those starving children can be found on your doorstep, such admonishment applies to nearly anyone with a self-imposed dietary restriction. For instance when I tell people that I am a vegetarian they assume it must be for medical reasons. Why else would an African woman who can afford to eat meat blankly refuse what so many of her compatriots don’t have the luxury to turn down?
I grew up surrounded by animals both of the domestic and the ‘wild’ variety. Cows, sheep, goats, rabbits, cats, dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, chickens and ducks lived on my parent’s five-acre estate. We also had porcupine, mongoose, snakes, monkeys, a leopard amongst other animals that passed through. I got to know the monkeys well. They were a special troupe because even though they were Sykes’ monkey they had adopted an orphaned vervet that they did not kill but who instead lived with them harmoniously.
The interaction with the ‘wildlife’ varied from compound to compound on my parent’s estate. On some, monkeys were killed and placed on a spike to stop the others from eating crops; on others people encouraged the animals by feeding them. One gardener who worked for my parents encouraged me to look at animals differently.
Snakes are widely feared in Kenya, understandably as Kenya is home to the Black Mamba, Kenya’s deadliest snake. Yet, if any snakes were found on our compound he would not kill them immediately, as many do, but gently capture the snake and take it out of harms way. When I asked him why he did that, he said that he did not believe in harming anything without reason. Most animals would not attack without good cause, he explained. If you left them alone then they would not hurt you.
Although the compound that I grew up on was a kind of paradise, I was not completely shielded from the violent acts that sometimes occurred within Kenyan society. There were children who were beaten for misbehaving, dogs that were beaten as part of their ‘training’ and I witnessed animals slaughtered for food.
Because of my understanding of animals, I could not believe that they did not suffer greatly when they were squashed into the back of pick-up trucks and boots of cars to be taken to slaughterhouses. I came to view the meat that I ate differently. Yet, when I tried to talk with adults about it I was told that animals were different, that God provided them for us to eat or how lucky I was to come from a home where I could eat meat everyday of the week. All except for our gardener who talked to me about how cruel it was to hurt something or someone else just because you could.
The way a society treats the powerless—be they animals, children or dare I say prisoners strongly reflects its moral compass. Kenya is a country with an appalling record of violence to all three. This is all the more telling when one considers that a large part of the Kenyan economy is completely reliant on the well being of animals. Just as the millions of tourist dollars that pour into the country every year rely on the sighting of lions and elephants, it is very unlikely to come across a vegetarian poacher.
In January 2008, Kenya was rocked by post election violence. Kibera (Africa’s largest urban deprived area) across the road from where I live was a horrific example. Women were raped, people attacked and homes burned. I had always been scared to enter Kibera but suddenly I found myself even more scared for my then eight-month-old daughter’s future so I ventured in amongst the burning tires to see what I could do to help.
In what seems over simplistic to me now, I felt that a large part of people’s frustrations were based on not being able to feed their families and so with an inspiring youth group I was privileged to meet, we started an organic vegetable farm in the heart of Kibera. There was no symbolic slaughtering of a goat to celebrate the farms subsequent success and my newly acquired friends remained amused by what they perceived as my rather odd diet. Still I never fully explained to them why in my late teens I had completely stopped eating meat.
My daughter, now five years old, is changing all that. Strangely, people I meet all over the world question my decision to raise my daughter as a vegetarian. When they concede that she looks healthy enough, they often want to know how I will react when she eventually makes the obvious choice to eat meat.
Until recently, my inhibition at raising a vegetarian child in a predominantly meat-eating culture had gotten the better of me. Although my daughter knew we were vegetarian, I never really told her why and she never really asked. It all came to a head when as a toddler a family friend offered her a rib at a barbeque. Without any hesitation she refused and said in a loud voice she didn’t eat animals because they were her friends. People thought it was cute.
I soon started to note down her answers to the inevitable questions, which only increased, as she grew older. Unlike her mother who sometimes practically apologized for being vegetarian, she did not prevaricate. She talked about why she didn’t think it was right to hurt animals and even bluntly asked people what they thought they were doing by eating meat. Fish had feelings too. These quotes formed her book about being vegetarian called “Cows are Too Big to Eat.”
It did not end there. When the board at her small community run school announced that they were going to introduce meat to its previously vegetarian menu at the request of a number of parents, my daughter spoke up again.
Her school had been started by a small group of people who believed in holistic principles. More parents were getting attracted to it because of the inspiring and committed teachers, the happiness of the children that attended it and the way the children were encouraged to play and use their imagination. As the school grew, some things started to change.
I was taken aback and initially called the board but was willing not to cause too much of a fuss as I was sure that I would not have much backing. I figured that I should be grateful that they were even willing to limit meat to a couple of times a week. But when I discussed it with my daughter she said, “Mama, what are we going to do about it?” She was not about to accept this compromise.
Noting that her response had included we, I asked for her comments so that I could draft a letter to the board. She asked me to write that if they were worried about protein then the children could eat cheese and drink milk, that way a cow would not have to be killed.
The board responded by conducting a survey, which led to a reversal of the decision to introduce meat into the school, at least for the kindergarteners.
Nearly two decades after a decision that has profoundly changed my view of the world and my life, I am finally able to say, thanks to my five-year-old daughter that I am vegetarian because I do not like to hurt animals and I prefer to live a life of nonviolence.