I’ve stayed faithful for months now. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to give into temptation, but I resisted. But, it had been a long week, marked by not enough sleep, too much work, and constant frustration. The never-ending deprivation from things I’m used to was really starting to set in, and I needed a pick-me-up. Ultimately, I’m pretty sure it was the way he asked. People in Uganda – especially when speaking to Mzungu – tend to just tell you want something, rather than asking if you do want it. All in all, sometimes it just feels impossible to say “no,” and this time, I said yes.
I am referring, obviously, to eating a rolex, a small omelet cooked on a greasy skillet, slapped on top of a chipati, and rolled up into a plastic bag.
I’ve been in Uganda six weeks and made it the entire time without eating anything that isn’t vegan.* While maybe I’m giving myself too much credit, I’m impressed that I made it this long. It’s not just that being vegan here has meant subsisting on an painfully unchanging diet of beans, rice, and peanut butter.** It’s that no one here cares whether or not I am vegan, so there is little incentive not to cheat. Indeed, given my atrocious health, the other research assistants are constantly pushing me to break down and eat something with animals in it.
There are more reasons why staying true to veganism here makes little sense. I’m enough a realist to know that an individual vegan – either in the United States or in Uganda – has very limited power to reduce the suffering of animals simply by making him or herself responsible for a tiny drop in the demand for meat. At least at home, though, I feel like my choice to be vegan has the added impact of being educational, of setting a positive example around which to (hopefully) build a movement that will actually accomplish something.
Here, that’s not going to happen, at least not anytime soon. I packed my “Vegans Last Longer” t-shirt, and despite wearing it about three times a week not a single Ugandan has gotten the joke – and not just because it’s not funny, but also because they have never heard of veganism. A few have heard of vegetarianism, but know it only as one of those strange things Mzungu’s sometimes do, on par with getting excited about seeing monkeys and leaving tips at restaurants. Arguments about the welfare of animals don’t play here at all. People don’t have pets, so my typical way of pointing out that it’s absurd to deny that animals have feelings – by noting the way most people interact with their dogs and cats – doesn’t work. I had one extended conversation with a Ugandan about veganism, and he told me that the only thing I told him that he found the least bit compelling was that I was living proof that you don’t have to eat animals to survive. Apparently, that possibility had never occurred to him and, presumably, many here.
Even if I did feel like I could “convert” people here, I don’t think I could bring myself to get on my moral high horse and actually do it. It’s not that animals in Uganda are treated well. While on balance, I’d rather be a goat in rural Uganda than a cow in a Nebraska feed-lot, I have no illusions about the wanton indifference and cruelty people here visit on our helpless animal brethren every day. While I’ve been here, I’ve watched a live pig be hacked apart, squirming chickens dipped in boiling water, and our driver swerve in order to hit a wayward goat. At the same time, though, what makes me bite my tongue is the realization that animals are a critical part of food security for people here. Animals are the only safeguard people have when their crops fail. It’s a tough thing to argue against. So there they are; a ton of reasons not to care and cut myself some slack. And yet, reflecting on that delicious wad of bread and egg, I feel guilty. More than that, though, I am reminded of why veganism was, is, and will be an integral part of who I am.
My time in Uganda has been marked by a never-ending stream of ethical compromises. Some of them are small, like buying bottled water or joining my enumerators in chucking my trash out the window of our car. Others are larger, like my discomfort with the way we represent our research as “helping” people when it doesn’t, or my unhappiness with the way I am expected to push my research team to work hours that would be illegal in the U.S. Of course, making ethical compromises is not something I do in Uganda: at home, a drive an environmentally destructive car, buy exploitatively-produced consumer goods, and generally participate every day in an economic and social system I claim to oppose.
In my last post, I used the cliché of the world being made up of shades of grey, but veganism is, to me, black and white. It serves as a constant reminder that I do have morals, and sometimes I actually stick to them. And so, in that spirit, tonight I’m going to eat rice for the 28th time this month.****
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* Out of fairness, Ugandan baked goods (which are awful) may or may not contain a random amount of animal fat or eggs, depending on whether or not the baker has money to buy the correct ingredients that day. I (somewhat unwillingly) eat such (un)delectable balls of greasy dough all the time, so I suppose I’ve been breaking the sacred-pact-of-veg this whole trip. But there are some things – like the tiny amounts of cow-bones in refined sugar or the animal fat in rubber tires – that I simply cannot bring myself to get worked up about, and this is one of them.
** So, basically, my usual diet.***
*** Minus flavor, protein, and about 14 other essential nutrients.
****For those of you in different time zones, it’s currently the 28th of the month, and I only eat one meal a day. DO YOU GET IT NOW? IT’S MY CLEVER SIGN OFF.*****
*****Due to poor internet access, I wasn’t able to post this until September 2nd, making this joke particularly non-sensical. Feel free to laugh anyway.