Being a vegetarian is a hard thing to explain here. It’s just not an option that anyone has really thought of. When meat is expensive and good meat is only served on special occasions, why would you ever turn it down? When I first got to my homestay house in Namaacha almost 2 years ago, they served chicken at the first meal and I tried my best to politely decline, though I spoke no Portuguese then and they no English so I’m not entirely sure they understood my sequence of hand gestures. I had studied up on some very simple vocabulary and the only words I could remember pertained to food (those are the most important, right?) so I tried to list off some foods that I did eat to illustrate the whole “no meat” concept. Luckily I had an amazing family who took me to the market and picked up just about everything there to make sure they were buying things that I would be able to enjoy. Carrots? Yes. Cabbage? Yes. Dried fish? No. Dried fish??? No. No. Goat head? No. Yes? No. Kale? Yes. Bananas? Yes. After that my host sister, Quiara, made a list of all the things that I liked and made a menu of what to make for me each week (coconut beans 3 times a week, sautéed kale twice, pumpkin leaves and lentils and vegetable soup and garlic potatoes, and then they’d throw in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on special days because they knew that it reminded me of home).
But when I got to Mopeia it wasn’t quite as easy. I live alone so I didn’t have to explain myself so quickly. At the first workshop where lunch was served I tried to explain ahead of time that I would prefer something without meat. My plate arrived with a heaping mound of white rice and some lovely goat intestines (the best part was saved for me they explained). Thank you very much, but I think I’ll just eat these days old crackers that are crumbled at the bottom of my bag. Attempt number two: a couple of months later at another workshop in town, a plate full of xima (flour and water cooked into a dense consistency that looks a bit like mashed potatoes, but most definitely isn’t) and some fried fish. Yum. No thank you, I will just eat these 10 bananas I bought on the street for about 50 cents.
One of my coworkers pulled me aside, “I see that you don’t eat meat, but why?” Well now I would have to explain myself, but did I really have a good answer? And one that I can easily translate? I am a vegetarian because I’ve always loved animals and I realized in college that not eating them made me feel healthier and more in tune with nature. No judgment on others, it’s just something very personal for me. I am happier because I don’t eat meat just as many are happier when they are biting into a big piece of steak. To each his own. But how to explain this here? “Well I really love animals…” “But so do I,” he responded. “Well yes of course you do. I’m not saying you don’t. But for me, I just don’t want to eat them.” At this point I’m a bit nervous that he thinks I’m accusing him of being an animal-hater. “But why?” he asks again. “Well animals are my friends and I just don’t want to eat my friends…” That’s the best I could come up with? But it was followed by laughter, an announcement to the group, and I was never served goat or fish or chicken at workshops again. Now when I’m caught watching a lizard scurrying along the wall (hours of free entertainment, trust me) or if I stop to pet a kitten on the way to work, the usual response is “Oh look at your friend! Don’t worry, we won’t eat him.”