Vegetarian in Sierra Leone

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Yes please

It’s not easy being vegetarian in Sierra Leone, especially if you want to eat what local people eat, or get three quick and easy meals every day. People like their meat and fish here, and I’ve been told that basically all the traditional dishes are made with one or the other, even if they’re just called potato leaf or cassava leaf stew, no mention of meat in the name. Everyone seems to know the word “vegetarian” — but like most places in the world it’s not common here, and so people don’t necessarily know what it entails. From my experience people often don’t realize that just taking the meat out of a finished dish, or eating around it, isn’t going to work for strict vegetarians.

I’m sorry to say I can’t offer too much advice for vegetarians on things to eat here, because frankly I haven’t been able to eat much of what local people eat. I’ve been to a Lebanese restaurant in the downtown area a few times — it’s called, straightforwardly enough, Downtown Restaurant and it has a bunch of vegetarian Middle Eastern options including falafel. There are more upscale restaurants on the western side of town, but I haven’t been to any because they’re no doubt expensive and pretty far from the downtown area.

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Menu from the Lebanese restaurant downtown. There’s been a Lebanese community in Sierra Leone since the 1920s

In the evenings I cook a lot of meals with basic ingredients from the supermarket and market stalls (lentils, couscous, onions, garlic, potatoes), and at lunchtime, one of my colleagues at the newspaper, who makes meals to sell to the other staffers everyday, has been bringing rice and vegetables for me to the office, which is awesome and so thoughtful.

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Plantain I fried up!

I’ve had a lot of good snacks here though, including fantastic banana bread, biscuits and muffins from a bakery downtown. There are people everywhere selling boiled or roasted peanuts (I’m not sure why they’re boiled, but they’re great that way), and all kinds of fruit, as well as plastic bags of plantain chips (which taste just like thick potato chips) and popcorn. There are also stalls with roasted corn. It’s purposely kind of dried out and chewy, but tastes a lot better than that might sound. Today I was given one wrapped in a page from an illustrated book on flowering plants.

I wrote an inevitable column for Awoko about my experiences being vegetarian here. It was something my colleagues told me I should write pretty much since I got here.

It’s basically an account of what I’ve been eating while I’m here, along with a little about why I’m a vegetarian, since most Sierra Leoneans reading would probably wonder (it’s a question I’ve gotten a lot here, as vegetarians do everywhere). I also couldn’t resist putting in one of my pet peeves about something people always say about being vegetarian — the idea that you just have to abandon it if it’s culturally “insensitive” to not eat meat if it’s offered to you. I personally don’t subscribe to that notion. Here’s the column:

I’m a vegetarian. I eat dairy products, but I mostly don’t eat eggs, and never meat or seafood. Before I left for Sierra Leone, one of the questions I was asked the most from people in Seattle was, what would I eat there?

Being vegetarian is not the norm in Sierra Leone. Though everyone seems to know the word, I often have to explain exactly what it means, and which foods I do and don’t eat (which also happens fairly often in the US). I’ve been told that practically all Sierra Leonean food is made with meat or fish. In the first few days after I arrived, before I’d yet been able to eat a full meal, multiple people said to me, “I don’t know how you will survive.” Not exactly comforting.

The good news is, I’ve survived, and I still follow my vegetarian diet.

An unavoidable reality of being a vegetarian is being asked why. Why follow this diet? This is especially true somewhere like Sierra Leone, where it’s highly unusual. I’ve been vegetarian all my life, and I continue to be mostly for ethical reasons. In my opinion, there’s no justification for taking animal lives  which are a lot more similar to our own than most people appreciate — for food, when we really don’t need to. Plus, being vegetarian is less wasteful and has less of an impact on the environment.

You can read the rest here.

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