What Being Afro-Vegan Has Taught Me About My Culture

One of the most fascinating things to me growing up has been food, and it was how I was introduced to veganism. As a child, I was always drawn to the way my mother was able to curate a weekly system of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, and I yearned to be able to manage the process. 

However, as I got older I started to struggle with gender roles and identity. I grappled with the ideals placed on me to live up to just because I was born into a body that the world had already determined would function in a certain way. It was this struggle that made me also confront food, and question what I was and what I had to rebel against. 

I have been vegan now for over two years and vegetarian for two years before that. This experience for me has been somewhat transformational in the sense that before being vegan, I constantly wondered if I had arrived at the point where I no longer had to put myself under a microscope to judge whether I had completely become myself. Being vegan allowed me to sit with this feeling and deconstruct it. It allowed me to lean into the gentler parts of myself, and lean into the community that has nurtured me. 

Here is what being Afro-Vegan has taught me about my culture;

Changing my relationship with my culture

Growing up as a child born to academics, I learned to prioritise the modern tools of knowledge early on. To my Black Nigerian parents whose colonial education had provided a means out of their small villages, intellectually leaning as further away from our culture seemed to be the path they led their children down. They hardly ever spoke our native language, Idoma, and ensured we spoke English. We were heavily restricted from mingling with the neighborhood kids lest we be influenced negatively. I could not help but notice that colonisation changes our relationship with culture and I hadn’t examined that deeply until I chose a lifestyle that felt very alien to my community. 

The aloneness allowed me to dig into my history to find what existed before my people were forced to adopt foreign cultures before their own. To find what connected me to my roots. 

Learning about my mother’s childhood in her village hunting mushrooms and cooking them in large boiling stoves on firewood. The bowls of soups and sweet morsels of pounded yam that would be had for dinner, stories of mushrooms being the food of divine beings, and practicing meatless fasts. These were the stories that made me feel a connection to my kin who had been untouched by colonialism. 

As I continued to learn more about vegan practices from my mother, I felt like I was saving pieces of our history and preserving them. Because no matter how many new world tools we learn and how globalised our world becomes, preserving the creations of our ancestors is the only way that we can build on the symbolic communication they built and left behind for us. 

Changing my views on my culture

Being influenced by cultural imperialism is a hard thing to admit for a lot of Black people. The moments when we catch ourselves elevating parts of foreign culture over ours. It could be in music, literature, scientific study, or various other forms of intellectual expression. I have caught myself in those moments, and I have reminded myself that dominance does not equate to better. Something I wish my parents had remembered as they raised us. Of the five children of my parents, I am perhaps the most interested and knowledgeable in our culture and even still, I know too little. 

From exposing my desire for cultural connection, being vegan has allowed me to see all the knowledge and depth that exists in my culture, especially regarding our relationship with the earth. The reverence of nature and mindfulness that constitutes our lifestyle is something that has allowed me to see how important it is to be gentle with the earth and what I feed my body. 

These practices are most needed now as we continue to battle critical challenges with sustainability. 

Cultural expression and the strength of my culture

Being aware of and embracing our distinctive cultural strengths. There is nothing that challenges a group as much as change. Culture is not static, it changes. It adapts to and it grows. It is important to note that cultural strengths are our healthy practices that survive the examination of growth and progress. We cannot pretend that some elements of our culture are not harmful. There have been harmful practices such as the famed killing of twins, burying of virgins, vaginal cuttings, and other vile forms of violence that we have practiced and no longer do. Discontinuing these practices does not make us any less of our cultures, they signify growth and progress. 

Understanding that our culture does not have to look exactly as it did a hundred years ago is important in embracing progress and still carrying along the strengths of our cultures. 

Celebrating my love for my traditional food in the ridiculously slimy bowls of okoho soup with melon chunks and mushrooms, paired perfectly with the rubbery mush of well-pounded yam is how I am embracing my cultural strengths. Learning to adapt my cultural food to suit my vegan lifestyle in ways that still preserve it. 

Learning about natural haircare, beauty, and fashion in my culture through a vegan lens has shown me that I can choose veganism and still be fully connected to my roots. It has in fact taught me more about my culture than I have ever known before. 

Most of all, being Afro-vegan has taught me that I have support in my community. I have support from my mother as she teaches me about vegan practices in my culture, and I have support from my ancestors who left these practices for me.

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