Veganism in townships 10/10/16

Opinion: The most common misunderstandings that township dwellers have about the vegan lifestyle. By Anelisa Nokoyo.

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Me! Enjoying a pear 😉

Over the past few months I’ve been reflecting on my journey as a vegan and specifically about my experiences being a vegan in the townships (formerly known as “informal settlements”) of South Africa.

You see, I was born and bred in South Africa’s second biggest township, Mdantsane and I’ve also had the opportunity to visit other townships around the country, such as Khayelitsha, Motherwell, Gugulethu and others.

In all of these places I’ve proudly shared my lifestyle choices with others, in the hopes that they too, would be inspired to try something outside of their comfort zone. However, in sharing my experience as a vegan, I’ve come to realise that there are certain stereotypes that people in the townships have about vegans (and vegetarians!) that they simply can’t’ get over, and these stereotype range from judgemental, to quirky to downright offensive, and they prevent a lot of people from exploring different lifestyle options.

Which is why I’m using this platform to share and expose them in the hopes that this knowledge will help to debunk some these myths and open people’s minds to the possibilities offered by this lifestyle.

So the most common misconceptions about veganism in townships are:

  • All vegans are Rastafarian.

This by far is the most common assumption that people make about vegans and vegetarians, and no matter how many times I try to dissuade people of this non-existent correlation, I seem to only strengthen it. Of course it doesn’t help that I have dreadlocked hair and apparently dress like a “hippie” (read: I like to be comfortable).

However, what this experience has taught me is to never judge others by their appearance or their lifestyle choices, because at the end of the day that’s not what defines them and appearance is only a tiny part of one’s identity, not to mention the fact that appearances can be deceiving! So ja, not all “veggies” are Rasta, okay?

  • The only point of adopting a vegan diet would be to lose weight.

At least I’m able to convince people otherwise on this one because as a naturally skinny person, it’s clear that I didn’t go vegan to lose weight as I’ve never had any weight issues to begin with. However, I do encounter a related stereotype to this one, which is the fear people have of losing weight and fortunately or unfortunately, losing weight is often one of the “side-effects” of adopting a plant-based vegan diet.

Now a lot of people in the township fear weight loss because it’s often misconstrued as a sign of “sickness”. Yes, if you lose weight in the township, then people sometimes assume that you’ve got TB or AIDS – and noone wants to be associated with the stigma that comes with that – which is, I think, one of the reasons why obesity is so prevalent in the townships.

So basically, a lot of people avoid healthy eating habits because they’re afraid of losing weight and being labelled and stigmatised as an “AIDS sufferer”. Once again, this has taught me that we need to be more tolerant towards one another and to realise that people will have their opinions about you. But at the end of the day the onus is on you to make the best choice for your health because you’re the only one who gets to live in and experience your body.

Also, I feel that these types of stereotype have to be addressed and overcome because they’re preventing a lot of people from realising their true potential.

  • Vegans are malnourished (aka: a diet without meat is unhealthy).

This idea right here is the bane of many a vegans’ existence, along with the perennial question: “Where do you get your protein and iron?”. Not that I get the second question a lot in the townships, but I do get a lot of people who generally believe that the vegan diet is nutritionally insufficient to keep them healthy.Which is weird because the evidence shows that adopting a vegan diet and lifestyle actually leads to one making better dietary decisions (i.e. eating more fruits, vegetable, nuts and seeds), which in turn brings more nutritional value to your body.

We need to raise more awareness in townships about the vegan lifestyle  – especially when it comes to the possibilities that it offers like less disease, more energy, increased physical and mental potential and so on.But it has to be communicated in a language that anyone can understand, and I think that the most effective way to inspire people is to lead by example and educate those who are interested to the best of my ability.

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