Veganism is one of the growing lifestyle choices, especially in the West. A vegan diet can begin from a variety of motives such as concern for animals, a desire to live a more ethical life, and healthier food choices. Of course food options may be limited in certain places and vegan diets can be associated with financial privilege to make the choice and afford the necessities the diet requires. In countries like Ethiopia, however, where plant and grain based foods are more common, going vegan can also be financially sensible.
Veganism isn’t completely new to Ethiopia. The Orthodox Christian majority follow a strict vegan diet for the majority of the year.
Lella Misikir has been a vegan since 2016 and says it’s made her feel fabulous. A yoga teacher, poet and chef, her choices stem from ethical reasons, a moral aversion to harming animals for consumption.
“It’s basically practicing nonviolence. How much pain are you willing to inflict on this planet, in this life that you have? How much pain do you want to create? That’s what it’s about,” she explains.
The environmental impact of a vegan diet has been lauded by many advocates although the global food value chain is often exploitative and wasteful and truly paying attention to where your food comes from and how it gets to you. There can be a lot of homework for the ethical consumer. Large scale meat production is a major source of greenhouse gases, countries in the global south producing export crops often have poor labor practices and shipping of food across the world leaves a huge carbon footprint.
But living in Ethiopia can free one from these concerns. Lella was first led towards a vegan diet when she began her food startup while living in China. Her love of food and cooking for people led to a larger operation.
“I was buying a lot of meat. I started getting paranoid. I thought it was starting to smell. One day it just hit me that it’s dead. Eventually, I couldn’t cook with it. I couldn’t even eat what I made with meat. If I can’t eat what I’m making, I can’t put it out for people to eat it. Not that there’s anything wrong with the dish but it felt wrong,” says Lella in the first episode of her podcast ‘Alternative with Lella’.
The meals she made eventually became entirely vegan. Moving back to Addis Ababa, Lella still cooks and is developing a lifestyle brand around a more ethical, holistic life. She has combined veganism, her yoga practice and creative writing to create Alternative with Lella.
“I want to bring aspects of myself together as one. Instead of telling people they should just change to a vegan diet, I want to give them alternatives and make it easier for them. That’s meaningful work for me and I want to be engaged in. The other part is yoga. The more you practice yoga, the more sensitive you become to subtle life energies. You grow to become more conscious about what you eat, consume in your body, what you say. You are more aware of your mind, body, spirit, and everything that’s around you. Another part is not so obvious. It’s writing, creative expressions of life. When you are more aware of yourself and your surroundings, you can observe more and express more.”
The connections Lella is making to build A Lifetime with Lella are certainly connected to the origins of veganism. The term first emerged in 1944 as British woodworker Donald Watson started the Vegan Society newsletter. However, the concept of avoiding meat can be traced to Indian and Mediteranean societies. Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras mentioned vegetarianism and followers of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism also advocated vegetarianism. Yoga is also an essential element of philosophical and ethical practices in these religions.
“A lifetime with Lella is because the only person you’re going to spend a lifetime with is yourself; so you have to stay true to yourself. You have to honor your body and your desires and your wishes. Because no one else will, if you don’t. It’s best to make sure you’re happy with yourself. The best way to do that is through yoga, through creative expression and a healthy diet.”
The most common question one asks of vegans is where their source of protein is in a plant based diet. There are various ways of getting proteins and other necessary nutrients from meatless alternatives. Vitamin B12 can only be found in animal products but some vegans occasionally consume fish to supplement this need.
The vegan community like most niche communities is highly opinionated, especially online, and can sometimes repel people attracted to the diet. But finding information online is the best way to learn if it’s the right diet for you and how you’d go about doing it.
Lella abruptly stopped consuming every animal product including meat, milk, eggs and cheese. “I went cold turkey. That might have been a mistake. I didn’t know much about a vegan diet when I started. I didn’t know what the alternatives were. I wasn’t getting a balanced meal. I wouldn’t recommend going cold turkey. If you have a craving for meat, it’s best to eat fish.” learning from information available online, watching documentaries and talking to other vegans can lead people to the right path.
“What I recommend is doing the research first. I would recommend laying off red meat and any type of animal whose pain is so clear to see. I would go with a pescaterian diet, just fish.”
Most restaurants in Addis have always had fasting options but new eateries are offering food under a vegan umbrella as well. Lella mentions Sosha, Delmela, Dashen Restaurant, Sekura and Belvedere as places that cater to vegans. Loving Hut remains one of the only vegan-only restaurants in the city but the food is often average at best. Shifta and several Indian restaurants are always great, especially if one is looking to gradually transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet.
She doesn’t expect everyone to suddenly stop eating meat, especially in Ethiopia where consuming meat is deeply ingrained in the culture and many people can’t imagine their lives without it. But Lella recommends a more conscious life with awareness of how much meat you’re consuming and how it’s affecting your body and the environment.
“I would urge people to be more informed about what they consume. If they have the resources and the exposure, I’m sure they can do that. In Ethiopia we fast a lot. Sticking to the fast is good as well, but the reason needs to be clear.”