I am a closet vegetarian. Ok yes, there – I’ve communicated it out loud. This is quite a big confession moment for me. I feel like I’ve just made a huge declaration to the world……. very new-age-therapy- induced sounding yes? So……Does this confession take away my closet status? I think I’m reluctant to let go of it. There’s something romantic about saying one is a closet something or other. Communicating one’s ‘hidden’ status is normally a freeing moment for the communicator rather than the recipient of the news. Freedom of the ‘unspoken’ conversations that serve to hang around the corner waiting to be released.
That said, I am still unsettled about my vegetarianism, closet or otherwise….. The people I have communicated my status to, without fail have wondered why I am uncomfortable about it and indicate that it is actually something I should shout from the rooftops. Many even express open admiration for me, like I have achieved something that should be written on a plaque and hang up I my living room to communicate to all and sundry that I’m a ‘superior’ being. But hey….. This is Africa. Where vegetarianism is perceived to be some alien disease and a preserve of people of Asian origin and Hindu faith. It is not associated with regular persons of original African descent and elicits reactions of varied and interesting nature.
Last week, a client I accompanied to an out of town function advised that a board member whose countryside home is in the area had specially invited us to dinner at his house. This news was met with trepidation and dread on my end. I wondered how to communicate my strange reaction. Generally, special invitations to dinner at a big Kahuna’s home is news to be met with bells and whistles, song and dance. I automatically tuned into my inner self and listened to the voice reminding me what happens without fail every time I get invited to a home lunch or dinner visit.
On all occasions, the host will have outdone themselves in the preparation of delectable and succulent dishes of the animal protein variety. Here read – very well done beef, chicken, liver, pork, goat, lamb or fish of the stewed, fried, roasted, grilled or curried variety. They will have spent a considerable amount of time preparing these dishes with the anticipation that their guests will lick their fingers in glee at the deliciousness and proceed from being guests into beached whales almost begging for temporary accommodation in their residences or wheel barrow services to cart them home.
Now get your already hungry thoughts away from the laden tables you are now picturing and back to my dilemma. So here I am, the rabbit- food eating person as a guest faced with this array of splendor. I’ve sometimes tried to hide in the shadows having served vegetables on my plate, but it never goes unnoticed. Often the host takes up the good duty of serving – no correct that to heaping food on the guests plates and I have to quickly communicate and say “No please don’t put that and no please do not put that and no no no please do not put that” until there’s practically nothing left to ‘pile’ on my plate. And in true African fashion, vegetables are normally relegated to the side to be consumed in small portions as a ‘flowery’ accompaniment to decorate the plate and not for serious consumption.
This refusal is then quickly followed by the host communicating in shock, wondering why I don’t eat meat. What could the problem be? Am I unwell? Is everything ok? Am I trying to lose weight? Am I sure? And hot on the heels of that is their earnest cajoling that I eat just a little bit, jut a teeny weeny little bit. It is at this point that I often become the center of focus at the visit. A situation I abhor.
Given that more often than not, the host will have prepared only a small amount of vegetable, it follows that they get uncomfortable with a guest eating only this. They feel like the guest is ‘short changed’ and not getting full value for their visit. And although they do not quite communicate this, they begin to feel stressed as they are unable to comprehend my assertion that I am comfortable eating only vegetables.
And so, with these previous countless experiences in mind, I declined my client’s dinner invitation. In as much as they couldn’t relate to my dilemma, on the weighing scale, the weight of disappointment of not showing up, weighed far less than the disappointment of me, an ‘important’ guest showing up not ‘finding’ what to ‘eat’ and leaving ‘hungry’. It’s a tough and lonely world this closet business. Ok I exaggerate….. but it does have its fair share of communication challenges.
Another misconception that dogs vegetarianism in Africa is that it is a ‘healthy’ status. The countless number of times that I have been told how ‘healthy’ I am just baffles me. Does it stem from lack of knowledge that these ‘admirers’ imagine vegetarians eat only vegetables? Every time admiration is directed at me I think about my warm, passionate love for mandazi, chapati, spring rolls, Danish pastry, black forest cake, chips masala, crepe pancakes, chocolate and lemon chilli crisps, all vegetable based, and wonder how this constitutes healthy by any remote measure. I hereby loudly communicate that -not indulging in animal protein does not constitute healthy living. The extra ten kilogrammes clinging lovingly to my belly, back and hips is a clear testimony of the same. It is currently an exercise in blood sweat and tears to divorce them and return to my pre-relationship status.
It has been an interesting four year vegetarian journey. It has exercised my communication muscles quite some and has me still wonder about the challenge of communicating information where one deems the recipient will not be accepting of it. I am lucky that this isn’t something as sensitive as communication on relationship orientation, health status or career direction. These pose a much more difficult communication challenge that for all sense and purposes need to be boldly expressed as and when required.
Much to many doubting Thomas’ reactions, I do not miss my meat-eating life and do not foresee a return. What I need to come to terms with as with everyone else in hiding and with something they need to communicate, is to declare my status without reservation. I will report my progress on this project to break out of my shell, or is it to emerge from the closet stark naked……..?