Nigeria’s food culture is very meat-centric. A typical Nigerian meal, such as Egusi or Afang soup, Ofada stew, Abacha, etc, isn’t complete without a chunk of meat on top. Meat represents wealth and during festive times like Christmas, the more meat, the merrier. So, it can be hard for indigenous people to want to give up meat.
Still, across the diaspora, there is a growing increase in Black vegans, with African-Americans considered the fastest-growing vegan demographic in the US during 2022. Many young Black, British vegans have been embracing “Ital” — part of Jamaican Rastafarian culture, which promotes going meat-free — including, famously, grime MC JME. Meanwhile, Black vegan chefs and food creators such as Rachel Ama and Tomi Makanjuola (The Vegan Nigerian) have become global ambassadors of afro-veganism by introducing meatless versions of traditional dishes. Yet the concept of veganism is still relatively alien to the average Nigerian. There is even a popular perception that the only vegans in Nigeria are either foreigners or people who grew up abroad.
However, the past few years have seen an increase in the acceptance of vegetarian and vegan culture, especially among the younger generation. Ene Ijato, a vegan lifestyle blogger from Benue state shares how she navigates living as a vegan in Nigeria, as told to Edisana Stephen for Unbothered.
My journey to becoming a vegan started in 2019 after I saw the film Okja [starring Tilda Swinton] and was intrigued by the realities the film depicted. The film is about a Korean farm girl who befriends a giant pig and when a big corporation wants to eat it, she has to fight to be reunited. When I looked up related news about the film on google, I came across the concept of vegetarianism in an article review of the drama. I became interested and gradually changed my meals to a vegetarian diet, consuming only some common protein sources like milk and eggs until I also stopped eating them two years ago.
Growing up in Nigeria, where most delicacies are meat-based, and the tradition of having animals like chicken, goats, or cows for slaughter to celebrate occasions and to hold feasts is typical, I wasn't the type that took pleasure in the activity. I usually cried as a child when animals were brought to our house and killed for these events. Since then, I've had reservations about having animals for food. So, when I came across that article, I welcomed the idea of excluding meat and animal products from my meals as it aligned with my values and I've always been particular about preserving the environment.
Though I didn't announce my lifestyle change to my family and friends, when I got around to telling them, they were initially surprised and thought I was joking. My family has been curious to see how I'm keeping up and haven't discouraged me either. They've been supportive and check in often to see how I manage. When I go home for the holidays, my mom is always very welcoming and tries to learn more about veganism. My friends encourage me to choose restaurants with vegan foods on their menus which has been super helpful. And when I visit them, they usually have vegan-friendly snacks in their homes.
Sticking to a vegan lifestyle in Nigeria has been challenging, especially since I'm the only vegan in my circle of friends and family. Still, it is possible, because while the vegan community is small, it is slowly expanding as more people are starting to embrace the idea, foods suited for people like me.
Early on, when I transitioned to a vegan diet it was challenging since I was learning about vegan meals and experimenting with different compositions. As a result, I had to be extra invested in my meal choices to ensure every meal I ate was nourishing. With my little knowledge, I could customise my meals around my family. For example, I'd prepare a vegan sauce for myself when we had rice and sauce for lunch or dinner.
Later, I came across the Instagram page (@vegannigerian), where the creator/chef, Tomi, makes vegan versions of many Nigerian meals, which I found very engaging. I then learnt how to veganize my favourite meals by swapping meat and animal products with alternatives like mushrooms and tofu, which are chewy and good substitutes for meat in soups like Egusi, Ogbono, Okro, and Edikanikong, as well as stews. Also, I discovered terrific meals common to foreign cultures and places, like chickpea curry from India, eggplant katsu, which is native to Japan, and others. I've also found potatoes and pasta to have near endless possibilities in providing delicious vegan food varieties. Some people reach out to me on my lifestyle page on Instagram (@enelivesvegan) asking for vegan food recommendations to incorporate into their diets.
"Being vegan meant letting go of some important things that became the norm in my family."
At home, I sometimes cook in the company of my mom and other family members. So when we’re in the kitchen, I'll be focused on preparing my meals, and my mom will oversee the food for herself and others. They sometimes eat some of my vegan meals when I make them. According to my mother, if it's edible and delicious, she's down for it. So I ensure the vegan delicacies I make are tasty.
During Christmas, my family's options usually revolves around fried rice which my mom makes vegan, seasoned and stir-fried with lots of vegetables and local soups. Although, I will have to pass on the soup or make mine since vegan versions of the local soups may not be suited to my family's taste. For dessert, my family likes to have pastries like cakes and chin-chin available, so I'll make the vegan versions for them as I'm the best baker in the house and by default in charge of baking. And I’m usually assisted by my younger brother, who I want to teach all my vegan recipes.
Being vegan meant letting go of some important things that became the norm in my family. My father and I enjoyed eating bush meat and bonded over the activity. So when I stopped eating meat, we could no longer have such moments and had to find other ways to connect which aren't quite as entertaining.
As I am still learning to navigate being vegan in Nigeria, there have been times when there's usually no option for me outside, and I'll have to go hungry. But now, everywhere I go, I take my snacks and chops just in case I get stuck in a place I don't have options.
Since I started eating vegan meals, my body has felt lighter in a good way. Because I wasn't so aware when I started, I often felt weak and tired, but it improved when I understood how to compose a balanced vegan diet. Similarly, switching from regular to plant-based milk made me feel better, as the former always made me sick. Deciding to be vegan is a lot about ethics, and it's not even about what I think about my choices but what I believe to be ethical. And that's what I hold on to every day when I decide to continue.
This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Ene Ijato and has been edited for length and clarity.