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The two young men walked silently in through the front door. Knocking was not a part of their tradition --- nor, for that matter, were doors! In any case they knew they would be welcome for they had visited us on several previous occasions, in the absence of shared language exchanging smiles, nods and sounds expressive of our mutual respect and already some affection. For this was Africa, the Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia, and our recently acquired friends were Afar tribesmen. This evening they had left their small nomadic community, with its simple oval-shaped huts of Acacia poles, thatch and animal skins, and their camels, goats, sheep and donkeys, to pay a social visit to these three strange pale ferengies' from a distant land. And by chance they had arrived at a mealtime. Leaning their spears and Kalashnikov rifles against the wall they sank into our comfortable armchairs, smiling happily if a little nervously.
Will they share our meal, we wondered? On past occasions they had enjoyed our oranges, politely tucking the peel tidily out of sight under the chairs, but spitting the insignificant pips onto the floor! The curry of vegetables and textured soy protein chunks (TVP or TSP) would stretch to all five of us but as Muslims we knew they would want to avoid any meat which had not been slaughtered and bled Halal fashion; and how do you explain, with a minimal grasp of the language, that something which looks so much like meat is actually made from beans?! To the rescue, children's picture books, purchased in Addis Ababa for just such an emergency. We displayed pictures of various animals in succession. Cow? Yellem (No). Goat? Yellem. Pig? Yellem. Sheep? Yellem. Camel? Yellem. "We," hand on heart, "do not eat animals: Veg-et-arian! Meat, (pointing to TVP), is made from beans". Picture of beans displayed. Somewhat incredulously two pairs of earnest dark eyes searched our faces, looking perhaps for any sign of deceit or insincerity. Satisfied, they nodded and mmmed' positively and sat and ate appreciatively, the first of many occasions when they enjoyed our TVP. Over the weeks and months we received a steady stream of Afar visitors, men, women and children, at our bungalow, and our love and fascination for them grew ever stronger. After some months we were fortunate to be visited by an Afar man who was an official in the Government and who spoke good English. It was gratifying to be told by him that he had heard of our respect for his people and that they looked on us with affection. It was equally pleasing to see him, at our request, explain to the group of men who had come with him, that we were strict vegetarians who eat no animal food at all and that our meat' was entirely acceptable to believers in Allah and observers of the Koran. It was good to see the relief on their faces as they realised that their trust in us had not been misplaced.
Deciding to work in a remote part of Ethiopia for a year and a half had been a step in the dark. Though we had once, many years before, lived and worked in the Caribbean we realised that Africa would be very different. We had little idea what we would be able to get in the way of food and had the inspiration of sending two paper sacks of TVP (one mince, one chunks) ahead of us, to take care, if necessary, of our protein requirements. Its nutrition-to-weight ratio could not be better, so vital a factor given the cost of airfreight. Eventually the exciting day arrived for us to collect our goods and chattels from the airport in Addis Ababa. I shall always remember the curiosity of the customs officials who supervised the job of dismantling our freight package and examining each interesting item of our personal impedimenta. "What is this?" demanded one, unceremoniously tearing open our carefully packed bag of TVP chunks. At least language was not an obstacle with this educated Amhara, but he was a good deal more suspicious than even our Afar friends were to be. Perhaps he thought he had intercepted a gigantic consignment of cannabis resin! Soon five customs officers were nibbling and crunching on dry flavoured chunks, testing the unlikely theory I had advanced that this was food, dried soy "meat". Though I have never myself been attracted to the idea of consuming TVP in this way, their verdict was unanimous and unequivocal, even if it did owe something to Ethiopian politeness! "Very good", they said. And that was it; we were allowed to take it away.
Both necessary and nothing short of a Godsend it was. Pulses were available only in limited quantity and variety and nuts seemed non-existent. In spite of searing heat (45°C every afternoon), our dehydrated TVP proved imperishable and we never got bored with it, incorporating it into various recipes using local tomatoes, sweet potato, lovely red onions, carrots, plenty of garlic, and other fresh organic vegetables, plus the ubiquitous hot red cayenne, which we bought in the weekly village market. Even greater diversification briefly followed our shopping sorties in Addis Ababa, 200 kilometres distant and 2000 metres higher, where we were able to retreat every seven or eight weeks for a weekend break from the heat and dust.
Long hours were spent wrestling with the technical problems involved in designing and installing six thousand hectares of subsurface drainage on irrigated land as flat as a billiard table, suffering from salinity, in silty alluvial soils. The human problems were no less complicated given the cultural mix of English consultant (me), German contractors, workers from a variety of Ethiopian tribal groups, and armed Afars who wanted to reclaim what, fifteen years ago, had been their traditional grazing lands. In between times I struggled mentally to come to grips with some of the wider problems of Ethiopia. Both as an agriculturalist and as a humanitarian I was saddened to see the consequences of the devastating loss of trees, the land degradation, soil erosion, more frequent droughts, the constant attrition of wildlife habitats and decimation of wild animals, the poverty and hunger of the many and by contrast the aspirations of others to reach after western life styles, not least in diet. I could envisage only impending disaster for Africa and for the world, as land and water are consumed apace by more and more hungry and thirsty livestock. I carry with me still the mental image of hundreds of goats, raising clouds of dust from the parched earth, searching for any greenery to consume, raising themselves on hind legs to nibble off every green shoot which struggling saplings venture to put forth. In a land so beautiful, so varied, so full of potential, the home of such charming and intelligent people, it all seemed so tragic and unnecessary. These days I read charitable appeals for help in sending more animals to Africa and I almost despair.
Vegetarians have an important key to the worlds future. Even the poor in many countries are accustomed to eating meat. Those who cannot get it often still look on it as special and get as much as they can afford. The idea is widespread that being able to eat lots of meat is one of the most desirable aspects of increasing prosperity. It is important that the downside of the Wests burger culture should be publicised (and only vegetarians are equipped to do that) but preaching the ethics, economics and aesthetics of veganism or vegetarianism at them is unlikely to make much impression in the absence of real alternatives to meat. Education must go hand in hand with positive practical help. The message has to be that no-one need be short of food or of land to grow it on if only livestock numbers are significantly and progressively reduced. Conversion of vegetable proteins to meat through animal machines' is hopelessly, criminally, inefficient and wasteful. Direct consumption by humans of vegetable protein foods is the way forward for the whole wide world, developed' or undeveloped'. If our Afar friends found TVP acceptable in place of meat then anyone should be able to do so. Yet Third World' charities continue to advocate more livestock production, imposing on struggling people extra mouths to feed, exporting their own faulty and outmoded ideas and values especially in the field of human nutrition. Who challenges them? Vegetarians almost by definition are people of clear vision which extends beyond their own small confines of time and place. We have a moral duty to press our case for a saner ordering of our world. If we do so we will find a ready and welcoming acceptance of our help. No vegetarian, who has resources to spare be they small or great, should be content to allocate them to organisations that continue to foster and promote the eating of animals. They should look very carefully to see where their money would go. Every precious penny must be made to work effectively for our cause, which is the cause of kindness to people, to animals, and to the planet. When vegetarians in the Third World are calling out for help with projects to make vegetarian foods available to their compatriots and so reduce their nation's dependence on animal exploitation, it is unfortunate, indeed irresponsible, to direct our money to charities which fail to help them and even stand in the way of our programme. As a person who first became a vegetarian for ethical and humanitarian reasons in 1958 I appreciate the tremendous strides which have been made towards a vegetarian Britain, and I also appreciate how much easier it is to be a vegetarian here since about 1970 when so many convenient alternatives to meat products started to become available. Not everybody wants meat analogues, especially when they are long established vegetarians or vegans, and nobody is obliged to make use of them, but there can be no denying the fact that their availability adds variety to the choices of meatless foods and does encourage people to go veggie. Thankfully there will always be idealists who struggle to live out their beliefs however difficult the circumstances or limited the diet, but we would never have seen the huge growth in our movement without the development of what were once novel foods. These are now part of our nation's daily diet. Even when consumed by meat-eaters they save the lives of animals and help the environment. As we maintain our efforts to extend vegetarianism at home we who are so well blessed need to remember the difficulties which still exist in many other countries --- and to be prepared to help remove them.
It is to address this issue that HIPPO (Help International Plant Protein Organisation) has been established as an officially registered Charity (Not For Profit Organisation) (Number 1075420). It provides famine relief aid in the form of strictly vegetable foods, but even more importantly it assists indigenous vegetarians to develop projects to grow their own protein crops like soy (non GMO of course!) and where desirable process them into foods acceptable to local tastes. HIPPO is determined to play an important part in advancing the world food revolution by providing material and moral support to the pioneers who are waiting and longing for the help and encouragement of their vegetarian brothers and sisters in the lands of affluence.
The Old Vicarage, Llangynog, Carmarthen SA33 5BS. United Kingdom
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