Aspirational vegetables?

The first time I came to Ghana for study abroad almost a decade (!) ago, the idea of Ghanaian vegetarian food was a complete oxymoron. ‘Salads’ in Accra were tiny affairs comprised of shredded lettuce smothered in mayonnaise. I did not envy the vegetarians among us their attempts to explain themselves; as in much of the world, the idea of being able to afford meat but actively choosing not to eat it was utterly baffling to most. ‘Vegetarian’ and ‘obruni’ seemed fairly interchangeable at the time—indeed for most of the Ghanaians I’ve met over the years, declaring that you don’t eat meat would be met with the same incredulity and horror as declaring that you don’t believe in God. In the highly conservative Christian culture that predominates in much of the country, there are few Ghanaians who would deign to admit either belief to their fellow citizens.

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Fast forward nine years, and there are dramatic—if circumscribed—changes. In neighborhoods like Osu, restaurant menus increasingly boast large and enticing salads, and you can even get a salad delivered. Honeysuckle, a British-style gastropub as popular with Ghanaian football fans (ie, Ghanaians) as it is with expats, boasts an incredibly delicious veggie burger. Accra now has its very own green market (with facebook presence, natch). Relatively sleepy-but-touristy Cape Coast sports numerous vegan joints.

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At the third annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival this past September, vendors in the food tents set up in front of the Ga Mantse* included Vegan All-Stars and Eden Tree Limited (motto: healthier people, better nation).

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But the existence of this veggie-friendly popup food court in the heart of Jamestown, one of Accra’s oldest and most marginalized neighborhoods, drew a stark contrast—one that was as much about pervasive (growing?) income inequality as it was about nascent vegetarianism. Chale Wote itself does an admirable job of responsibly integrating and including the wider Jamestown community in the playful subversion and re-imagining of the neighborhood (and the city at large) that the festival represents. But like all attempts at responsible engagement, it is a work in progress that raises uncomfortable questions.

Not least of all: how good do you really feel eating that $8 beet and avocado salad while a crowd of barefoot kids watches you and fights over the leftovers thrown in the trash?

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The first and most obvious answer is, clearly: not great at all. Pretty horrible.

But the second, harder, and I’d like to think better answer is: AWESOME. Why? Because sitting and eating an expensive, healthy, vegetable-centric meal that is beyond the purchasing power of the majority of people around you is essentially the state of the global food system as we know it. (Soleil Ho brings the righteous rage about this phenomenon in the US here.) The problem is, most of the time those of us who can afford the metaphorical beet and avocado salads don’t know it, not in that kind of visceral and immediate way. The jarring disquiet produced by such experiences forces the harder kind of reflection and stock-taking that is a tiny but necessary first step towards dismantling the inequalities staring hard back at us.

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What all of this seems to suggest is that the rise in vegetarian-friendly options here over the last few years represents a proxy measure of the ostensible rise of the Ghanaian middle class. There is a measure of truth to that—regardless of how complex it is to make any claims about changing class boundaries in Ghana, when the overlap between ‘middle class’ and ‘elite’ remains as dramatic as it is uneven. That said, vegetarians = elites with purchasing power is hardly the whole story.

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The first caveat is that there has been a kind of fringe vegetarianism in Ghana for a long time—and not just the economically enforced kind. The father of one of my best friends, for instance, has been vegetarian for health reasons for most of his adult life. Moreover, seemingly aberrant figures like Tofuman don’t emerge in a vacuum; there have been many people more or less affiliated with the vegetarian Rastafarian ethos in Ghana since Independence. If my anecdotal observations are any indication, I think these relatively more populist strands of pro-veggie feeling are also on the rise.

One indicator is the surprising number of taxi drivers who have expounded their vegetarian views to me in recent months. I have long found the taxi-driving community to be the true political and philosophical heartbeat of Accra, so this shift in perspective is nothing to scoff at.

Another is the emergence of restaurants like Health Valley:

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At first blush, it seems like a part of the flashier, ostensibly western-oriented gestures towards vegetarian options that exist elsewhere these days in Accra. The menu boasts whole wheat veggie pies in place of the popularly available heavy meat pies, meatless versions of popular dishes like fufu, and multiple kinds of deliciously tart fresh juices. Perhaps most notably, they use the local brown rice variety eschewed by nearly all restaurants and most home cooks, aligning them politically with recent pushes for cultural and economic sovereignty by way of embracing cheaper (and frequently more nutritious) unfairly maligned local products over better-marketed imports.

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But Health Valley is not in an upscale neighborhood like Osu. It lies within Rawlings park, inside of Accra’s sprawling and hectic Makola Market—in other words, fairly well off the beaten path for your average well-heeled foodie or aspirational middle class vegetarian. Perhaps the era when ‘Vegetarian Ghanaian food’ is no longer considered an oxymoron is not so long off after all?

*traditional council and chief’s residence for the Ga people who make up the majority of Jamestown residents