Vegan Ethiopia: Interview with Mesfin Hailemariam

Vegan Ethiopia. When traveling through Ethiopia, we stopped in Addis Ababa, the capital city, to meet Mesfin Hailemariam, whom I discovered by doing google searches, and found a Facebook group called Ethiopian Vegan Association. After messaging back and forth for a little while, we were finally able to meet on one rainy day and discuss the state of things for veganism in Ethiopia, and how Mesfin came to be vegan in the first place.

Mesfin next to Troopy!
Mesfin next to Troopy!

Mesfin: I’ve been vegan for five years. I’m on my sixth year as a vegan, and I am one of the very first vegans here in Ethiopia. I co-founded the Ethiopian Vegan Association. At the moment I am not as involved as I used to be with Ethiopian Vegan Association because it is not functioning as it should be, but I am starting my own small company, Vegan Ethiopia. We try to do anything that we can to spread the word of veganism and compassion for animals. We do a lot of leaflets, we try to promote books, partly with our foreign friends, especially from Australia, as we have a very good generous friend called Faye Leister. She kindly donated her books, she has a book called “Animals And Us” that teach children on animal rights in a very smart way. She gave us the “patent” so we can print it here locally and distribute it amongst kids in schools in Addis. And that’s what we try to do, we have distributed more than 300 books and we are planning to do more this upcoming academic year. The other thing is, we are starting a weekly video campaign at Taitu hotel. They have a vegan buffet every day so most vegans who come to Ethiopia want to go there. It is a good place to try the diversity of Ethiopian vegan food, you can see everything on one table there, and they have foreign choices as well. They are not vegans, but they are trying to spread the word. We can put leaflets there next to the tables, so people can pick them up and read. And lately I have been talking to them about running weekly video shows, so we can give lectures to people on what veganism is. Perhaps the people who come to this hotel for the vegan meals would be the easiest people to be attracted to the vegan advocacy, so we thought it would be a good idea to start the public advocacy on a bigger scale. We get all of our t-shirts, leaflets and brochures from our foreign friends, and we got a little bit of support from the Vegan Society in the UK, they contributed a small amount to print our books. Also some donation from FARM – Farm Animal Rights Movement, USA, they helped us with money to print those books, so we could distribute them in schools to kids. We are planning to do a lot more, but the problem is, there are not a lot of vegans, you are my first vegans in the last two years! There are not so many vegans that could help me do the activism. I hope I can convince more people to go vegan!

Mesfin, Katana and Jonathan on Troopy
Mesfin, Katana and Jonathan on Troopy

Jonathan: How did you become vegan?

Mesfin: It’s a long story, I guess. From my childhood, from the earliest times, I was inclined to be vegan, I think. But because there are no vegans here, because eating animals, even killing them at home, is part of the tradition here, I was brainwashed into the tradition that I couldn’t go vegan. I felt that I should be vegan, but it was overshadowed by the tradition here. I thought I would be the weirdest person to oppose these traditions, and I kept it to myself. I was also very passionate about wild animals, anybody could come and ask me about any animal, whether domestic or wild, I could always find an answer for them. That’s the background for me being vegan, but the moment that I could change into veganism came later. I studied animal agriculture in college, still because I loved animals. To love animals in Ethiopia is to give attention to farm animals. I didn’t know it was as abusive, I was brainwashed into the whole cultural process. I studied animal agriculture. I saw the abuse there, but after college my biggest ambition in life is to be a conservationist, to be a zoologist and to be working in the conservation field, in the forest or more natural places. I found a scholarship in Australia, but they told me they couldn’t afford to finance my scholarship for conservation, but that I could try finding from other sources, so I started finding a lot of organizations that work with animals. I didn’t know there were people working for domestic animals’ rights. So when I was trying to find these organizations working on animals, I found the people working on animal rights, especially PETA – they are all over the internet. It was something new to me, people who love animals and wouldn’t eat them! So I asked them to send me leaflets and books, and then there was also Supreme Master Television. They did a lot of things to spread the word of veganism. I also got attracted to them, because all you see is that lady, surrounded by domestic animals. They also sent me books and everything. I read a little bit about their spiritual side but I dropped that, I am no longer interested in spirituality, only interested in the vegan side now, still they also had an influence on me and they tried to supply me with everything they could find in terms of reading and videos. And a lot of PETA people helped me to find out about veganism. After I found out more, it was not difficult for me to make the switch. I started resenting meat!

Jonathan: How did that go down with your family and friends?

Mesfin: Oh, the first two years were the worst. Now people around me are getting influenced, rather than influencing me. They are eating less and less meat.

Jonathan: You can’t argue with logic.

Mesfin: That’s right. The first two years at home were difficult. I still live with my parents, because it is difficult to afford accommodation in Addis, so my parents have a home here and I am staying with them, but I am planning to move out this year. Living with your parents was the most difficult part. They think that you are leaving them, leaving the whole family. They see it from cultural and religious points of view, sometimes they would think that you are dying. They don’t know that I am the one who will be living longer! And I am the one who is letting others live. I am not just living by myself, I am also helping other animals to live. I am an ethical vegan, that is my basic principle in being vegan: letting others to live. That’s my story.

Katana: Can you talk more about the Vegan Association?

Mesfin: There was a vegan man, doctor Antony? and there were a few others, from the spiritual movement from the Supreme Master, and two more from the US who were not involved in the spiritual movement, who were all vegans at the time. I think one of us saw an interview with Dr Anteneh Roba, who is a medical doctor, on the same TV, and we all thought: “We have an Ethiopian vegan in the USA!”, we googled him and found his email address, so we emailed him and he was so happy to meet us, he comes here every year I think. We talked about a group, so I led the company to found Ethiopian Vegan Association. We called it this way, but the government wouldn’t allow us to get the name Ethiopian Vegan Association for some small reasons. I was not able to continue, at the time I was very involved in rural activities, I was working in a rural part of Ethiopia. Without me I think the organization couldn’t function. When I came back they had something to re-apply, maybe registration obligation for the government, as did all NGO’s, they had to re-register, but I think they couldn’t find the person to help them. I think it didn’t re-register. I was saying that we don’t have to be a legal registered company to do animal rights, so after that I started my own company. Most of those people were no longer here in Addis, I couldn’t get to meet them, the guy with his sister moved back to the US, so there was no one here. Ethiopian Vegan can’t be Ethiopian Vegan when most people are not here. I have a few more friends that are very much interested that are almost vegan, but not completely, but still they are interested in helping me spread the word of veganism, so I try to do that. Vegan Ethiopia is just a campaign, it’s not a legal organization. We have a lot of vegetarians here, I have foreign friends who moved out, unfortunately, about two months before you came here.

When we just started, people didn’t even know the word “vegan”. They didn’t understand why people would stop eating meat. They literally wouldn’t understand, they would just label you as “trying to be different”. They won’t find your explanation good enough. But these days, I like to believe that as part of my work, people know the word “vegan” now. I think we are coming to that point where people are knowing more about the word “vegan”.

Katana:You said that eating meat here is very traditional.

Mesfin: Yes, it’s not just eating meat, but if you see, the day after tomorrow is the New Year here. And on New Year, Easter and Christmas [in Ethiopia they have their own calendar, so the dates for these celebrations are different to the rest of the world] is the worst time to be here, in Ethiopia. If you look around, there are a lot of sheep around town, a lot of chickens. Part of the tradition is not just eating meat, but you have to keep those animals in your home. And it is the guys who do that. If you are not part of the tradition, you would be seen as… what do you call those people… anticonformist?

Katana: Anarchists! (laughs)

Mesfin: Yeah, maybe anarchists. It would be difficult to not be part of that tradition. The women, I think they feel horrible to see the animals being killed, so they don’t want to see that, they hide themselves. As a guy, if you don’t want to at least see and help in the process of butchering the animal, you would be seen as not a “guy”.

Men carrying live chickens upside down to be sold and/or butchered (Ethiopia)
Men carrying live chickens upside down to be sold and/or butchered (Ethiopia)

Katana: It’s everywhere like that in the world, a manly man must eat meat.

Mesfin: That’s the problem. And the other thing is, most of our biggest traditional meals and recipes are non-vegan. People here eat raw meat! I tried it twice or three times before I became vegan, I didn’t like it, but most people here in Ethiopia can’t live without raw meat. The food that they adore the most is raw meat.

Live sheep being transported to be sold in markets and/or slaughtered. We saw a lot of these trucks in Ethiopia
Live sheep being transported to be sold in markets and/or slaughtered. We saw a lot of these trucks in Ethiopia

Katana: What about environmental damage in Ethiopia?

Jonathan: One of the reasons for being vegan in the Western world is looking at the amount of land and resources it takes to produce a meat-based diet compared to a vegan diet. Seeing all the animals and the crops all over Ethiopia we were wondering what the impact is here.

Mesfin: There could be justification that the animals can feed on roughage from the other crops or maybe they would be using marginal land to rear domestic animals. At the same time we are one of the biggest, the worst case of farming animals, because we have a lot of animals in Ethiopia, one of the largest numbers in the world, number one in Africa for the number of domestic farm animals. The problem this causes to our environment is that we have a lot of overgrazing, we cultivate especially in the densely populated areas, and when we continue to cultivate in the rest of the land, it leads to overgrazing, and together adds up to erosion. When the animals don’t have enough to feed on, they start uprooting the grass, the weeds and everything they can find. So the land would be barren, and in the summer time, during the rainy season, when there is a relentless amount of rain, the whole top soil would be washed out. The other problem is we don’t have enough space reserved for nature, for biodiversity to function, and without biodiversity we wouldn’t function as we should, right? In the long run we would be finding it difficult to survive. When it comes to biodiversity, we are one of the richest, because we have all types of weather, all types of landscape, so we have different animals in all the regions, different plants and so on. But it is not maintained well, we are one of the worst in the world for conservation. We are losing our wild animals at a rate not seen before.

Mesfin: How did you become vegan?

Here Mesfin switches the interview onto us, and it is time to wrap up. Many things that we saw as we drove through Ethiopia, about the treatment of animals and the deep tradition of meat, turned out to be exactly true, and the problem of overgrazing and soil erosion is a very real threat in Ethiopia. During holiday celebrations, an enormous amount of animals are slaughtered for food, for the traditional meals. Mesfin was right: being in Ethiopia around New Year celebrations was heart-breaking, we would see hoards of sheep, goats and cows, knowing that for a lot of them it is the last few days. We saw chickens being sold alive, thrust in front of our car upside-down, like inanimate objects. We saw trucks packed with live sheep on the roof, tied down so tight that the animals actually looked already dead, being driven to the market or to slaughter.

The positive message to take away from this is that even in such a deep-rooted tradition of meat-eating, there are vegans, and they come onto the path of veganism through their own channels, through compassion and education. We might come from different countries and backgrounds, but being vegan unites us in our pursuits and missions, so we carry onwards.

Leave a Reply